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Preventing Human Rights Abuses: Look in Our Own Back Yard

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President Obama's recent announcement of the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board is a welcome recognition that the U.S. can and should play some role in preventing human rights abuses. Created to ensure that the U.S. government has the "mechanisms and structures" to prevent mass atrocities and war crimes, the Atrocities Prevention Board will be led by Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide and member of the National Security Council. The Board will include representatives from the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, and Homeland Security, as well as the Joint Staff, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Vice-President.

Simultaneously, Obama announced an Executive Order that targets the use of technologies to assist in carrying out human rights abuses. Specifically noting the oppressive governments of Syria and Iran, which have conducted surveillance of citizens, targeted dissenters, and blocked access to the Internet, Obama declared that "twenty-first century threats to human rights require twenty-first century tools to combat them."

Surely it is difficult to disagree with these measures, and so far, these measures have met with little criticism, especially given that they have been couched as necessary for ensuring national security. Yet as important as they are symbolically, they are nowhere near enough.

They are especially inadequate given our own human rights abuses which, ironically, are increasingly perpetrated through the very same twenty-first century technologies Obama noted. One area of concern is U.S. use of "targeted killings" -- assassinations, by some definitions. In June 2010, UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Affairs Philip Alston called targeted killings a "rapidly growing challenges to the international rule of law" and cited the U.S. as the most prolific user, largely via its drone attacks.

Since President Obama took office, the U.S. has launched more than 250 aerial drone attacks in Pakistan alone. Because there have been no American casualties of these attacks, few are aware that hundreds if not thousands of Pakistanis have been killed by U.S. technologies. An estimated 90 percent of those killed were civilians. A study by the UK Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) showed that the U.S has launched 44 drone strikes in Yemen, with three-quarters of those occurring during the uprising (since May 2011). Between 275 and 290 people have been killed, with at least one-quarter of them being civilians. On Dec. 17, 2009, a drone attack targeting Saleh Mohammed al-Anbouri, a militant who was training al-Qaeda members, killed not only al-Anbouri but 41 civilians as well. Included in the dead were 23 and five pregnant women whose bodies were completely torn in pieces. The number of attacks in Yemen is now equal, to if not greater, than the CIA drone attacks in Pakistan. And, as WikiLeaks published in January 2010, President Saleh promised then-CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus that the Yemen government would claim the bombs were theirs so the U.S. could avoid investigation. So, the Yemen government apologized to the victims and paid compensation to affected families, while the U.S. did nothing.

According to Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, the executive branch is not required to capture and try terrorists but instead, since officials must make "real-time decisions," they can just kill them. Experts say there is no way the "targeted killing" programs abide by international law. In September 2011, Philip Alston wrote that the targeted killing program represented a "fundamental regression in evolution of both international law and domestic law." It also "provided legitimacy to the increasingly vocal calls by some officials, commentators and scholars" who advocated "that the United States should formally adopt a policy of extraterritorial targeted killings that would go well beyond what is currently permitted by international law."

And what about the "technology" the U.S. seems to loves most -- its weapons? Far from keeping us safe, our love of anything militaristic has resulted in weak laws that jeopardize national security and pose great danger internationally. As Yemenis were taking to the streets to demand democracy in 2011, the U.S. continued to supply weapons and training to the security forces that were killing them. Anders Behring Breivik, who is being tried for shooting and killing 68 people in Norway, described how easy it was to purchase 10 30-round ammunition magazines from a U.S. supplier. In his manifesto, Breivik said "gun laws in Europe sucks ass in comparison."

Daniel Nasaw of The Guardian says: "The U.S. is a virtual supermarket for terrorists and foreign governments seeking high-end military technology, including components that can be used to build nuclear weapons and equip militants." Government investigators, posing as private buyers, were able to buy military-grade body armor, technology for stabilizing and steering guided missiles, a device used to detonate nuclear weapons, and a variety of other munitions in the U.S. All using legal means. The private U.S. companies that provided the equipment, some of which came from government surplus, said they were not required to check buyers' backgrounds or obtain government licenses for the sales. Founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group of more than 600 mayors from across the country, has drawn attention to 2011 data from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showing "more than 1,000 instances since 2004 in which terror suspects were able to purchase guns or explosives." Two-hundred forty-seven people on the terror watch list bought guns last year, and between 2004 and 2009, more than 90 percent of the individuals on the list who tried to buy guns successfully were able to obtain them.

Surely the U.S. doesn't conduct unlawful surveillance of its citizens like Syria and Iran do. Uh oh. As I write, the National Security Administration (NSA), after years of building fusion centers to spy on Americans, is quietly building the largest spy center in the country in Bluffdale, Utah. The Utah spy center will contain "near-bottomless databases to store all forms of communication collected by the agency, including private emails, cell phone calls, Google searches and other personal data of wholly innocent Americans."

The Atrocities Prevention Board and the new Executive Order are little more than hypocrisy if efforts are not made to address our own human rights abuses. It is time to show a true commitment to ensuring human rights, at home and abroad.