Letters at 3AM: An Arbitrary Nation, Part 4

With the consent of the governed, the United States government has gone rogue and violated international law

Letters at 3AM: An Arbitrary Nation, Part 4
Illustration by Jason Stout

Let us confront the fact – or, if you like, the possibility – that we live in a rogue nation.

A definition is needed: For our purposes, "rogue nation" means a nation that purposefully, continually, and systematically defies the international laws and treaties that govern civilized behavior – treaties that said rogue nation had previously promised to abide by and enforce.

To demonstrate that the United States has gone rogue, we'll detour from examining our Constitution to look at two foundational documents of international law, instigated by and signed by the U.S.: the International Bill of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions.

In 1945, President Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the first U.S. delegates to the United Nations. As chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the former First Lady was a key player in drafting the International Bill of Human Rights, which the U.N. voted into international law unanimously on December 10, 1948. (There were eight abstentions: the Soviet Bloc, apartheid South Africa, and Saudi Arabia.)

Article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." No exceptions.

Article 2: (italics added): "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty."

"Without distinction of any kind" – distinctions, for instance, like "enemy combatant." "Or other opinion," like jihadists. "Regardless of jurisdictional or international status ... whether it be ... non-self-governing," so stateless persons and places are included. "Or under any other limitation of sovereignty" – such as failed states.

Article 5: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." No one. Ever.

Article 6: "Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law." Everyone means everyone, and everywhere means everywhere, including Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Article 9: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile." Again, no one means no one. "Shall be" means ever.

Article 10: "Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal ... [regarding] any criminal charge against him." Any means any, including terrorism.

Let's turn now to the Geneva Conventions, a body of international law that covers countries at war. Here is what the Geneva Conventions consider "grave breaches" (as listed in Wikipedia):

1) "Willful killing, torture or inhumane treatment."

2) "Willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health."

4) "Willfully depriving someone of the right to a fair trial if accused of a war crime" (my italics). Nazis who killed millions were given fair trials. That's the standard.

"Also considered grave breaches are ... unlawful deportation, transfer, or confinement."

Finally, "those provisions are considered customary international law, allowing war crimes prosecution by the United Nations and its International Court of Justice over groups that have signed and have not signed the Geneva Conventions" (my italics). Even "groups" are entitled to fair treatment, like the groups that attack and are attacked by the United States.

In his foreign policy speech of May 23, President Obama said, "America's actions are legal. ... Under domestic law and international law the United States is at war."

His statement is intended to create the impression that we're in compliance with international law, though it is glaringly obvious that we are not. With almost admirable audacity, after implying that we're in compliance, Obama admitted that "we are force-feeding detainees ... on a hunger strike," as though that's just fine.

"The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has called force-feeding a violation of international law, and the World Medical Association, of which the U.S. is a member, declared in 1991 that the practice is 'never ethically acceptable' unless a prisoner consents or is unable to make a rational choice" (Time, May 30).

"The lawyers representing the detainees would like to file a motion in federal court to stop the force-feeding, but there is a Catch-22. They can't go to court without the consent of their clients – and thanks to another set of harsh, new [Obama administration] protocols, including ... genital and anal searches ... most clients are now refusing to talk to their lawyers. ... The United Nations Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement in early May calling the continued detention in Guantánamo a 'flagrant violation of international human rights law' and categorizing the force-feeding at the prison as 'cruel, inhuman and degrading'" (The New York Times, May 31).

To be in violation of so many aspects of international law, on such a scale and for so many years, is to be rogue.

Congress and the White House have passed new laws to institute and codify our outlaw behavior, but internationally this makes us no less rogue.

Democrats and Republicans are equally culpable. Check vote counts for the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, etc., or count votes for Senate bills to forbid releasing Gitmo detainees. George W. Bush and Barack Obama share equal responsibility for backing and signing such bills. Our violation of international law is a thoroughly bipartisan affair.

I feel like the kid in the back row of the classroom raising his hand to ask if statutes passed by Congress and signed by the president are actually legal when they blatantly violate treaties and agreements signed and ratified by the United States. But that kind of back-row kid can raise his hand all day and the question will not be answered.

You perhaps noticed that during the 2012 presidential election, international law and the Constitution were nonissues. Liberals were as happy as conservatives about that. A vigorous public and journalistic defense of the Constitution and of international law would have damaged the electability of either party's candidate.

So it's not only the government that's gone rogue. With the consent of the governed, both explicit and tacit, the country has gone rogue.

The ability and willingness to commit violence anywhere in the world; the ability and willingness to ignore our commitments to international agreements; the ability and willingness to say with a smile that we are not doing what everyone else knows we are doing; and, above all, the ability to get away with it – these (and a large, restless economy) make the United States the world's most powerful, or most muscular, nation.

The Framers felt this truth to be self-evident:

Law that fails to bind the strongest as well as the weakest is not law.

With 12 consecutive years of rogue behavior, the United States has, in essence, ended international law. All that's left is a pile of old documents that America has proved impotent.


You can find the rest of "An Arbitrary Nation," Michael Ventura's examination of the United States Constitution, here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

rogue nation, international law, international law, International Bill of Human Rights, Geneva Conventions, Barack Obama, Guantanamo Bay

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