When yesterday’s rebels become today’s torturers

The United Nations Convention against Torture (CAT), adopted back in 1984, specifies that no person should be subjected to any kind of torture, cruel or degrading treatment. This convention follows on from the 1975 adoption of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Article One of the United Nations Convention Against Torture defines it as the intentional infliction of physical and mental pain for the purpose of obtaining information from a person, or coercing them into confessing to a crime, or forcing them to incriminate a third party to confess to any alleged crime that person may have committed. Such pain and suffering is inflicted with the express knowledge or tacit consent of a person or group acting in a legal and official capacity. Article Two states that there are no exceptional circumstances that may be invoked by any party to justify the application of torture. States of emergency, civil unrest, warfare and so on cannot be used as pretexts to legitimise the use of torture.

Each government is required to provide training of their law enforcement officials to eliminate the use of torture, to identify any cases of torture and report them to the proper authorities. The survivors of torture can take legal action against their torturers, and shall be entitled to receive compensation for their pain and suffering. No confession extracted through torture shall have any legal merit or standing in a court of law. The last point is specified in Article 15 of the United Nation CAT. The main provisions of the CAT are summarised here.

Qadhafi regime and torture

One of the main charges against the former Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi was the latter’s use of torture against political opponents. That is undoubtedly true. Qadhafi had started his rule of Libya in 1969 as a pan-Arab, Nasserist socialist dedicated to developing his country’s resources, throwing off the influence of foreign corporations, and spreading pan-Arab nationalism to other Arab countries repressed by Western-supported dictatorships, particularly the royalist regimes of the Gulf monarchies. Starting in the early 1990s, Qadhafi embarked on a Sadat-style opening up of the economy to European oil corporations that he had formerly expelled. Qadhafi retreated from Arab nationalism and reoriented to a more pan-African strategy, promoting his version of ‘socialism’ throughout the sub-Saharan countries.

From 2001, Qadhafi joined the so-called ‘war on terror’, and opened up his country to the CIA rendition programme. This involves taking terrorism suspects from the hands of the western intelligence services and imprisoning them. Suspects arrested on the flimsiest pretext were rendered to third-party countries, like Egypt and Libya, where torture was known to have been used. The cooperation of the Qadhafi regime with western intelligence agencies surfaced a few years ago. While detainees were routinely tortured in Libyan prisons, the CIA and MI6 continued to cooperate with such a torture regime. Qadhafi’s army and police were committing their worst crimes while operating in close collaboration with the Western powers.

The people of Libya rose up in defiance of such a tyrannical regime, which had deteriorated from a pan-Arab, semi-socialist regime into a state-populist government with deep ties to the imperialist transnational corporations. Human rights were trampled in the interests of corporate profit. The leaders of Britain, France, Germany and other countries loudly condemned the violence of the Qadhafi regime and pledged their support for the rebels in their efforts to oust the Qadhafi government. While the armed militias of Misrata and Benghazi were fighting Qadhafi, they received logistical support and training from Britain’s elite SAS troops, and British military advisers provided the ‘boots on the ground’ to ensure that any rebel victory could be quickly channeled into a pro-Western direction. The Gulf emirate of Qatar was a key Arab player in organising the rebels militarily and providing them with political and diplomatic support. Qadhafi’s overthrow was said to herald a new era of democracy and freedom, according to Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel.

Torture Libyan style

The medical group Doctors Without Borders has announced it will stop work in Libya, particularly in Misrata, because detainees are being routinely tortured and denied adequate medical care. The group has stated that the current political leaders in Misrata only provide torture victims with medical care so that they can be revived and subjected to further torture and beatings.

Doctors Without Borders has documented prisoner abuse, treating victims of cigarette burns, electric shocks, and renal failure from successive beatings. The National Transitional Council (NTC) is either unwilling or unable to control the armed militias from operating as a law unto themselves. The British government has made some lukewarm, mild criticisms of the Misrata militias, stating that the NTC should live up to the high standards they have set themselves. Libya’s new National Army Security Service (NASS) is the main body responsible for carrying out the torture of detainees. Setting aside the particularly gruesome killing of Qadhafi himself by rebel troops which in itself constitutes a war crime, the former Libyan rebels, who condemned the torture crimes of the former regime, are now behaving no less savagely themselves.

Part of a pattern

The international intervention in Libya to overthrow Qadhafi was waged on the pretext of defeating a tyrannical government that tortured and abused its own people. The current mistreatment of prisoners in the new Libya may be dismissed as just a temporary aberration, an exaction of revenge for eight-long months of heavy and brutal fighting against a regime desperate to hang on to the last. However, evidence has been compiled by Arab human rights organisations that detail the war crimes and abuses carried out by NATO and its associated Libyan proxies during the 2011 war.

An independent civil society mission, composed of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, the International Legal Assistance Consortium and the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, presented their findings in a report that details the casualties of NATO air strikes, the destruction of civilian targets, the coordination of NATO air strikes with rebel offensives on the ground, and the wholesale demolition of  the Qadhafi stronghold of Sirte and its attendant civilian casualties. The authors of the report carried out extensive field investigations throughout Libya’s cities and villages. The mission focused on the racially motivated attacks on the sub-Saharan African population, and documents the forcible mass expulsion of the African community of Tawherga. To add to the current woes of the National Transitional Council, the town of Bani Walid, the last major holdout of the Qadhafi regime, has been retaken by Qadhafi loyalists.

While the United Nations has expressed ‘alarm’ that the National Transitional Council has failed to stop torture in Libya’s prisons, it is doubtful whether the Western powers will do more than just issue banal platitudes about the use of torture in the ‘new’ Libya.  They have always condoned the practice of torture, particularly in developing countries, and the use of torture is now extending to the major capitalist countries. Last year, the Obama administration announced that those officials from the Bush-Cheney regime who ordered and approved the use of torture, would be granted full immunity from any investigation and criminal prosecution.

Bigoted Republicans, Deceptive Democrats and the onward march of a police state

It is easy to attack the US Republicans, because they openly express their bigotry, hatred and their woeful incompetence is plain for all to see.  One of the previous frontrunners for the Republican party nomination, Herman Cain, demonstrated his terrible ineptness when attempting to answer a simple question about US policy towards Libya, an important issue given the Libyan uprising and subsequent NATO intervention in 2011. Add to that the expression of racist ignorance by Newt Gingrinch who contemptuously called the Palestinians an ‘invented people’, the ‘brain freeze’ of Rick Perry, and the homophobic rantings of Rick Santorum, and it is easy to see that the US Republicans are a pack of floundering buffoons. Sherry Wolf, socialist activist, public speaker and associate editor of the International Socialist Review, said it best when she wrote that this parade of ultra-reactionary Republican dinosaurs proves that in US politics “you could walk into any bar in Brooklyn and find 7 drunks more qualified to run the country.”

It is obvious to any political observer that the US Republicans will cut social expenditure, cut back education, health care and public transportation, all the while increasing funding for the US military-industrial complex. The current speaker of the US House of Representatives, John Boehner, Republican from Ohio, is in the pocket of the large tobacco companies, maintains close relations with big tobacco company executives, and has fought for the interests of the tobacco companies in Washington. In other words, the Republicans are backed by very wealthy supporters, and will use their money and connections to roll back any gains made by working people.

Obama and his supporters will highlight the ignorant, reactionary ravings of his opponents to garner support for his reelection campaign. The Obama Democrats will emphasize any difference, however minuscule, to co-opt the electorate and win a second term in office. What is harder to recognise is the role of the US Democrats, particularly under Barack Obama, in continuing the Bush-Cheney policies, whether it be on the issue of civil liberties, challenging the untrammeled greed and pervasive financial corruption of Wall Street, or on the big questions of US wars overseas.

Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony

Back in 1982, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder released a single called ‘Ebony and Ivory.’ It was a corny, superficial song, ostensibly meant to demonstrate that people of different skin colour can and should work together. Noble sentiments, even if it was expressed in a simplistic, juvenile touching sort of way. The lyrics speak of how people of all colours can all live and work together. Subsequent history has proven them to be correct – but not in the way the songwriters intended. The vicious, snarling ‘ivory’ of the Bush-Cheney cabal has been replaced by the smiling, touchy-feely ‘ebony’ Obama. The faces have changed, but the underlying course remains the same.

The Bush-Cheney regime was widely despised by the US working class (and governments overseas) as an administration ruling in the interests of the financial-industrial oligarchy. Its propaganda was exposed as war-mongering, and geared towards provoking confrontations with recalcitrant regimes in developing countries, intended to start expansionist wars and advance US imperial objectives. Growing opposition to these imperialist wars, and the steady erosion of civil liberties and democratic safeguards, prompted a change of tactics by the governing military-industrial-financial complex. Obama dutifully exploited the growing antiwar sentiment, and general revulsion against a narrow cabal that ruled to promote the interests of a super-rich elite to get elected. He made many promises to end wars, stop the indefinite detentions and renditions of suspects, and generally promote socially progressive economic policies domestically.

Now we can see that Obama posed as an antiwar candidate only to coopt the antiwar movement, and he quickly exposed his true colours soon after taking office. The election of Obama was a tactical shift by the US ruling class from open warfare to more covert forms of intervention, including Predator drone strikes, escalating anti-terrorism laws to lock up an ever increasing number of suspects, cracking down on insurgencies by using private security contractors (ie mercenaries), redesigning the Iraqi and Afghani occupations to make them less conspicuous but no less intrusive, and making cosmetic changes to the US economy while promoting the interests of the Wall Street elite. Not only has Obama started more imperialist wars overseas, he has nullified the Nuremberg laws by promoting the doctrine of ‘pre-emptive war’, a doctrine that was considered a war crime at the end of World War Two. He has refined the Bush-era doctrine of ‘regime change’, and he has promoted/coopted internal opposition groups to instigate covert regime change in the targeted countries. When that tactic fails, Obama has employed direct and lethal force.

Attack on civil liberties

Obama, the ‘yes we can’ president, promised a wave of changes after the Bush-Cheney regime was exposed as a corrupt, malignant, war-mongering administration.  Yet, since taking office after the 2008 elections, Obama has escalated the Bush-era attacks on civil liberties. The recently passed National Defence Authorisation Act, signed into law by President Obama in December 2011, contains clauses  1031 and 1032 that empower the US military to indefinitely detain any person – US citizens or otherwise – any person suspected of terrorism offences, or providing support for terrorist groups. This law repeals the fundamental human right of habeas corpus, and provides more scaffolding for an emerging police state structure in the United States. And this act also provides another $662 billion dollars for the US military to continue its predatory wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Obama has failed to close Guantanamo, and has overseen the construction of another Guantanamo-style secret prison in Bagram airbase, Afghanistan. The courageous journalist Anand Gopal investigated the existence of secret prisons, who stated that “there is a vast complex network of prisons across Afghanistan, mostly situated on US military bases.”

When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, Obama repudiated the international law laid down at Nuremberg more than 60 years ago, by advocating preemptive war. The Nuremberg trials, held in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, established the precedent that heads of state who plan and execute aggressive wars of expansion are guilty of war crimes and crime against humanity. Senior government leaders were held accountable for their decisions that cost the lives of millions of people. The international community expressly repudiated ‘preventive’ war in the context of German imperialism’s drive to establish economic and political domination in Europe. The US ruling class, seeking to dominate vast areas of the globe, escalated its drive to achieve economic supremacy in the early 1990s with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Obama, the allegedly ‘liberal’ Democrat President, extended the policy of establishing US economic hegemony by invoking the outlawed policy of ‘preventive war’. In so many words, aggressive and predatory wars are now an official part of US foreign policy, as elaborated by the fictional ‘anti-war’ President Obama.

The assassination of people overseas – euphemistically called ‘targeted killings’ – is an innovation for which Obama deserves full credit. Killings by unmanned Predator drones have been a characteristic feature of Obama’s administration. Rather than capture Osama Bin Laden and put him on trial, thus demonstrating the evidence of his guilt for all the world to see, Obama deemed it more appropriate to kill him. Bin Laden, a nonentity rendered obsolete by the forward-currents of history in the words of Robert Fisk, was sheltered in Pakistan, a solid US client state. Killing Bin Laden ensured that whatever secrets he had, died with him. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni cleric was assassinated on Obama’s orders back in September 2011. His status as a US citizen, and all the constitutional protections afforded by that status, did not matter to the Obama administration.

Targeted killings were authorised by the Obama administration in February 2010 by then director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis C Blair (retired). Obama knew that Blair had ties to the Indonesian military, a force guilty of serious human rights abuses including mass murder, rape and torture during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. In 1999, as the Indonesian forces went on a murderous rampage killing thousands of East Timorese, Blair as commander-in-chief of US forces in the Pacific, was ordered to convey to Indonesian general Wiranto to close down the pro-Indonesian militias. Blair meet with Wiranto, but offered further US military assistance to Indonesia. Wiranto continued to direct the militias that were murdering thousands of East Timorese.

The executive branch of government is now judge, jury and executioner. Awlaki was never convicted, or even charged, with any crime. He was accused by the corporate press as a hate-mongering preacher, and that seemed to be enough to condemn him.  Well, the US is renowned for producing hateful preachers – Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, John Hagee – but they are Christian hate-mongers so that is okay.

Yemen, Saudi Arabia and undermining democracy

The killing of Awlaki occurred in Yemen, soon after the return from temporary exile of the Yemeni dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen has been convulsed by a courageous, continuing uprising that began in January 2011. The dictator Saleh has been a solid ally of the United States since he took power in 1978. The anti-regime protests, like similar uprisings throughout the Arab world, have shaken the regime, and the US is seeking a way to engineer an outcome that protects its interests while mollifying the protesters with some concessions. While Saleh has safeguarded US interests in Yemen, and has cooperated wholeheartedly with that other US client regime Saudi Arabia, the US intends that any post-Saleh regime will not harm US interests. The Obama administration has worked to moderate the demands of the protesters, encouraging the Yemeni regime to make cosmetic changes while preserving the main repressive state and economic apparatus intact. Obama is no friend of democracy and human rights in the Middle East, and as if to underscore the point, Obama approved a multi-billion dollar arms deal with the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia. Rather than encourage democratisation and support the brave people who have risen up in the Middle East, Obama has sought to maintain the repressive status quo, make certain limited concessions, and direct any political change towards a social outcome friendly to US interests.

We saw the same realpolitik calculations applied by the United States in the case of the Libyan uprising. Qadhafi’s regime had started as a pan-Arab, semi-socialist project that considerably developed the country’s infrastructure and improved the education and health care of the population. In the 1970s and 1980s Qadhafi provided an Arab Nasserist model of development. From the early 1990s, he began a Sadat-style reversal, opening up the country to pockets of private investment. By the early 2000s, he joined the US ‘war on terror’ and his regime had deteriorated into a Western-friendly dictatorship with ties to big European capital. The uprising that began in early 2011 resembled the similar protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Qadhafi waged a brutal counterinsurgency war to stamp out the rebels. Initially, the US was tepid in its response to the uprising – it was essentially playing a waiting game to see if Qadhafi, whose weapons had been supplied by the West, could defeat the insurgents. After all, the Western powers’ intelligence agencies were cooperating with the Qadhafi regime, the latter a useful ally in the ‘war on terror’.

However, once it became clear that the Qadhafi loyalists could not comprehensively defeat the rebels, the Obama administration moved swiftly to support setting up a ‘no-fly zone’, on the excuse that it was motivated by humanitarian considerations in preventing a genocide of Libyan people. Qadhafi’s counterinsurgency was brutal and savage – no less brutal and savage than the countless counterinsurgency wars launched by the US and its proxies in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries where the US has supported dictatorial regimes in suppressing popular uprisings. NATO intervention in that conflict has meant that any post-Qadhafi regime will be beholden to the interests and needs of big European and American capital. Tariq Ali described it as ‘selective vigilantism’, bombing Libya to install a pro-Western Transitional National Council, while shoring up the despots in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen. As the Socialist Worker magazine explained, the ‘noble aims’ of the West, ‘preventing massacres’ in Libya, is always exposed as a fraud by the greater crimes and atrocities of the imperial powers and their proxies, such as the NATO siege and obliteration of the town of Sirte, and the ethnic-cleansing of black African townships by the rebel forces which amount to crimes against humanity. Just to be clear about the real victors in Libya, the New York Times documented that while profit-making opportunities have receded in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have opened up exponentially in post-Qadhafi Libya.

Fake withdrawal

At the end of 2011, Obama announced that all American combat troops have left Iraq, thus fulfilling a campaign promise of 2008 to end that conflict. But upon closer inspection, that withdrawal was just as fake as the Bush-era ‘Mission Accomplished” theatrics. Not only is the US leaving behind 50 000 residual troops in the country, the largest US embassy in the world happens to be in Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of private security contractors, ie. mercenaries, will continue to carry out counter-insurgency operations. Remaining American forces in Iraq will be rebranded as ‘advisors’ and ‘trainers’, obscuring their role as an occupying force. Obama exerted tremendous pressure on his proxy in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to provide legal immunity for all US troops in Iraq. Maliki and the Iraqi government did not provide such a blanket exemption, because that measure would have meant political suicide for the fragile coalition headed by Maliki. With the Iraqis refusing to grant blanket immunity from prosecution, the US had no choice but to stage a withdrawal for public consumption and hide the scale of the US debacle in that country.

Sectarian violence has been incited by the Bush and Obama administrations, in order to divide and rule. 40 000 thousand American troops are stationed at bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, supported by the US air force and navy aircraft carriers – all in close proximity to Iraq. As Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at the State University of New York Stony Brook, has commented, Obama has reduced the ambitious scope to transform Iraq into an aggressive ally of Israel (an objective inherited from the Bush-Cheney days), but he has redesigned the Iraqi occupation to make it less conspicuous and placate his critics, and pursue the vast oil and natural gas reserves in the country. The US occupation has destroyed a functioning society, ruined the health care, electricity, medical and educational services, and left sectarian enclaves under the control of a US-controlled dictatorship in Baghdad.

Embracing Wall Street

Obama has been accused by his Democrat supporters, like veteran journalist Robert Scheer, of abandoning his electoral base by failing to tackle the predatory criminality of the Wall Street financial elite. However, Obama has consistently advocated the cause of the Wall Street bankers and financial speculators whose corrupt practices led to the global financial crash of 2008. He has done nothing to bring those responsible for that financial ruin to account, and instead has opted to shift the cost of that crisis onto working people. While it is obvious that the US Republicans oppose regulations for the financial sector and intend on continuing the policies of reckless financial speculation, Obama packed his cabinet with Wall Street representatives and economists with strong connections to the Wall Street bankers. Back in 2008, Obama (with agreement from Republican John McCain) gave the Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson the authority to supply $700 billion from federal funds in order to bail out the big banks, buying up the worthless mortgage-supported securities thus acquiring the debts accumulated by the private sector. In other words, the private sector can rack up an enormous debt, but the public will be required to foot the bill. In 2008, Obama appointed Mary Schapiro to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. Schapiro is a long-term Wall Street insider, and a solid representative of the big investment banks and financial institutions. This demonstrates that Obama is a servant of the financial plutocracy, and is not going to confront the people responsible for the financial crisis.

In September 2010, Obama made it perfectly clear that his government was no enemy of big business. In a speech entitled ‘Investing in America’ given to a CNBC-organised event broadcast by that channel from Washington, Obama dropped all the rhetoric against ‘fat cats’ and openly praised the ‘free market’ as the answer to the country’s economic problems. He talked about ‘partnering with Wall Street’ to revive the economy, and declared that “”In every speech, every interview that I have made, I’ve constantly said what sets America apart, what has made us successful over long term, is we’ve got the most dynamic free-market economy in the world.” A clear statement of an entrepreneur’s fantasy-philosophy.

It is time to occupy wall street, and remove the pretense that the US Democrats represent some kind of labour-friendly alternative. The Occupy movement, having spread to Australia, focuses on the malignant influence of the corporate hierarchy in subverting political democracy. The defence of jobs, health care, education, social services and our democratic rights needs to focus on the immense concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny financial oligarchy. Socialists, activists, and all those concerned about the growing criminality of the US ruling class need to merge with and strengthen the Occupy movement, and reject the danger of falling into the trap of tailing the Democrat party.

Glenn Greenwald has stated that Obama is abandoning the basic principles of the Democrat party, leading the charge to cutback social security, health care, continuing to promote Bush-era policies on indefinite detention, torture of rendition suspects, assassinating US citizens (and others) without any regard for due process, and building secret prisons. It is time to bluntly state that  Obama is a mass murderer and war criminal, and belongs in the dock with Bush and Cheney.