There were plenty of reasons to ring alarm bells over human rights in the U.S. national security arena in 2018, but there are also some reasons to be hopeful as we look to a new year. Of particular note, the new year will bring robust congressional oversight. What’s more, there are signs of some increased acknowledgment from the Department of Defense of the killings of civilians by U.S. military operations abroad.
Before we get to the hopeful signs on the horizon, it is important to acknowledge that 2018 was not a good year for the U.S. human rights record on the world stage.
One of the most glaring examples of the U.S. government’s failure to assert the importance of human rights was its response to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who the CIA concluded was murdered at the order of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman. President Donald Trump’s now infamous response: “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
“Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a vicious place,” Trump told reporters, adding that he would not stop arming the Saudi government despite its slaughtering civilians and fueling a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, because Saudi Arabia is “a great ally” that provides “a lot of jobs and a lot of business and economic development” and his priority is “America first.”
Then there was the U.S. withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, as well as its attack on the International Criminal Court, which expressed the Trump administration’s complete disregard for the very fundamental rights and freedoms the U.S. claimed it upholds. While the Human Rights Council is by no means a perfect institution and its members are frequently under scrutiny, it remains an important force for accountability and justice. The United States joined Iran, North Korea, and Eritrea as the only countries refusing to participate.
Less acknowledged publicly was the U.S. role in the human rights crises in Iraq and Syria, where the United States has dramatically stepped up lethal air strikes against the armed group calling itself the “Islamic State,” targeting it with more than 2600 air strikes between January and November 2018 alone. Each “strike” may involve multiple targets and aircraft actions.
U.S. reporting on the number of civilians killed by those strikes has been stunningly inadequate, with hundreds of claims of civilian casualties from 2017 dismissed last year as “not credible” despite little or no real investigation. The United States has meanwhile claimed categorically that it violated no laws, without demonstrating that it’s undertaken meaningful investigations, even after confronted with evidence that U.S.-led strikes killed dozens of civilians in urban areas where there did not appear to be lawful targets in the vicinity.
Still, the year wasn’t all bad for human rights, and there’s reason for hope. We saw some slow progress in certain areas, perhaps a demonstration of what Just Security board member Harold Koh calls, in his 2018 book The Trump Administration and International Law, the “stickiness” of legal process and norms.
Here are five hopeful signs:
1. The Khashoggi killing finally focused public attention on the human rights record of Saudi Arabia, particularly the war crimes it’s been committing in Yemen, and the critical role the United States has been playing to assist those atrocities, via arms sales, in-air refueling of Saudi aircraft, logistical support and intelligence sharing. As a result, we now see important bipartisan legislation, proposed by Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), that would end those arms sales and codify the Trump administration’s recent decision to stop refueling Saudi planes engaged in operations in Yemen against the Houthi rebels. (The Senate’s recent passage of a Joint Resolution Supporting a Diplomatic Solution in Yemen and Condemning the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi was a good first step, but didn’t go far enough.) Unfortunately, none of the legislation discussed so far would address the U.S. air strikes in Yemen targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. Although the Trump administration tripled the number of those strikes in 2017 and has continued them through 2018, reportedly killing dozens of civilians, those have received little public or congressional scrutiny. Perhaps the new focus on the U.S. role in Yemen will lead to questions about those direct lethal U.S. actions as well.
2. The Department of Defense finally acknowledged dozens of civilian casualties caused by its military operations that it had previously deemed not “credible.” In response to in-depth investigations and detailed reporting by Amnesty International (my employer) and Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Central Command, which directs the U.S.-led Coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, acknowledged that hundreds killed by their lethal strikes were indeed civilians. This was an implicit admission of the inadequacy of its own civilian casualty reporting, which had previously dismissed reports of those civilian deaths based on a lack of supporting evidence. That lack of evidence was the result of the U.S. systematic failure to meaningfully investigate claims of civilian casualties, as Just Security editor Ryan Goodman explained in the New York Times in April, and human rights investigators have been documenting over the past year.
Although President Trump abruptly announced on December 19 he was withdrawing the United States’ 2,000 troops in Syria, he pointedly did not announce an end to US-led air strikes. Indeed, Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White quickly tweeted: “we will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates.”
3. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, signed by the president in August, included important provisions requiring improved reporting of civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations, and the appointment of a senior civilian official at the Defense Department to “develop, coordinate, and oversee compliance” with the department’s civilian casualties policies. (Rita Simeon helpfully explained the details here.) These are important steps, although the Pentagon still needs to commit to conduct thorough investigations of all reasonable claims and interview witnesses and victims of those strikes in the process.
4. The Trump administration did not send any new detainees to the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. Given the president’s early promises to “load it up with some bad dudes,” this is a victory, of sorts, likely led by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and others at the Pentagon who know how destructive indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo has been, not least for the detainees themselves, but also for U.S. national security over these past 17 years. Unfortunately, Guantanamo remains open, still imprisoning 40 men indefinitely — most of whom have never even been charged with a crime and none of whom are slated for a fair trial before an independent tribunal. That includes the five suspected masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, who remain mired in endless pre-trial proceedings of the kangaroo court known as the military commissions. Secretary Mattis’s announced departure in February doesn’t help the chances of ending indefinite detention at Guantanamo in 2019, and depending on who replaces him, we could see new detainees sent there. Congress should hold hearings highlighting what a mistake indefinite detention has been, as well as lift restrictions on transfers to the United States for trial and for medical treatment. It should also insist the Trump administration immediately transfer to other countries the five detainees already cleared by U.S. national security agencies to leave Guantanamo. Some, like Toffiq al-Bihani, have been cleared to leave for more than eight years, yet remain detained there arbitrarily.
5. The new Democratic majority in the House has promised a robust level of oversight in 2019. While the United States’ endless war against an array of non-state armed groups around the world continued with little meaningful oversight from Congress in 2018, the new House majority has signaled an interest in changing that. Expect to see hearings on where the United States is using lethal force, both in active war zones where the administration has been more forthcoming about its strikes — such as in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — as well as the consequences of U.S. actions, especially on civilians. We also need hearings on U.S. lethal actions in areas where the United States is far less forthcoming about what it’s doing, such as in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. The United States claims to be targeting al Qaeda and its affiliates, yet has presented no evidence demonstrating whom it has killed and whether those killings were lawful.
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2018 was a punishing year for U.S. faltering in its commitment to human rights. But as we round the bend into the new year, there are possibilities for improvement. Let 2019 be worthy of that hope.
Photo of April 15, 2018 protests in New York City by Kena Betancur/Getty Images.