What rights do humans have?
On a global scale, zip, actually.
One of the by-products of an increasingly interconnected and interpenetrated world is that the difference between the way nations treat their citizens and the way they treat the rest of the world is becoming more apparent.
The issue has been brought into sharp relief by the NSA’s global data collection and surveillance campaign.
A cursory look at Article 12 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights…
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
…in the post-Snowden era might bring a non-US reader up short with the brainwave Hey! Intrusive NSA surveillance is violating my human rights!
Not so fast, buster. The UN is only busybodying with the activities of your own government.
Back in 1948, when the UNUDHR first appeared, nobody worried that the United States government might be robbing the mail bags on the stagecoach between London and Paris, or whatever the hell people used to communicate back in the pre-Internet era.
From a 21st-century perspective, things get darker when you look at
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
As pointed out above, these restraints are meant to apply to a government in the treatment of its own citizens and are “universal” in that every government is supposed to respect them…but only for their own citizens.
Somebody else’s citizens, well that’s a different ball game.
The United States explicitly asserts and exercises the right to arbitrarily arrest and detain foreigners; and incarceration at Guantanamo looks a lot like exile. The US does subscribe to the Convention Against Torture, which is supposed to protect everybody against torture; it does so by classifying the coercive measures it applies to foreign detainees as “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment”, something that CAT doesn’t ban and the UNUDHR only forbids when inflicted by a nation on its own citizens; and the “right to life, liberty and security of person” for foreign nationals is clearly not being honored in the case of a drone strike.
Long story short, the UNUDHR actually assists the U.S. by closing one of the few doors to prosecution for the various abuses it inflicts on foreign nationals.
Conversely, the United States can affirm the legality of what it’s doing overseas by emphasizing its adherence to the UNUDHR for its own citizens.
The NSA appears reasonably sedulous, at least on the theoretical level, in observing the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure for US citizens. For everybody else, it’s fair game.
So the NSA can point to its respect for the constitutional rights of citizens of the United States in order to assert that its wholesale sweep of global data is a defendable exercise of its considerable capabilities, and not evidence of a secretive, unaccountable bureaucracy run hog wild.
The same is true of the U.S. targeted killing program (with the exception of the targeted killing of US citizen Anwar al Awlaki, which perhaps can be treated as an extra-legal one-off relating to his disquieting success as an al Qaeda recruiter and spokesperson in the U.S. and other Anglophone countries, his perceived role in inciting the Fort Hood mass shooting, and the government's desire to demonstrate that a) vengeance is mine and b) US citizenship will not protect high profile Islamist extremists).
Extralegal assassination is not just a matter of the well-publicized drone strikes carried out by the U.S. government. To a certain extent, the United States is addicted to death squads as an instrument of security and counter-insurgency policy carried out by foreign proxies against their own citizens or, when circumstances permit or demand, by US special forces under JSOC—the Joint Special Operations Command.
In researching my article on Colombia and its AUC death squads, which is in the current edition of the subscription-only CounterPunch Monthly—subscribe!—I was struck by the fact that for the US and Colombian governments, it seemed the only way out of the insurgency dilemma was to kill people, lots and lots of people, extrajudicially.
In the 1990s, the Colombian government—including its police and judicial system-- was thoroughly corrupted and intimidated and completely overmatched in its losing fight against narcos and FARC leftist insurgents. There was no security or institutional space available to practice the kid-glove “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency officially promoted by the United States as a demonstration of the irresistible superiority of US democracy, law, and free market concepts.
The United States was there to help—the last thing the US wanted was for Colombia to follow Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in the Communist domino category—and, as far as I can tell, bought into the whole targeted killing/death squad formula as the only way to improve security and get rid of the bad guys.
Mark Bowden’s book about the U.S. role in the campaign to do away with Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s, Killing Pablo, shows the U.S. apparently more than just turning a blind eye to the wave of extrajudicial killings, both by Colombian security forces and a government-tolerated death squad, “Los Pepes”, carried out to isolate and ultimately trap Escobar. U.S. signals intelligence was apparently key to development of the death lists, and it appears likely that, as the bodies of people on the lists piled up, the U.S. government at the operating level knew of, approved, and abetted the campaign of extrajudicial killings.
When Escobar was finally caught, the Colombian security forces predictably did not give him a chance to surrender (in a previous surrender, Escobar had leveraged his vast wealth and intimidating power to arrange his “incarceration” in a luxury prison he designed himself and subsequently escaped). What is a little less predictable is the allegation that a moonlighting Delta Force sniper (Delta Force was in Colombia but officially only allowed to conduct training) actually carried out the extrajudicial execution as Escobar frantically scrabbled over a rooftop away from his hideaway.
JSOC was in Colombia, according to Bowden. Indeed, so was Jerry Boykin, the notorious “my God is bigger than your god” religious megalomaniac, as a leader of the first Delta Force team.
Death squads subsequently became the solution that the United States was unable to repudiate, and Los Pepes morphed into the notorious Colombian self-defense forces, the AUC, which engaged in a five year campaign of massacre of thousands of villagers and townsfolk in order to deny FARC havens in the villages of Colombia’s heartlands with little more than ostentatious handwringing from the United States.
JSOC went on to impose the death squad solution as it hunted down and killed al Qaeda operatives with the assistance of the local sheikhs in Iraq’s “Anbar Awakening”, inspiring George W. Bush’s thumbs-up “JSOC is awesome”. And I have argued frequently and I think persuasively, the United States is looking for the right opportunity and suitable local partner in order to solve its increasingly intractable anti-American jihadi problem in Syria. Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars reportedly (haven’t seen it yet) provides an unnerving picture of JSOC’s metastasizing global presence.
Going back in history, Douglas Valentine could tell the story of the Phoenix Program, America’s attempt to kill its way out of its Vietcong problem in Vietnam; and the question of the doctrinal efficacy of death squads could be explored through review of the curriculum of the School of the Americas and the wave of anti-Communist/anti-leftist extrajudicial murder that swept through U.S. allies Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Colombia in the post World War II era.
“Addicted to death squads” is not an unfair characterization of U.S. counterinsurgency in practice, if not in doctrine.
Nowadays, America’s unilateral reach in overseas extrajudicial killings has, if anything, increased, thanks to the layering of pervasive global data surveillance and drone assassination technologies over the traditional U.S. tendency to inflict mayhem with impunity in foreign jurisdictions.
And, as other countries become more independent and ornery and U.S. economic clout dwindles America’s traditional options—Send in the troops! Here’s some aid! Let’s do some nation-building!—become less effective.
So, as the list of Things That Work becomes shorter, the alternatives to extrajudicial killings as a way to secure gains for America overseas become fewer.
There oughta be a law…or a bill of human rights.
I don’t think there will be.
Illustration from UNDUHR website