FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

U.S. Human Rights Abuses in the War on Terror

by JOANNE MARINER

Since September 2001, the U.S. government has been directly responsible for a broad array of serious human rights violations in fighting terrorism, including torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials. In many instances, US abuses were carried out in collaboration other governments.

To cite one example—albeit a particularly notable one—Pakistan’s intelligence agencies worked closely with the CIA to “disappear” terrorist suspects, hold them in secret detention, and subject them to torture and other abuses.

With Barack Obama’s term as U.S. president, the U.S. approach to fighting terrorism has changed. The scope of the Obama administration’s reforms is not yet clear, but it is obvious that the new administration wants to rethink many of the policies that were instituted over the past eight years.

This change in the U.S. approach is long overdue. What is called for, however, is not only for the United States to reform its own abusive policies, but also for U.S. officials to try to counteract the negative influence of past policies worldwide. As a brief review of US counterterrorism efforts will suggest, the human rights impact of the US-led “war on terror” has been felt across the globe.

Collaboration and Assistance in U.S. “War on Terror” Operations

In carrying out post-9/11 “war on terror” operations—including the detention, interrogation, and transfer of terrorist suspects—the United States relied on the assistance of a broad array of countries, from close allies like Britain to pariah states like Syria.

A few states in this long list stand out. Among the leading partners of the United States in the “war on terror” were Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Jordan. Other countries that played a crucial role in facilitating abusive U.S. practices were Egypt, Thailand, Poland, and Romania.

Some governments carried out abuses at the behest of the United States, as a means of gaining U.S. favor or counterterrorism funding. More often, however, the collaboration was genuine, because the perceived interests of the two countries were aligned. Libya, for example, took custody of a number of Libyan nationals who were rendered to Libya by the CIA in 2004-2006. While the detention and interrogation of these men were deemed to serve U.S. interests, the Libyan authorities had independent reasons for wanting to hold them.

The forms of cooperation varied from intelligence sharing to prisoner transfers to allowing the U.S. to hold prisoners in secret detention on a country’s territory. It is worth noting that many of the countries that were most deeply implicated in abusive U.S. practices received millions of dollars in U.S. military and counterterrorism assistance.

Some governments adopted abusive practices in response to direct US pressure. Most notably, the US encouraged a number of countries to pass draconian counterterrorism laws, often laws that expand police powers, reduce due process guarantees, and set out vague and overbroad definitions of terrorism.

Leading by Negative Example

The negative global impact of US human rights abuses post-9/11 does not, however, end there. Besides direct collaboration and pressure, the US also led by example. Many governments latched onto the Bush administration’s “war on terror” arguments to justify their own abuses, particularly the notion that defeating terrorism trumps any countervailing human rights obligations.

As then-Justice Department official John Yoo expressed the idea in a March 2003 memo, abuses against suspected terrorists can be justified by reference to a “national and international version of the right to self-defense.” The torture of terrorist suspects, according to this rationale, may be deemed necessary and defensible because of the government’s overriding obligation “to protect the nation from attack.” When fighting terrorism, in other words, the stakes are so high that respect for human rights is optional.

While the United States is not the first government to put forward such arguments, its post-9/11 iteration of these views had tremendous global resonance. The political and economic power of the United States, its historical reputation as a defender of human rights, and the vehemence with which it expressed its positions on the “war on terror” all amplified the negative global impact of these views.

Repressive governments, always seeking rhetorical cover for their violations, were quick to adopt the language of counterterrorism to help shield their abuses from critical scrutiny. In Egypt, for example, the government specifically cited the “war on terrorism” and new security laws passed in the United States and elsewhere to justify the 2003 renewal of long-standing emergency powers.

The Bush Legacy

By closing Guantanamo, shutting down CIA prisons, and condemning rather than justifying torture, the new administration will have made enormous strides. It should know, nonetheless, that the global legacy of the past eight years may not be quick to disappear.

The prisoners that the United States handed over to Libya and Syria will still be held without charge; the repressive laws that were passed will remain on the statute books, and the example of U.S. abuses will not be easily forgotten. Not only should the U.S. reform its own practices, it should remedy their impact on the rest of the world.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in Paris.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail