Posted: March 18th, 2023
War on Terror & Human Rights
The so-called “war on terror” — initiated by former president George W. Bush after 9/11 — has not succeeded in ending terrorism but it opened the door to numerous violations of human rights. A survey of verifiable, peer-reviewed sources in the literature show clearly that the Bush Administration and members of the military under Bush’s command carried out human rights violations in the name of the “war on terror.” In this paper instances of human rights violations by the United States — based on the war on terror — will be presented.
Violations of Human Rights by the U.S. In the “War on Terror”
The United States of America has stood for democracy and human rights in countless situations through the years. The U.S. has intervened in myriad international conflicts, especially when a tyrant was snuffing out a democratic movement, or an ally of the U.S. was being attacked or occupied by a foreign intruder. Outstanding examples of how American came to the aid of democracies in Europe — in the face of enormous human rights violations — are to be noted during World War I and in particular during World War II vis-a-vis Hitler’s demonic death camps and other hideously inhumane tactics against Jews and others.
Meanwhile the issues to be addressed in this paper are the U.S. behavior vis-a-vis human rights after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda. President George W. Bush could discern how angry — and eager for retribution — that Americans were at the brazen attack that killed thousands of people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C., and he pushed the “Patriot Act” through Congress. That was a legal way for Bush to attempt to find terrorists if they were lurking in the United States ready to attack again, and he used the Patriot Act to spy on Americans by intercepting phone messages through communication companies like Verizon and AT&T.
But the real issues as far as violating human rights in the war on terror are linked to covert actions Bush undertook, and actions taken by U.S. military personnel in Iraq who apparently believed it was okay to brutalize prisoners in the name of punishing terrorists or those suspected of terrorism in Iraq. Bush used controversial professor and attorney John C. Yoo to justify his actions that violated the U.S. Constitution. Yoo wrote a number of legal briefs for Bush that clearly are out of bounds in terms of democratic / constitutional values. For example, Yoo (with Bush attorney Robert J. Delahunty) wrote the following memo: “First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully” (Russomanno, Joseph, 2011, p. 19).
The Bush Administration asserted “â€¦extraordinary post-9/11 powers” which led to “â€¦such controversial policies as allowing the waterboarding [torturing] of terror suspects and permitting warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens” (Michael Isikoff, NBC News investigative reporter) (Russomanno, 19). A New York Times’ editorial commented on memos that Yoo and other Bush attorneys wrote that “â€¦make it chillingly clear how quickly [the Dept. Of Justice] was rededicated to finding ways for Mr. Bush to evade, twist, or ignore bothâ€¦” the U.S. Constitution and the law (Russomanno, 20).
As the top lawyer in the Bush Administration’s Office of Legal Council, Yoo wrote memos to Bush that apparently Bush accepted each time as his backup for actions that clearly violated the U.S. Constitution. A few of Yoo’s assertions include: a) any statute attempting to “interfere with” the president’s use of military force would be “unconstitutional”; b) “torture” is limited to those acts causing pain “â€¦equivalent to the pain that would be associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure, or permanent damage resultingâ€¦will likely result”; c) waterboarding [torture] and “walling” [pushing an individual into a “flexible wall made of plywood] or “confinement with insects, sleep deprivation for up to eleven daysâ€¦ as well as combinations of these methods, do not constitute tortureâ€¦”; and d) “the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the Taliban or al Qaeda operatives” (Alexander, p. 335).
When President Barack Obama released several memos that Yoo and other lawyers had prepared for Bush he said he did so because it was “â€¦a time for reflection, not retribution” (MacAskill, 2009). The memos outlined ten techniques used by the CIA and other American operatives as the U.S. attempted to get intelligence information from alleged terror suspects. Among the techniques that were spelled out in the memo were, in hindsight, clearly indications of human rights violations. For example, one memo outlined approved tactics to use against suspected terrorists: “wallingâ€¦ a facial hold, a facial slap, cramped confinementâ€¦ and the waterboard” (MacAskill, p. 1).
The waterboarding form of torture was described in detail in one of Bush’s memos: “the individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual’s feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled mannerâ€¦ produces the perception of ‘suffocation and incipient panic’â€¦” (MacAskill, p. 2).
As for Yoo, he believed that “â€¦the candid approach would be to admit that our old laws and policies did not address this new enemy [al-Qaeda]â€¦” and in fact Yoo’s boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, wrote that the president should declare “â€¦the Taliban and al Qaeda outside the coverage of the Geneva Conventions” (Scharf, 2009, p. 343). It was (and is) a federal crime in the United States (based on the War Crimes Act of 1996) to cause “â€¦a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions” (Scharf, 343). But thanks to Yoo and other legal staff in the Bush Administration, they simply wrote that we can do what we want because we have determined that the Geneva Conventions (against violating human rights) is null and void now that terrorists have attacked America.
American Soldiers and Human Rights Violations
Following the release of some secret documents it became clear that U.S. military personnel (whether on their own or with instructions from top brass) were torturing “â€¦terrorist suspects at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, and the detention facilities at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba” (Van Bergen, et al., 2006, p. 453). Indeed, suspicions that torture was being done to detainees were “â€¦subsequently borne out, that U.S. soldiers and CIA officers were routinely torturing terrorist suspects at numerous detention centers around the world,” Van Bergen explains (453). The photos that were posted in the Internet of American soldiers’ torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib set off a firestorm of protest and outrage.
And one of the most shocking aspects of the Abu Ghraib torture was that female soldiers were participants in the torture of Iraqi prisoners. The photos show “â€¦service-women grinning, posing, or giving the thumbs-up sign beside the tormented male prisoners” (Titunik, 2009, p. 258). In one particular photo Private First Class Lynndie England holds a leash “â€¦at the end of which a prostrate prisoner languishes”; and in another “â€¦particularly notorious photo, England, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, points to the genitals of a naked, hooded prisoner forced to simulate masturbation” (Titunik, 260).
In conclusion, it is clear from the literature that the U.S. is not the only country that has violated human rights during times of war. In WWII the abuse of human rights was hideously brutal. And in the Vietnam War, Americans put detainees into terribly cruel camps where torture was carrier out. War is indeed hell, and mere mortals can be unbelievably cruel to one another. But the focus of this article was placed on America and how it conducted strategies that seriously violated human rights as part of its “war on terror.” And by surveying the flimsy quasi-legal justifications the Bush Administration used for violating American laws and international laws banning torture and other human rights violations, a researcher can deduce that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 opened the door for criminal activities conducted by highly place officials who are in reality supposed to enforce laws, not break laws.
Alexander, Janet Cooper. (2012). John Yoo’s War Powers: The Law Review and the World.
California Law Review, 100(2), 331-364.
MacAskill, Ewen. (2009). Obama releases Bush torture memos. The Guardian. Retrieved August
28, 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk.
Russomanno, Joseph. (2011). Tortured Logic: A Verbatim Critique of the George W. Bush
Presidency. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, Inc..
Scharf, Michael P. (2009). International Law and the Torture Memos. Case Western Reserve
Journal of International Law, 42(1/2), 321-358.
Titunik, Regina F. (2009). Are we all torturers now? A reconsideration of women’s violence at Abu Ghraib. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 22(2), 257-277.
Van Bergen, Jennifer, and Valentine, Douglas. (2006). The Dangerous World of Indefinite
Detentions: Vietnam to Abu Ghraib. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law,
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