How much more evidence is needed before President Obama is referred to as what he is – a suspected war criminal? That is the only conclusion one can come to when presented with the overwhelming evidence unless, of course, one is an apologist for President Obama and the Democratic Party, or someone who believes the United States ought to be allowed to violate international law with impunity and, therefore, free of criminal accountability.
There is incontrovertible evidence that President Obama, through his “targeted” killing program, has violated international humanitarian law’s principle of distinction. The principle of distinction requires, in carrying out lethal operations, that non-combatants, also known as innocent human beings, be distinguished from combatants. It also requires that when there is uncertainty, an individual or group of individuals be recognized as non-combatants until there is evidence that demonstrates otherwise.
President Obama has directly authorized or failed to rein in a number of policies that inherently violate the principle of distinction. In other words, regardless of the results on the ground, President Obama has made policy the use of means that are in and of themselves clear violations of international humanitarian law.
President Obama personally authorized the use of “signature strikes” in Pakistan and Yemen. “Signature strikes,” by their very nature, violate the laws of war. “Signature strikes” target individuals and groups of individuals based in behavioral characteristics the Obama administration, and the Bush administration before it, has deemed to be those of militants. For “signature strikes” to be launched, it is not necessary to confirm that those being targeted are, in fact, participating in hostilities. Therefore, President Obama has personally authorized a policy that clearly fails to distinguish non-combatants from combatants.
We learned in May 2012 that President Obama counts all military-age males killed in Guardian Angel (part of an unsolicited rebranding campaign) attacks as militants, unless they are proved innocent posthumously. Not only is this despicable, it is also another clear violation of the principle of distinction. Such a method relies on an assumption that all those within the vicinity of the blast radius of a Guardian Angel strike are legitimate targets. Further, President Obama refuses to take responsibility for attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. So, the notion that members of the families of those killed by Guardian Angels can challenge the guilt of their deceased loved one is not one grounded in any sense of reality.
Under President Obama, funeral attendees and first responders have also been attacked. That’s right – funeral attendees and first responders. Like the President’s counting method, attacking funerals and first responders is both perverse and a violation of the principle of distinction. Both attacks rely on two assumptions. First, the use of such methods assumes that the individuals being mourned and the initial victims of Guardian Angel strikes were legitimate targets. Because of what has already been described above, such assumptions are far from safe. Second, even if the first assumption proves correct, the use of such methods assumes that those who attend a militant’s funeral and those who converge on the scene of an initial Guardian Angel strike are also legitimate targets. Again, these methods inherently violate the laws of war.
Even if President Obama has not personally authorized attacks on funerals and first responders, it is his responsibility as Commander-in-Chief to end the practice as soon as he was first made aware of it. However, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported on the use of “double-tap” Guardian Angel strikes in February 2012. Assuming this was the first President Obama heard of the use of such tactics, something hard to believe, the fact that the use of such attacks continued until at least August 2013 demonstrates President Obama’s failure to fulfill his command responsibility to rein in methods that constitute clear violations of the laws of war.
The most recent attack to come under scrutiny is the December 2013 attack on a wedding convoy in Yemen. On February 20, Human Rights Watch published a report titled, “A Wedding That Became a Funeral.” According to the report, “Human Rights Watch found that the convoy was indeed a wedding procession…The procession also may have included members of AQAP…However the conflicting accounts, as well as actions of relatives and provincial authorities, suggest that some, if not all, of those killed and wounded were civilians. This raises the possibility that the attack may have violated the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or by causing civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage.” The report continues, “The burden is on the attacker to take all feasible precautions to ensure that a target is a combatant before conducting an attack and to minimize civilian harm.”
Despite the preponderance of evidence summarized above, President Obama remains a suspected war criminal because I still believe suspects are presumed innocent until they are proven guilty, a right not afforded by President Obama or his administration to Chelsea Manning, Anwar al-Awlaki, or Edward Snowden, to name a few.
On February 19, Reprieve, a UK-based human rights organization, filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court, seeking an investigation into whether the United States’ NATO allies have been complicit in suspected violations of international humanitarian law. Of course, unlike the United States, many of its NATO allies have accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction through ratification of the Rome Statute. However, based in the ICC’s current docket, it is unrealistic to expect that justice will be served for their alleged complicity.
It is even less realistic to believe President Obama, or any other past and future U.S. presidents, will ever face the judge, jury, and executioner, he so comfortably plays when he determines who deserves to die and whose lives are expendable in the process. Yet, we have a responsibility to all of the innocent people who have been killed in our name. We have a responsibility to all the families whose loved ones have been killed in our name.
We need to accept our responsibilities as citizens of a country whose foreign policy aims to fulfill what our leaders refer to as the “national interest” at unacceptable costs to peoples around the world. We need to organize to demand an end to the immunization of U.S. officials from the president on down. While this may not lead to prosecution, doing so is not an act of going through the motions; it is acting on the moral judgment that we cannot stand idly by while the U.S. government kills innocent people and destroys families all in our name.
Jeffrey Bachman is a professorial lecturer in human rights and the co-director of ethics, peace and global affairs at the School of International Service at American University. Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_bachman
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