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UN Special Rapporteur Calls for Transparency and Accountability

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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June 5, 2009

On Wednesday, the United Nations independent expert on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, made a presentation before the Human Rights Council on U.S. policies and practices that have led to unlawful deaths and other abuses. Alston presented his findings based on a fact-finding mission to the United States in June 2008, when he toured the country and met with federal and local government officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations.

Speaking at UN headquarters in Geneva before representatives of countries from around the world, the Special Rapporteur highlighted in the findings discussed in his report, which was made public last week. In the report, Alston spoke of ”chronic and deplorable accountability failures with respect to policies, practices and conduct that led to alleged unlawful killings.” Alston’s report highlighted the issue of unlawful deaths within the U.S. for which the government may be responsible, including flaws in the death penalty system that increase the likelihood that innocent people will be executed, and deaths in immigration detention. You may remember us blogging about his recent report findings last week, where we talked about Alston’s concern about the capital punishment system in the United States, which, he found, creates the intolerable risk that innocent people are sentenced to death.

In his presentation before the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur also highlighted the lack of transparency regarding killings in American military and intelligence operations overseas that may violate international law—and may even amount to war crimes in some cases. Alston pointed to the U.S. government’s failure to track and make public the number and circumstances of civilian casualties in military operations, and said that because of the lack of transparency, there is a lack of accountability for wrongful deaths. In particular, Alston spoke of the importance of accountability for wrongful killings committed by private contractors. He said,

Despite its sophistication and the good intentions of many of its personnel, the US military justice system suffers from serious shortcomings in terms of accountability for killings which violate the applicable law. The Government has failed to effectively investigate and punish lower-ranking soldiers for such deaths, and has not held senior officers responsible under the doctrine of command responsibility. Worse, it has effectively created a zone of impunity for private contractors and civilian intelligence agents by only rarely investigating and prosecuting them.

Alston called for a special prosecutor to investigate the policies and practices that have led to unlawful deaths and other abuses in the United States’ international operations.

Alton recommended,

[T]he US Government should honour its stated commitment to transparency and accountability by establishing a national commission of inquiry to conduct an independent, systematic and sustained investigation of policies and practices that lead to deaths and other abuses. An independent special prosecutor should also be appointed to pursue any criminal activities undertaken by Government officials.

The Special Rapporteur’s report comes at a crucial time. It presents a critical opportunity for the Obama administration to examine government policies that have led to unlawful deaths at home and abroad. We are hopeful the president will take seriously the report’s findings and recommendations. If the United States is to assert leadership on the issue of human rights globally, we must first examine past U.S. government policies that have led to unlawful deaths and take action to signal a real break from the policies of the past.

Join our demand for a special prosecutor.)

You can watch Philip Alston’s testimony archived on the UN website.

– Nahal Zamani and Jennifer Turner