U.N. calls U.S. human rights record "deplorable"

A new report suggests the U.S. may have committed war crimes -- and endorses the formation of a truth commission.

Published May 29, 2009 6:06PM (EDT)

The United Nations has released a new report on accountability for human rights abuses by the United States, focusing mostly on transgressions during the Bush administration's so-called war on terror. In a word, accountability in the U.S. has been "deplorable."

The May 26, 2009, report by Australian law professor Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, does praise the United States for establishing compensation payments for civilians accidentally killed by U.S. forces in the heat of battle. But Alston quickly adds the following: "However, there have been chronic and deplorable accountability failures with respect to policies, practice and conduct that resulted in alleged unlawful killings -- including possible war crimes -- in the United States' international operations."

A summary from the report follows below. But the body of the document doesn't pull any punches either.

Here is what Alston says about at least five detainee deaths at Guantánamo: "The Department of Defense provided little public information about any of the five detainee deaths."

He calls wrongheaded the failure of the United States to track civilian casualties in Iraq or Afghanistan, and he thinks that with a few rare exceptions, the military has done a pitiful job holding soldiers -- or even more so, their superior officers -- accountable for unlawful killing in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Numerous other cases have either been inadequately investigated or senior officers have used administrative (non-judicial) proceedings instead of criminal prosecutions," he wrote. "It appears that no U.S. officer above the rank of major has ever been prosecuted for the wrongful actions of the personnel under his or her command."

He notes "credible reports" of at least five deaths caused by torture at the hands of the CIA. Except for one case of a CIA contractor, however, "No investigation has ever been released and alleged CIA involvement has never been publicly confirmed or denied."

Alston doesn't think the Justice Department has done a bang-up job either. "U.S. prosecutors have failed to use the laws on the books to investigate and prosecute (contractors) and civilian agents for wrongful deaths, including, in some cases, deaths credibly alleged to have resulted from torture and abuse."

Without naming President Obama, Alston clearly thinks the president's plan to simply move on won't work. "A refusal to look back inevitably means moving forward in blindness," he wrote. Instead, he advocates a "national 'commission of inquiry' tasked with carrying out an independent, systematic and sustained investigation of policies and practices that lead to deaths and other abuses."

So far, Obama has thrown cold water on the idea.

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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