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Accounting for a Decade of Global War

Thursday, 13 March 2014 00:00 By Vincent Warren, Truthout | Op-Ed
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Afghanistan. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall / Flickr)The United Nations will be reviewing US compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights today and tomorrow. US arguments to the contrary, its record includes violations that must be sanctioned.

Organizers in Iraq have been gathering reports from areas exposed to US weapons containing depleted uranium. In Fallujah, the levels of highly toxic materials are reportedly so high that Iraqi parliamentarians debated in 2011 whether such attacks with these lasting effects constituted genocide. A doctor at a Fallujah maternity hospital reported last year that the rate of deformities is so high that up to a dozen babies or fetuses die every month because of missing organs. In Basra alone, the estimated volume of scraps of depleted uranium from the 1991 and 2003 invasions combined was 46,000 tons, with warnings that the metal and contamination have spread. 

Today and tomorrow, the United Nations will review the United States' compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires signatories to respect individual rights to (among others) life, due process and fair trials. The review comes as the Obama administration weighs its options for winding down the war in Afghanistan and in the long wake of the president's acknowledgment last spring that "a perpetual war [will] alter our country in troubling ways." The truth is, the United States has already changed in profound ways as a result of a decade-plus of global war, and US war-making has profoundly altered the lives of those outside of our country. We cannot simply end the "war on terror"; we must grapple with the world it has created.

The Center for Constitutional Rights reported to the UN Human Rights Committee on US compliance with the ICCPR in key areas that relate to our work, urging the committee to hold the United States accountable for its failures. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has yet to address the far-reaching and multi-generational public health crisis resulting from toxic weaponry and waste; it has failed to accurately calculate the number of casualties, both civilian and combatant, that independent estimates suggest are approximately 1 million; and it has ignored the heightened effects of war on children, including the fact that 60 percent of casualties caused by unexploded submunitions in Iraq were children under 15. And yet, the United States insists the ICCPR does not apply outside its territory - a position the UN Committee previously rejected. It would be an anemic covenant that required a self-proclaimed superpower to respect individual rights only within its own borders. 

The post-9/11 crimes committed by the United States did not occur only in recognized war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan; US policy now treats anywhere and everywhere in the world as a potential battlefield. Nasser Al-Aulaqi lost his 16-year-old grandson, Abdulrahman, to a US drone as a result of President Obama's targeted killing program, just as thousands of families in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere have similarly lost their loved ones. One hundred fifty-five men remain arbitrarily detained at Guantanamo, 77 of whom have been cleared for release for years and many of whom continue to be subjected to solitary confinement, force-feeding and other degrading treatment, such as genital searches before and after being moved for attorney meetings and family phone calls. Guantanamo persists, despite Obama's recommitment in May 2013 to closing it. And, despite lifting his self-imposed ban on transfers to Yemen more than eight months ago, Obama has yet to transfer anyone from Guantanamo to Yemen. Nearly two-thirds of the remaining detainees are Yemeni citizens; the prison is devolving into a detention facility that exclusively holds men of Yemeni descent. 

Here at home, the United States essentially has abandoned its veterans to post-deployment psychological trauma and service-related illnesses. If that weren't enough, the United States is replicating some of the same abuses found at Guantanamo and abroad when prosecuting Muslim defendants under its domestic criminal justice system. 

This post-9/11 global war paradigm flouts the ICCPR and other international laws designed to protect against the worst human rights abuses. By claiming that it is not bound to respect basic human rights when acting abroad, while simultaneously claiming it is wartime anywhere and everywhere in the world where it targets terrorism, the United States attempts to render torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes untouchable. 

If we are ever to move beyond perpetual global war, we cannot simply declare it over. Nor can we limit ourselves to ending current abuses. We must grapple with - and provide accountability for - past abuses. The ICCPR hearings this week are a chance to do that, and the US likely will be asked some very tough questions. The ICCRP has reprimanded the United States before, and yet Iraqis and Afghanis continue to suffer from the fallouts of battle; veterans have yet to receive what they need to heal from multiple traumas; Guantanamo is still open for business; and the president remains committed to targeted killing wherever he deems fit. If we are ever to end this war and fulfill our human rights obligations, the United States must begin to take its international obligations seriously, and the international community must begin insisting that it does.  

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