Human Rights Applies to All

It’s no fun to be put in your place. It’s all the worse if you’re a big shot. Take it from the fly on the wall who watched it happen to the Asian Development Bank, the bagmen for Japanese bribes to Asian Security Council members. In retrospect, the rising sun had just begun to set. ADB came a cropper on the ground floor of the Bank of China (they don’t let foreigners upstairs.) Very good tea, insufficient time to savor it, as the whole thing was over in no time, a spanking and a bum’s rush. Pretensions popped more loudly and abruptly than balloons.

Who needs you? Do you measure up? Even when they break it to you gently, it’s hard to take. Get lost – the humblest bodhisattva hates to hear it. Imagine the discomfiture when it happens to a brittle, narcissistic junta like the USA.

In 2001 the UN gave the US government a tyke’s time-out. The UN’s Economic and Social Council squeezed the US off the Human Rights Commission and gave its seat to Europeans. As the US raged in mortifying tantrums, the UN member nations methodically revamped their system of peer review, superseding the Commission with a Human Rights Council: an elective body authorized to examine all UN members, the US along with everybody else. America as a unique, perfect little snowflake with a special lofty role, that’s an old man’s idea from the duck-and-cover days of yore and it won’t fly in the great wide world. In Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the Council tests every UN member – not just against its commitments, the human rights pacts it has signed, but against the complete scope of its obligations, the universally-acknowledged duties of any sovereign state. If you want to cut through the fustian of ‘soft power’ or ‘leadership,’ there is no more comprehensive way to specify a nation’s standing in the world.

Forced to see itself through others’ eyes, the US cannot cope. This UPR, the USA’s second review, was the culmination of years of international suasion. The nations of the world worked from the findings of treaty bodies, special rapporteurs, and civil society. It might have been dramatic enough: Lots of little nations the USA presumes to lead, finding fault. All the US government’s most feared bugbears, ganging up.

US media grope for us-and-them pyrotechnics to get the government off the hook. But in reality there was nothing but the slow corrosive burn of shame. Indonesia, victim of US-incited mass murder, ticking off agreements that it wanted the US to sign: not for retribution or reparations, but for protections for the most helpless victims of today. Maldives, now losing its homes to the sea, victims of rapacious ecocide by US oilmen, seeking rights and education for children. Rwanda, abandoned by the US during a genocide, asking only that the US stop killing its own. And Israel denouncing you for hate crimes? That has got to rankle.

However inured you are to the miasma of US war propaganda, it is eerie to see Russia, Iran, Cuba, even North Korea sitting calmly, making perfect sense. There in the comfy chairs at the Palace of Nations, with no goose-stepping, no staring contests, no nuclear chicken, North Korea sounded strangely like an old and tactful friend with whom you’ve been through trying times. If you can’t prosecute your killers and torturers, they said, then sit back and let the international community handle it. North Korea invoked that homely maxim of US jurist Robert Jackson: the origin of war crimes is war. Stands to reason, 지요? If you didn’t go around invading other countries, you wouldn’t need to murder and torture their citizens. Just think, no more lethal busywork for jumpy garrisons, no more dehumanizing spiral of sadistic revenge. From the standpoint of a state like the USA that counts on rational-legal legitimacy, you know you’re in trouble when North Korea is the sane one.

North Korea’s invocation of international tribunals was all the more unsettling coming from mild-mannered countries like Slovenia, Luxembourg, Latvia, Chad, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Ghana, Guatemala, Cyprus, Timor-Leste, Hungary, and New Zealand. All urged the US to join the treaty parties of the Rome Statute in pledging to prosecute or extradite those who commit the gravest crimes.

It was enough to make a diplomat nostalgic for Khrushchev smacking his shoes on the table. Speaking mainly to the grownups in the room, Russia wryly noted the futility of global mentorship based on a state’s “farfetched assumptions of its exceptionality and infallibility.” The good old days of “We will bury you!” are manifestly over. This was more of a rueful eulogy. The state that outlawed war with the Kellogg-Briand Pact, realized humanitarian law with the Lieber Code, and moderated the vindictive Treaty of Versailles with the League of Nations, that state is all but dead and gone. The America that stood for open covenants, openly arrived at; for reduction of armaments; and for political independence and territorial integrity of great and small states alike: she’s not here. Something has displaced her.

Multiple countries suggested that the US government stop killing people. Not all people – baby steps – just stop killing people who pose no threat. Spare the helpless wretches caged on death row. Come on, we’ll all do it together. The US responded with the fatalistic lunacy of Aztec high priests who think the corn won’t come up if they stop. This is a government that can preempt icky pictures on cigarette packs, but it can’t bring itself to preempt ritual killing.

This UPR was not the colloquy of equals that UN members hope for. It was no ordinary dressing-down. The stylized confrontation of an absent nation, an intrusive state, and emissaries of higher authority followed a long-forgotten archetype.

In The Invisible Bridge, historian Rick Perlstein recounted an era that saw the nation and the world struggling to contain the torture and murder and aggression of a state run amok. The domestic population faced coups at home and abroad, murder of prominent dissidents, and a welter of stereotyped threats from serial murderers to depersonalizing cults. The country struggled to purify itself with radical violence, with the ceremony of the Church and Pike Committees, and with the protracted, degrading sacrifice of a president. At the climax of this national catharsis, a film gripped and crazed the population. Perlstein made the film a central trope of his book, an allegory of purification.

The film was The Exorcist. Perlstein describes the symbolism of its denouement, with costuming and Catholic iconography evoking the deposed Kennedy administration and the rescued victim of possession dressed in red, white, and blue. “It was 1962 again,” he wrote – before Operation Condor, aggression in Indochina, or COINTELPRO’s war on peace and social uplift. Public ceremony fit the canonical template for exorcism, the Ritual of 1614. A man called Church questioned and denounced the demoniac institutions. The demons Agnew, Mitchell, Gray, and Nixon were cast out.

At first, the exorcism seemed to take. War and repression simmered down. Congress roused itself to check the CIA. But the Ritual of 1614 warns, “Occasionally, after they appear, the demons hide and leave the body almost free of all disturbance, so that the ill person might think he is completely freed.”

And here we are again, in another paroxysm of state torture, murder, domestic covert action, and aggression prompted by improbable attacks. This time, a gelded Congress meekly beg the reasons for autocratic acts they dare not challenge. There will be no Church or Pike Committee to release us.

Now, by long-forgotten law, our higher power is the outside world, the UN member nations. It falls to them to send the exorcists. Their claim to authority is not religion but human rights and humanitarian law. Treaty bodies, charter bodies and special procedures confront hair-raising horror.

And horrors there have been. Perlstein is too young to remember that The Exorcist made its mark on popular culture not as a fearsome passion play but as a metaphor for comic misbehavior. The demon is having the time of his life thumbing his nose at authority. With a similar spirit of fun, the US government makes a point of sending winsome Ivy League darlings to reenact the outrages and blasphemies of little Rags beset by demons: Condy Rice transfixing Sergei Lavrov with her baleful gorgon stare. Susan Rice singeing diplomat’s eyebrows with every conceivable conjugation and declension of fuck. Samantha Power photographed levitating in cruciform fits over a stolid Vitaly Churkin. Xenoglossy, classic hallmark of possession – Power cheering on Nazis with a rote phonetic Ukraina po-nad u-se! The apparition of Pazuzu at the exorcist’s death is nothing compared to the ghastly sight of Esther Brimmer worshiping her malign Mideastern demigod AIPAC. It’s one big neck-wringing, bile-puking, ball-busting, crucifix-humping insult to the rule of law.

The struggle is pitched and protracted. The Ritual of 1614 warns the exorcist, “stay alert for tricks and deceptions that demons use to mislead the exorcist. For they will give false answers as much as possible, and show themselves only with difficulty, in order that the exorcist at length become worn out and give up the exorcism.”

The state tries to hide behind America – not the land mass or the population or the institutions but something else, something vague and nice. The UN member nations on the Human Rights Council are not fooled. They are not talking to America. They are talking to the corrupt, predatory bureaucracy that’s got its hooks in us. What’s in question is the state, this particular syndicate of murderers and torturers and uniformed thieves that prey on helpless victims.

“There are countless devices and tricks.” The government’s first trick is to muzzle the population by grudgingly doling out our rights. The US government has ratified a bare minimum of human rights agreements:

● The Convention to End Racial Discrimination;

● The ICCPR, concerning civil and political rights, the kind that Americans are thought to have;

● The Convention Against Torture, written to stop US torture and awkward to spurn;

● The one on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which isn’t much to ask, and seldom cramps their style now that they’re through with the Indians.

But that’s it. None of the pacts pledging universally-acknowledged rights for the vulnerable: children, or women, or migrants, or working people, or the disabled. Nothing doing for the fight against enforced disappearance or impunity for government crimes. No acknowledgment of economic rights, our means of life. At the last review four years ago, 35 countries on the Human Rights Council noted this dereliction of state duty. The Council took up the theme again this time, unafraid to sound like a broken record because, after all, core human rights are the acquis of the civilized world. You can’t lead the world without them. Without them you can’t even take part. As the UN Secretary-General said, states can’t pick and choose our rights, we get them all.

The US government’s response is unchanging: We’ve tried and tried, and failed. Failure is a sport for this government, like trap shooting. The administration lobs a pact to the Senate, and a minority gleefully blows it out of the air. Disabled persons’ rights fell five votes short in 2012 and women’s rights sank without a ripple in committee. Then, in front of the international community, the administration heaves a rueful sigh and laments the strictures of its constitution: two thirds of the Senate must concur. The government uses this ploy to fend off world opinion and to shut reformers up. See here, the Constitution says so.

Of course, the Constitution’s cumbersome advice and consent clause goes out the window when it’s time to sell us out to corporate tribunals. That’s the dirty secret of fast track. Trade treaties get put to the House as revenue measures. The Senate gets a look, but two-thirds concurrence goes away. That’s been handy in gutting health, privacy, and environmental protections with Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

Such are the rules our Congress adopts: when it comes to back-room corporate predation, the majority rules; as for countervailing human rights protection, we get that only if a temperamental super-majority concurs. There’s nothing sacred about two-thirds concurrence. For forty years legal experts have pointed out that human rights treaties can be fast-tracked. The government can ratify any human rights treaty by majority vote for a concurrent resolution of accession. If this government wanted to do it, they would do it.

Another government trick is to hide and disperse your human rights in a bureaucratic maze. When you demand your rights, you are shunted into a labyrinth of special-purpose bureaus scattered among unrelated agencies depending on what sort of person you are, what it is you want, and who abused you. The Paris Principles are the world-standard antithesis of Kafka’s Castle, USA. A dozen countries used their scanty 65 seconds of hearing time to urge adoption.

A subtle device: reducing human rights to non-discrimination. The US government tries to redefine human rights as brutal rules impartially imposed. Police death squads and lynch mobs would still pose a problem if their murder and torture were impartial. That police prey on dehumanized enemies of color, that is two problems, not one. Peel away institutionalized discrimination and we’re left with indiscriminate militarized assault of the aged, the disabled, children, even infants. The problem of state predation remains. US police believe they are at war:

“To those that enjoy the blanket of protection they provide, show your support; turn on a blue light at night, thank an officer, attend a Citizens Police Academy, join a neighborhood watch, or just give a kind wave and a smile. You matter. To those that choose to walk on the “other side” of the line, well just keep walking, they’ll get to you eventually…you don’t matter.”

You’ve been warned – show gratitude and smile or we will kill you. Uniformed psychopath William James Manifold is a perfect product of state indoctrination, frog-marching the public through mawkish Norman Rockwell fantasies under threat of death. This deranged craving for approval does not attenuate at higher levels. Operation Restore Hope killed about as many scowling ingrates as it saved, perhaps 10,000 Somalians. The natives’ lack of cordiality alarmed the troops and caused some massacres. The US killed a couple hundred thousand Iraqis when they failed to strew flowers for the troops.

The state’s denial runs deep. The US brought the Illinois Attorney General along to boast of niggardly torture reparations. She could not utter the word torture, even though the counter-terror torture that the President confessed to was exported from Chicago. Chicago’s municipal black sites prototyped the US torture gulag, and Chicago detective Richard Zuley instituted the infamous Guantanamo torture regime. Chicago’s chief police torturer, Jon Burge, could not be tried for torture. Torture’s not a crime here.

The Ritual of 1614 advises, “observe at which words the demons tremble more.”

The US government clings desperately to the impunity that underpins its torture. A State Department bureaucrat defended a US admission against interest that concealed every torturer’s name, invoking ‘appropriate redactions’ ‘consistent with national security.’ (How would she know? No one at State or Justice dared to crack the book.) In the same breath US delegate McLeod dismissed the Rome Statute, the world’s historic project to codify the principles the US itself set out at Nuremberg. To her government, the Rome Statute is simply a tool to further US ‘interests and values’ – interests like regime decapitation, values like getting away with torture, murder, and aggression. In place of making criminals pay for grave crimes, McLeod offered fervent piety: “take responsibility,” “never again,” like the ritual incantations of a schoolgirl telling beads to ward off impure thoughts. Anything that tarnishes the state’s self-regard is suppressed as corrupting smut. The government would forbid us even to see its torture. The American Civil Liberties Union, our putative advocate, pleads for the evidence not to end impunity for torture but for ‘policy.’ This is the official line that cannot be crossed: there is no crime, only policy. The state imposes policy as culture and civic religion: denial and impunity to permit violence in defense of exalted self-regard.

But sovereign states don’t have to play along. Grandiose sanctimony makes the US government exquisitely sensitive to international censure. The government scrounges for token gestures to placate the outside world. At this UPR the government promised to stop looting tribal artifacts. The Justice Department offered to curb the most murderous police with draconian training seminars. It invited the UN Special rapporteur on torture – but only to examine the proletarian guard labor at its state and local prisons. Mental torture by isolation at federal and military prisons was kept hidden. Torture by isolation is a cherished prerogative of the irresistible state.

Even in this case, the US was forced to respond. To lay the groundwork for derisory reform, domestic media echoed and amplified international criticism while burying the external impetus. The New York Times took the international disgrace of US government mental torture and turned it it into Gideon’s trumpet, a heartwarming, uplifting, wholly homegrown story with not a word about the legal imperatives and international accord impelling reform: ¶20 of the Committee Against Torture CAT/C/USA/CO/3-5 or ¶20 of the Human Rights Committee CCPR/C/USA/CO/4.

It’s the same with every government crime. International criticism of US government barbarities triggers a wave of media sob stories. Prominent critics wring their hands in public. None of this soul-searching mentions the binding recommendations of the Human Rights Committee or the Committee Against Torture. The peoples sealed inside the USA stir uneasily, questioning their society and history and culture but never glimpsing what the world sees: a nation possessed by a state that is out of control.

It’s the state’s most desperate fixation: the US government must be seen to have absolute autonomy. No commitments or agreements influence its decisions. No independent international authorities exist. If the US stops torturing helpless human beings and complies with the law, the outside world has nothing to do with it.

The government diverts public attention from international pressure with bureaucratic travesty. The Justice Department presided over the feckless Durham Report, perusing 101 reported cases of torture without contacting the victims and ultimately giving up because the crimes were secret. Internal Homeland Security offices “look into” DHS crimes.

The state excuses its violent crime with histrionic fear. Hypervigilance is exhausting this state, siphoning the vitality of its society and culture into frantic agitation. Everything the state sees or cannot see it attacks as a threat. When trying to articulate the free-floating anxiety of the state, officials babble about extremism, terrorism, even, in John Kerry’s word’s, “enemies of Islam,” and a pandemonium of domestic enemies, most recently anarchists and so-called anti-government groups. The government spies on breast cancer walks, vegan potlucks, pacifists, funk parades, and the aesthetic spectacles of Burning Man. It doesn’t take much to induce regression to the childish catchall “bad guys.”

Whoever they are, they skulk under every bed. With its sneak thefts and treacherous lies the National Security Agency is shredding alliances, undermining bedrock domestic and international law, and sabotaging vital international infrastructure. Many UN member nations pointed to this problem, urging that the US government curb NSA’s compulsive interference with the right to privacy and comply with ICCPR Article 17.

“The exorcist should not stop until he sees the signs of liberation.” The Human Rights Committee acts in accord with this precept of the Ritual of 1614. Universal Periodic Review is ongoing. The treaty parties to the ICCPR have adopted a follow-up procedure that grades the US response to the grave emergency of its four worst derelictions: NSA surveillance, the Guantanamo death camp, gun violence, and impunity for torture and murder. Having ratified the Covenant, the US is bound to comply. Good faith is a peremptory norm of international law, and the Committee’s concluding observations specifically adjured it. Explicit reference to US bad faith obligates every country to stop the government’s wrongful acts.

On July 13 the special rapporteur followed up on the US response. The Human Rights Committee had asked how US officials were punished for their crimes in Iraq. Evading the question, the US boasted of putting away four Blackwater mercenaries, “good young men who have never been in trouble,” in the judge’s words. In fairness, the US response is not as irrelevant as it may seem. It defines the American Way. When government officials must atone for grave crimes they have committed, they lock up some hillbillies. Command responsibility has been a precept of law since the late Middle Ages but our commanders need more time to think it over. The Committee directed the US to incorporate the doctrine of command responsibility into criminal law. The US government did nothing.

The Committee expressed concern about the license to kill conferred by “Stand Your Ground” laws. In her follow-up, the special rapporteur saw US judges further broaden the immunity of anyone who buys a gun.

The Committee directed an end to detention without charge or trial. The Guantanamo death camp ground on as before, sporadically extruding aging innocents. The Supreme Court cut off appeals from its captives with a shrug of feigned helplessness. Prosecutors passed judgment on the relevance of prisoners’ confessions under torture, censoring their defense in improvised show trials.

The Committee directed that the US honor its agreement to cease government interference with our right to privacy. The government replied in SIGINT gibberish as though it spoke in tongues. The special rapporteur insisted on something that counts as information.

Formal assessment of government compliance was a predictable disgrace for the US. Overall the government repeated abstract slogans and did nothing. The special rapporteur resolutely followed her own working methods and, coincidentally, the provisions of the Ritual of 1614 for “nonsense, laughter and foolishness.” She gave the state’s victims a voice to expose the government’s cant and empty gestures.

When the spirit is especially tormented, persist and bear down all the more, so the old rite says. In August the special rapporteur formally submitted a follow-up assessment, giving the US government a month to respond before the treaty body adopts it as a protest démarche from all the other parties to the Covenant. The pressure will not remit.

Exorcism is a harsh old word. What we see happening is now called Pillar Three of the Responsibility to Protect. Pillar Three is collective action: diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapter VI of the UN Charter, to help protect populations from war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Exorcism takes two forms: deprecatory and imperative. The former is an appeal to authority. The latter is command, compulsion by power. Depart, then, transgressor, da locum, exi, discede. This distinction has a parallel in modern rites. The legal authority for Pillar Three is the 2005 World Summit Outcome. The Summit Outcome provides for forcible intervention should peaceful means be inadequate to cope with national authorities’ manifest failure to protect. US state failure is manifest in the crime against humanity of widespread and systematic torture with impunity and in war crimes of armed attack on civilian populations, directed at the highest level. The international community individually and collectively bears responsibility to protect all human beings from these crimes. Exorcising an energumen nation is grueling and risky but it can be done: the Stasi, the Southern Cone caudillos, Afrikaner apartheid on the cusp of mass destruction, all were peacefully cast out. The current international situation of illegal war, “being fraught,”1 responsibility to protect may rest disproportionately on certain states with the power to deter US state crimes. We drive you from us. Depart, seducer, full of lies and cunning, persecutor of the innocent. Give place, abominable creature, give way, you monster. The case is grave. The world believes the US is the greatest threat to peace.

Was it just a movie? Or did we really feel the nation was possessed? Since the release of The Exorcist, nothing has changed. That thing out there is not my motherland, to paraphrase the film. Remember how the movie ended. If we listen to the stories we tell ourselves, we note that the victim of possession was freed not by authoritative faith, not by omniúmque christiánae fídei Mysteriórum, but by a desperate spasm of suicidal violence.

If the exorcism fails, What then?

  1. Aggression is the most serious and dangerous form of the illegal use of force, being fraught, in the conditions created by the existence of all types of weapons of mass destruction, with the possible threat of a world conflict and all its catastrophic consequences,” UNGA Resolution 3314 (XXIX), 14 December 1974, Definition of aggression. []
Brian Littlefair is the author of Desert Burial. As a consultant specializing in foreign direct investment he worked with foreign joint ventures, international financial institutions and bilateral aid agencies, with volunteer work in food security, transparency, and human rights in the global south. Read other articles by Brian.