The Problem with Human Rights/Humanitarian Law Taking Precedence over the Nuremberg Principle: Torture is Wrong but So Is the Supreme War Crime

Coleen Rowley, January 10, 2013

A number of human rights issues converge on Friday January 11, 2013. In Washington DC and many other cities around the country, including the Twin Cities, people will don orange “Gitmo” jumpsuits and black hoods to protest the 11th year anniversary-travesty of Guantanamo as well as the (bizarrely coincidental) national release of the  despicable, CIA-inspired “zero conscience” film that falsely conveys the message that torture “works” and is somehow heroic.

This photo was taken a few days ago in Washington DC of a protest by Amnesty International and Witness Against Torture activists outside the opening of the Zero Dark Thirty film at the Newseum.

The third, far less known issue involves the resignation (effective on January 11) of Suzanne Nossel, Director of Amnesty International-USA.  Her resignation after only one year as American Director would be unimportant except for how it exposes more fundamental problems involving the way human rights principles during peace time and humanitarian rules governing warfare can function to undercut the more well established jus ad bellum prohibitions, under international law, of launching wars of choice.  Nossel’s statement itself gave little clue of the more fundamental problematic issues underlying her resignation (except for the fact that she only mentioned her appreciation for working to uphold “human rights” in the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Syria ­but left out the human rights violations that the US-NATO-Israel is responsible for).

There’s no need to rehash the points we tried to make in “Amnesty’s Shilling for US Wars” (co-authored with Col Ret’d Ann Wright) and “Are Human Rights Becoming a Tool of US ‘Smart Power?” which described the way Nossel personified some of these revolving door conflicts of interest plaguing human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in the West.  It’s simply not possible for anyone to constantly go back and forth from serving US national interests vis a vis other nation-state sovereigns in the world to the theoretically loftier role of promoting human rights around the world as head of a non-governmental organization whose credibility depends upon not being aligned with any country’s national interests.

To be sure, these conflicts of interest did not begin with Suzanne Nossel but have a long history which also reside in the NGO’s donor base according to former Amnesty-USA Board member Francis Boyle. There seems to be an even more fundamental problem, however, engulfing not only Amnesty but a great many other “human rights” NGOs and academics based in the United States and its western allies.  Amnesty’s verbatim response back in June to our “Amnesty Shilling for Wars” article was telling:

Among many distortions in this post, it is ludicrous, offensive and  irresponsible to suggest that Amnesty International USA’s work on Afghan  women’s rights is being scripted by the Central Intelligence Agency “Red Cell” report of 2010. Amnesty International has been monitoring and reporting on Afghanistan for decades, and we have been issuing statements and reports pertaining to the human rights of women in Afghanistan since at least the 1990s.

AI’s advocacy is based on our own independent research into human rights abuses in a given country. As a matter of longstanding policy, we remain independent of governments, we do not espouse political ideologies or systems of governance, and we do not take positions on armed intervention. We did not call for NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan, we are not calling for NATO to remain in the country, and we are not praising NATO’s actions in Afghanistan or elsewhere. The Shadow Summitwas exclusively about the right of women in Afghanistan to participate in political decisions that will impact their lives. In order to press for them to be at the table, it was necessary to direct our message to the entities who set the table. This is no way breaches our independence or impartiality.

Apparently this “longstanding policy” also led Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to take no position regarding the US launching of the Iraq War in spite of large world-wide protests as well as widespread knowledge, including amongst key UN officials and monitoring agencies, that US politicians were deceptively ginning up a “war of choice” on Iraq.  Moreover, such a “policy” simply ignores the entire huge body of international law known as jus ad bellum or “just war theory” upon which the Kellogg Briand Pact, UN Charter and Nuremberg Principles are based, premised upon nation-state sovereignty and equality.  Firmly established international law holds that a nation commits the “supreme crime” by launching an unjustified “war of aggression” since such a war tends to give rise to and encompass the other (lesser) war crimes and humanitarian abuses. Countries are consequently prohibited from launching such “wars of choice” as tools of foreign policy. So any “non-governmental organization” that dismisses jus ad bellum and states it’s only concerned with the two bodies of international “human rights” and “humanitarian law of warfare” (jus in bello military law, i.e. which aims to restrict hurting and killing of civilians and prisoners of war as well as prohibiting the use of torture and cruel and inhumane treatment during warfare) is choosing to see the trees instead of the forest.

In fact the common theme of US government and military lawyers since 9-11 has fully borne out the rationale for the Nuremberg Principle, that wars of aggression are the supreme crime.  US militarists have essentially argued the need to “go to the dark side”, because the jus in bello “humanitarian law of warfare” is “increasingly obsolete” and/or has failed to keep pace with how “terrorists” operate outside the Geneva Conventions.  One might imagine some of the British Redcoats similarly pleading with the King to bend their rigid rules and regimentation in order to more effectively combat the American revolutionary soldiers who were picking them off from behind trees and fighting more of a guerrilla war.  Simply put, ignoring the commission of the “supreme crime” will inherently and always lead to a certain amount of hypocrisy and complicity.

International law professor Richard Falk recently gave a rather long interview on the “The Future of International Law and Human Rights” in which he was asked about this.  He generously described this issue as “tricky”, explaining that:

Human rights and international criminal law both illustrate the contradictory potential of international law. On one level, the imposition of human rights norms is a restraint on interventionary diplomacy, especially if coupled with respect for the legal norm of self-determination. But on another level, the protection of human rights creates a pretext for intervention as given approval by the UN Security Council in the form of the R2P (responsibility to protect) norm, as used in the 2011 Libyan intervention.

Falk’s interview deserves to be read in its entirety even though it’s geared to those with some prior understanding of how international law has evolved and is evolving; its inherent weaknesses and double standards based on current geopolitics.  Ironically, not long after this interview, the international law icon (he co-authored the international law textbooks that I studied from at the University of Iowa Law School in the late 1970s) and “UN Special Rapporteur” on Human Rights, was himself expelled from Human Rights Watch

Consider whether Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch has ever questioned the new US doctrine of “pre-emptive or preventative” wars, key to the notion of the US “global war on terrorism.”  Have “humanitarian/human rights NGOS” criticized NATO’s bombing of Libya or US (and allied countries’) threats to use military force on Syria and Iran (or the harsh sanctions provocations) in pursuit of “regime change?”  The jus ad bellum body of international law which even the “Bush-Powell Doctrine” was to some degree based on after Vietnam has now become almost totally ignored and forgotten whereas international “human rights” and humanitarian bodies of law are increasingly in vogue. 

The human rights movement does not seem to worry much if at all about militarily weaker nation-states being protected from stronger military powers.  If this is the model for human rights enforcement, the clear result is to undermine nation-state sovereignty and to undermine the more firmly established law prohibiting wars of aggression.  

If “human rights NGOS” do work totally independently of any government—and some like the Red Cross appear much more careful to do so—it would seem fine for the two systems of international law to operate, in an overlapping but independent fashion.  But when “human rights organizations” join hands with powerful governments, as seen when many recently stood with and applauded the creation (at the instigation of Madeline Albright and Samantha Powers) of the US Atrocity Prevention Board, that’s where the problem emerges.  Amnesty’s and other human rights organizations’ attempt to enforce human rights law around the world through entwining themselves with US-NATO-Israel’s military force as a kind of supreme international human rights policeman of the world, can in fact, lead to the deaths of the people they say they are trying to help. 

These human rights NGOs, not just Amnesty, seem to disdain the old international law, even more firmly engrained, built as it was upon the old order of nation-state sovereignty but which, in addition to jus ad bello included the jus ad bellum body of law which held that unjustified wars of aggression, aka “pre-emptive wars” and wars of choice involving covert incitements, international political assassinations, etc were/are highly illegal.  Truly credible and independent humanitarian efforts to help individuals are inherently ineffective when entwined with any government’s national interests.  The Red Cross may be an example of a human rights effort operating internationally that seems to do a better job of maintaining independence from any particular government’s national interests (even in difficult war situations).  Greg Mortenson’s efforts described in Three Cups of Tea to build schools in Afghanistan-Pakistan, on the other hand, and which were originally begun independently, appear on the other hand, as an example at the other end of the spectrum as Mortenson later developed a relationship with General Petraeus and the Pentagon.  Such “human rights” and democracy promotion efforts that are entwined with US-NATO-Israel’s quest for “full spectrum dominance” through military force­ as a kind of “policeman of the world” theory­ seem to totally pervert the human and humanitarian bodies of law and become nothing but a way of selling wars of aggression as a kind of “white man’s burden .”

Human rights proponents might rationalize that the old jus ad bellum law premised as it was on nation-state sovereignty is no longer valid and they want to see a new world order arise, a kind of “citizen of the world” paradigm where individuals’ rights do not depend upon any one sovereign nation’s government.  But even if this is the case, a clearer explanation or critique­ is needed to show how these two main bodies of international law can conflict, be exploited and/or play out and backfire in a world where old nation state sovereignty may or may not be giving way to a new global order.  




26 Responses to “The Problem with Human Rights/Humanitarian Law Taking Precedence over the Nuremberg Principle: Torture is Wrong but So Is the Supreme War Crime”

  1. Thanks for emphasizing the jus ad bellum vs jus in bello point.

    Related to that, there’s some relatively new work on the philosophy of the law of war, which AFAICT started with Jeff McMahon’s [spelling?] work, about the liability of soldiers etc who participate in a war of aggression yet commit no “jus in bello” crimes (in the sense of conventional just war theory).

  2. Preamble (long; sorry but not too sorry):

    1. For some (putative 1st) party to kill another person is the ultimate crime, except in the case of –

    2. In absolute self – or some 3rd's, like one's immediate relative, neighbour, friend or even stranger's defence, which would imply the party in (1) to be a 2nd party, countering an attack-in-progress by some 1st party –

    3. The 1st party = aggressive killer (or active attacker) must be – possibly having been made (army training, say) – a psychopath, since killing a person offends against possibly the strongest human, inbuilt "Do not do this!" injunction.

    Similarly for people are regimes; ordering a Nuremberg-class aggressive attack requires a regime dominated by psychopaths. Coleen Rowley is correct to group US-NATO-Israel as human rights violators, with the US' 1st aggressive regime change dating to 1893 (Blum, "Killing Hope," Appendix II Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-1945), NATO obvious at least since 1995 (bombing then dismemberment of Former Yugoslavia), and Zionists continuously from inception:

    Herzl(1897): "expropriation [of land/property] and the removal [of natives] …"

    Balfour(1917): "do not propose … to consult them [existing natives] …"

    Jabotinsky(~1923): "No native population would stomach the intrusion … Unremitting force …"

    Ben-Gurion(1936-39): "“We … are the attackers and the Arabs are those defending … [they] own the land"

    UNGA181(1947): "an area … shall be evacuated" (comment: No-one has such a right to so 'evacuate,' and UNGA181 did not become 'officially active' until Israel promised to honour it plus UNGA194 along with the Charter etc. in UNGA273 – none of which the Zs actually do honour.)

    1948: US recognition of the 'unilateral declaration' of Israel – on no legal basis whatsoever, and is the *exact equivalent* of a burglar/home invasion gang declaring themselves independent of the law after killing some and driving out the rest of the erstwhile legal owner/occupiers in some house/town/city/country.

    The crime-scene that is improperly dispossessed Palestine is still active = un-remedied.

    Note that this confirms the UK, UN and US as active accessories to Zs' crimes of ethnic cleansing by genocidal methods.

    Argument: Now, having established a psychopathic pathology frame, we can examine the suspect NGOs. Consider these two 'US-speak' distortions of English:

    1) "Bleeding-heart Liberals"

    2) "Better to be in the tent pissing out …"

    Recall also, an analogy OR metaphor for the US two-party system, namely 'the caring mother' and 'the strict father.'
    [http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html]

    As well as “full spectrum dominance” of US/Zs' nominated enemies out in the world, the psychopaths wish to dominate their domestic enemies = all those who oppose murder for spoil, say, and as psychopaths they prefer the dirtiest methods = lies and coercion – up to murder if they think they need it – see Perkins' "Economic Hit Man," where "Economic" can be generalised.

    Posit: That the 'old' left was more anti-war, and the 'old' right was more pro-war. Now, with bipartisan support for wars, the left/right divide is subsiding – but there are still a few anti-wars, still inhabiting the old left space. Here, recall that bipartisan = un- & anti-democratic, on the basis that it offers the voter *zero* choice.

    Some proof of this can be seen in Obama (Democrat, liberal, left) now the effective equivalent of Bush (Republican, conservative, right) – where the (values in brackets) are not precisely defined – but you probably get the drift. In the UK, it was Labourite Blair who teamed with the Liberal Howard in Aus to co-perpetrate the aggressive invasion of Iraq (possibly as many as 1.4mio+ dead, 3-4mio displaced, country still smashed). To add to the confusion, "Liberal" in Aus is not "liberal" but "conservative."

    Then consider:

    "If you're not with us, you're against us."

    Conclusion: Many 'heavies' on the "left" (progressives; whatever you call them) – have abandoned their rôle = have become traitors to their ostensible cause. Being now "in the tent," they must adapt = now they too lie, coerce – and murder, just as their adopted peer group does.

    A little bit of proof: Gareth Evans (Aus Lab) is associated with R2P at the UN. Of itself not damning – except that R2P is being misused (also *by* the UN), see smashing of some FYRs and recent smashing of Libya.

    That could explain the apparent deviancy of AI, HRW & ilk.

  3. Good analysis.

    "These human rights NGOs, not just Amnesty, seem to disdain the old international law…"

    Of course, by breaking bread with those who want to intervene in other countries the 'client base' for these organizations expands greatly. It is more business – jobs and money – to save more people.

    The same dynamic is in play regarding domestic 'poverty pimps' who work(ed) to save poor people in the US from themselves. The more poor people they drum up the more their own finances improve. The worse that could happen was for poverty to disappear.

  4. Hopefully with Nossel leaving Amnesty will go through a re-evaluation and get on track. Human rights are important they need defenders. I've been pleased to see Amnesty's recent protests against torture, maybe that is part of a transition related to Nossel's exit.

    The real problem is not human rights but superpower. The axis Colleen mentions — U.S.-NATO-Israel — is a dangerous one that sees itself as above international law. If the agenda of U.S. foreign policy (which often means transnational corporations) demands military action then the excuse will be found or created. Colleen has it right from the NGO perspective — remain independent of government. Indeed, they should be agitating for superpower to have to live within international law and for its leaders to be held accountable.

  5. Zees says that AI might get "back on track"? How is that?
    The failure to protest war has been with AI since its founding. Also with HRW.
    There is a systemec problem. As Coleen Rowley makes clear, Nossel is only the latest and most superficial of symptoms. Her unexplained resignation and her departure, even the resignation of the entire rotten Board, will not cure the problem. AI and the other "human rights" organizations have emerged as secular theologians and missionaries for the US Empire, doing the work that the religious missionaries of old did, providing a cover for Empires.
    But two actions can be taken:
    First, the funding for AI and the resumes of the Board members deserve full disclosure – and a good investigative journalist should dig deep into this. How did Nossel get to be Director, anyway?
    Second, all antiwarriors should cease contributions to AI and similar organizations like HRW. I have done so, and I have been amazed at how many of my friends decide to do the same once they understand that AI and its ilk do not oppose imperial wars – i.e., those of US/NATO.

  6. The supreme crime and the supreme madness is that the Pentagon aims to achieve a disarming first strike capability according to missile engineer Bob Aldridge. To hit missile silos accurately, NAVSTAR (now called GPS) was developed. The US Navy can track and destroy all enemy submarines simultaneously according to Bob Aldridge. The missiles in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are to hit the missile silos not hit by Minuteman-3 and Trident-2. This leads to Launch On Warning by 2017 and Suicide. And in the Pentagon they think they can get away with 3 % casualties in the US and avoid Nuclear Winter by the design of the warheads on Minuteman-3 and Trident-2 (Professor Paul Rogers). The Russian NATO-Ambassador stated: "They think we are stupid" referring to the US fairy tale that the missiles are defense against Iran. Of course, Russia will install Launch On Warning by 2017.

  7. Rule of law symbolized by the blind-folded lady of justice carrying scales is actually quite simple and thus profound; No person,no nation no act, no deed is above the rule of law since all acts,all nations, all people,rich or powerful, weak or poor, are TREATED EQUALLY UNDER THE LAW. When this does not happen you seed injustice because some are favored over others, you breed retaliation for the inequality of the injustice and then you have two sides,one side that considers what ever it does untouchable, divine,above reproach, and the other side which is always evil,wrong,without rights and thus you have conflict that is matched by the adherence or to the disdain of your principle; RULE OF LAW…
    Truce justice and equality can only be enacted when Rule of Law is upheld fairly,equally for one and all….This is why we have such conflict…Status Quo wants to be up there on as the king of the hill and others who are not on top do.,…

  8. [...] This piece also appeared on War is a crime.org, Antiwar.com blog and Come Home America [...]

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