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Human rights abuses at the limits of the law: Legal instabilities and vulnerabilities in the ‘Global War on Terror’

  • Rebecca Sanders (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

Law following and law breaking are often conceptualised as polar opposites. However, authorities in liberal democracies increasingly deploy a strategy of what I call plausible legality in order to secure immunity and legitimacy for proscribed practices. Rather than ignore or suspend law, they construct legal justifications for human rights abuses and other dubious policies, obscuring the distinction between legal compliance and non-compliance. I argue this is possible because instabilities in legal rules make them vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. By tracing American rationales for contentious ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, indefinite detention, and ‘targeted killing’ practices in the ‘Global War on Terror’, I show that law need not always be abandoned or radically reconstituted to achieve troubling ends and that rule structures enable certain patterns of violation while limiting others. The international prohibition on torture is robust and universal, but provides vague definitions open to interpretation. Detention and lethal targeting regulations are jurisdictionally layered and contextually complex, creating loopholes and gaps. The article concludes by reflecting on implications for the protection of human rights. While law is not wholly indeterminate, human rights advocates must constantly advocate shared legal understandings that constrain state violence.

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Corresponding author
*Correspondence to: Rebecca Sanders, 1115 Crosley Tower, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, US, 45221-0375, rebecca.sanders@uc.edu
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25 de Tocqueville Alexis, Democracy in America (New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2004); Sklar Judith, Legalism: Law, Morals, and Public Trials (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986); Scheingold Stuart A., The Politics of Rights: Lawyers, Public Policy, and Political Change (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).

26 For example, days after taking office, President Trump authorised a raid in Yemen that killed numerous civilians. The administration also reportedly loosened Obama-era restrictions on drone strikes. See Dilanian Ken, Nichols Hans, and Kube Courtney, ‘Trump admin ups drone strikes, tolerates more civilian deaths: U.S. officials’, NBC News (14 March 2017), available at: {http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/trump-admin-ups-drone-strikes-tolerates-more-civilian-deaths-n733336} accessed 15 March 2017. The administration is laying plans to repopulate the Guantánamo Bay prison. See Kheel Rebecca, ‘Trump officials signal intent to begin refilling Guantanamo’, The Hill (8 July 2017), available at: {http://thehill.com/policy/defense/341051-trump-officials-signal-intent-to-begin-refilling-guantanamo} accessed 9 July 2017.

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28 Cole David, The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable (New York: New Press, 2009); Sanders Rebecca, ‘(Im)plausible legality: the rationalisation of human rights abuses in the American “Global War on Terror”’, The International Journal of Human Rights, 15:4 (2011), pp. 605626 .

29 For instance, see United States Congress, Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee), Final Report, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, S. Report No. 94-755 (1976), Book IV – Supplementary Detailed Staff Report on Foreign and Military Intelligence, Part 5, p. 93, available at: {http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/church/reports/book4/pdf/ChurchB4_5_Conclusions.pdf} accessed 10 August 2016.

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31 Greenberg Karen J. and Dratel Joshua L., The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

32 Jay S. Bybee, Memorandum for Alberto R. Gonzales, Counsel to the President, Re: Standards of Conduct for Interrogation Under 18 USC, §§ 2340–A: US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (1 August 2002), available at: {https://www.justice.gov/olc/file/886061/download} accessed 10 July 2016.

33 UN General Assembly, Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (10 December 1984), United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1465, p. 85.

34 McCoy Alfred, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006); United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, The United States Congress (3 April 2014 – redacted version 3 December 2014), p. 21, available at: {http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/12/09/world/cia-torture-report-document.html} accessed 5 August 2016.

35 Jay S. Bybee, Memorandum for John Rizzo, Acting General Counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency, Interrogation of Al-Qaeda Operative: US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (1 August 2002), available at: {http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/doj/olc/zubaydah.pdf} accessed 10 July 2016.

36 Sands Philippe, The Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008);

United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody, Washington, DC, 110th Congress, Second Session (20 November 2008), available at: {https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Detainee-Report-Final_April-22-2009.pdf} accessed 5 July 2017; United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program.

37 While it seems easy to conclude that waterboarding is torture, what about extended solitary confinement? Denying prisoners healthcare? Allowing detainees to be raped by other detainees? Forcing women to give birth in shackles? These are all routine occurrences in the ‘normal’ American penal system.

38 Bybee, Memorandum for Alberto R. Gonzales, Counsel to the President. Re: Standards of Conduct for Interrogation Under 18 USC, §§ 2340–A (1 August 2002), p. 1.

39 Open Society Foundation, Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition (New York: GHP Media, 2013), available at: {https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/globalizing-torture-20120205.pdf} accessed 10 July 2016; Priest Dana, ‘Wrongful imprisonment: Anatomy of a CIA mistake’, The Washington Post (4 December 2005), available at: {http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/03/AR2005120301476.html} accessed 10 July 2016; Mayer Jane, ‘Outsourcing torture’, The New Yorker (14 February 2005), {http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/14/outsourcing-torture} accessed 10 July 2016; Grey Stephen, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2006).

40 Sanders Rebecca, ‘Norm proxy war and resistance through outsourcing: the dynamics of transnational human rights contestation’, Human Rights Review, 17:2 (June 2016), pp. 165191 .

41 United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, p. 16.

42 Brunnée and Toope, Legitimacy and Legality.

43 Daniel Levin, Memorandum for James B. Comey, Deputy Attorney General Re: Legal Standards Applicable Under 18 USC, §§ 2340–A, Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (30 December 2004), available at: {https://www.aclu.org/files/torturefoia/released/082409/olcremand/2004olc96.pdf} accessed 5 August 2016; Goldsmith Jack L., The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007).

44 Steven Bradbury, Memorandum for John A. Rizzo, Senior Deputy General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency, Re: Application of 18 USC, §§ 2340–A to Certain Techniques That May Be Used in the Interrogation of High Value Al-Qaeda Detainee: US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (10 May 2005), available at: {http://www.justice.gov/olc/docs/memo-bradbury2005-3.pdf} accessed 5 August 2016; Steven Bradbury, Memorandum for John A. Rizzo, Senior Deputy General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency, Re: Application of United States Obligations Under Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture to Certain Techniques That May Be Used in the Interrogation of High Value Al-Qaeda Detainees: US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (30 May 2005), available at: {http://www.justice.gov/olc/docs/memo-bradbury2005.pdf} accessed 5 August 2016; Steven Bradbury, Memorandum for John A. Rizzo, Acting General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency, Re: Application of Detainee Treatment Act to Conditions of Confinement at Central Intelligence Agency Detention Facilities: US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (31 August 2006), available at: {http://www.justice.gov/olc/docs/memo-rizzo2006.pdf} accessed 5 August 2016.

45 The White House, Executive Order 13491: Ensuring Lawful Interrogations (22 January 2009), available at: {https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2009-01-27/pdf/E9-1885.pdf} accessed 9 July 2017.

46 Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (HR 2863, Title X).

47 United States Department of Justice, Office of Professional Responsibility, Report: Investigation into the Office of Legal Counsel’s Memoranda Concerning Issues Relating to the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ on Suspected Terrorists, Washington, DC (29 July 2009), available at: {https://www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/natsec/opr20100219/20090729_OPR_Final_Report_with_20100719_declassifications.pdf} accessed 5 August 2016.

48 United States Department of Justice, Statement of Attorney General Eric Holder on Closure of Investigation into the Interrogation of Certain Detainees (30 August 2012), available at: {http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/statement-attorney-general-eric-holder-closure-investigation-interrogation-certain-detainees} accessed 5 August 2016.

49 Mayer Jane, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (New York: Doubleday, 2008), p. 268 .

50 The International Committee of the Red Cross, The Geneva Conventions of 1949, available at: {https://www.icrc.org/en/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions} accessed 15 August 2016.

51 While Additional Protocol 1 extended privileges to national liberation movements fighting colonial occupations and racist regimes in the 1970s, this move was flatly rejected by the United States, which refused to ratify the Additional Protocols.

52 Melzer Nils, Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities Under International Humanitarian Law, International Committee of the Red Cross (Geneva: May 2009), available at: {https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/icrc-002-0990.pdf} accessed 15 August 2016.

53 Executive Order 12333 of 4 December 1981, 46 FR 59941, 3 CFR, 1981 Comp., p. 200, available at: {http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/codification/executive-order/12333.html} accessed 15 August 2016.

54 The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AU), S.J.Res. 23, 107th Congress (14 September 2001), Pub. L. 107-40, 115 Stat. 224, MF, available at: {http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-107publ40/pdf/PLAW-107publ40.pdf} accessed 15 August 2016.

55 Jay S. Bybee, Memorandum for Alberto R Gonzales, Counsel to the President, and William J. Haynes II, General Counsel of the Department of Defense, Re: Application of Treaties and Laws to Al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees: US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (22 January 2002), available at: {http://www.justice.gov/olc/docs/memo-laws-taliban-detainees.pdf} accessed 5 August 2016.

56 Kaplan Amy, ‘Where is Guantánamo?’, American Quarterly, 57:3 (2005), pp. 831858 .

57 Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 US 507 (2004) 2004 WL 1431951; Rasul v. Bush, 542 US 466 (2004) 124 S.Cl. 2686; Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 US 557 (2006) 126 S.Ct 2749; Boumediene v. Bush, 553 US 723 (2008) 2008 WL 236628.

58 Human Rights First, ‘Guantánamo by the Numbers’ (March 2017), available at: {https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/sites/default/files/gtmo-by-the-numbers.pdf} accessed 15 March 2017.

59 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Update on the Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghan Custody: Accountability and Implementation of Presidential Decree 129 (Kabul: February 2015), available at: {http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/AF/UNAMA_OHCHR_Detention_Report_Feb2015.pdf} accessed 21 August 2016.

60 Harold Hongju Koh, ‘The Obama Administration and International Law’, Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law, Washington, DC (25 March 2010), available at: {https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/litigation/materials/sac_2012/50-3_nat_sec_obama_admin.authcheckdam.pdf} accessed 9 July 2017; Eric Holder, ‘Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Attorney General Eric Holder at Northwestern University School of Law’, Chicago, IL (5 March 2012), available at: {http://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-eric-holder-speaks-northwestern-university-school-law} accessed 22 August 2016; Jeh Johnson, ‘National Security Law, Lawyers and Lawyering in the Obama Administration’, Dean’s Lecture at Yale Law School, New Haven, CT (22 February 2012), available at: {http://ylpr.yale.edu/national-security-law-lawyers-and-lawyering-obama-administration} accessed 22 August 2016; John O. Brennan, ‘The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy’, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC (30 April 2012), available at: {http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/the-efficacy-and-ethics-us-counterterrorism-strategy} accessed 22 August 2016.

61 Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and The Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan (2012), available at: {https://www.law.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publication/313671/doc/slspublic/Stanford_NYU_LIVING_UNDER_DRONES.pdf} accessed 10 August 2016; Amrit Singh, Death by Drone: Civilian Harm Caused by U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen, Open Society Justice Initiative (2015), available at: {https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/death-drones-report-eng-20150413.pdf} accessed 10 March 2017.

62 United States Department of Justice, White Paper: Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or an Associated Force (8 November 2011), available at: {https://fas.org/irp/eprint/doj-lethal.pdf} accessed 9 July 2017; United States Department of Justice, White Paper: Legality of a Lethal Operation by the Central Intelligence Agency Against a US Citizen (25 May 2011), available at: {https://www.scribd.com/document/239101821/Redacted-White-Paper#fullscreen&from_embed} accessed 9 July 2017.

63 David J. Barron, Memorandum for the Attorney General, Re: Applicability of Federal Criminal Laws and the Constitution to Contemplated Operations Against Shaykh Anwar Al-Aulaqi. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (16 July 2010), available at: {http://fas.org/irp/agency/doj/olc/aulaqi.pdf} accessed 10 August 2016.

64 Sanders Rebecca, ‘Legal frontiers: Targeted killing at the borders of war’, Journal of Human Rights, 13:4 (2014), pp. 512536 .

65 Philip Alston, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Addendum, Study on Targeted Killings, UN Doc. A/HRC/14/24/Add.6 (2010), available at: {http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/14session/A.HRC.14.24.Add6.pdf} accessed 10 July 2016.

66 Under international law, individuals cannot be forced to return to their home countries if they risk persecution.

67 Amnesty International, Iraq: A Decade of Abuses (2013), available at: {http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/mde140012013en.pdf} accessed 21 August 2016; Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the Open Society Foundations, Torture, Transfers, and Denial of Due Process: The Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghanistan (2012), available at: {https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/conflict-related-detainees-afghanistan-20120319.pdf} accessed 15 March 2017.

68 Wiener Antje, ‘Contested compliance: Interventions on the normative structure of world politics’, European Journal of International Relations, 10:2 (2004), pp. 189234 ; Sandholtz Wayne and Stiles Kendall, International Norms and Cycles of Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

69 Agamben Giorgio, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

70 Gross Oren, ‘The normless and exceptionless exception: Carl Schmitt’s theory of emergency powers and the “norm-excaption” dichotomy’, Cardozo Law Review, 21:5–6 (2000), pp. 18251868 .

71 Schmitt Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 13 .

72 See, for example, Gregory Derek, ‘The Black Flag: Guantánamo Bay and the space of exception’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography: 88:4 (2006), pp. 405427 ; Scheuerman William E., ‘Carl Schmitt and the Road to Abu Ghraib’, Constellations, 13:1 (2006), pp. 108124 ; Farrell Michelle, The Prohibition of Torture in Exceptional Circumstances (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

73 Koskenniemi Martti, The Politics of International Law (Portland, OR: Hart, 2011).

74 Kennedy David, Of War and Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

75 Smith Thomas, ‘The new law of war: Legitimizing hi-tech and infrastructural violence’, International Studies Quarterly, 46:3 (2002), pp. 355374 .

76 Kennedy David, The Dark Side of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 2526 .

77 Hurd Ian, ‘Law and the practice of diplomacy’, International Journal, 66:3 (2011), p. 587 .

78 Blakeley Ruth, ‘Human rights, state wrongs, and social change: the theory and practice of emancipation’, Review of International Studies, 39 (2013), pp. 599619 .

79 Brunnée and Toope, Legitimacy and Legality, p. 351.

80 McKeown Ryder, ‘Norm regress: US revisionism and the slow death of the torture norm’, International Relations, 23:1 (2009), pp. 525 ; Panke Diana and Petersohn Ulrich, ‘Why international norms disappear sometimes’, European Journal of International Relations, 18:4 (2011), pp. 124 ; Heller Regina, Kahl Martin, and Pisiou Daniela, ‘The “dark side” of normative argumentation – the case of counterterrorism policy’, Global Constitutionalism, 1:2 (2012), pp. 278312 ; Kutz Chistopher, ‘How norms die: Torture and assassination in American security policy’, Ethics and International Affairs, 28:4 (2014), pp. 425449 ; Búzás, ‘Evading international law’; Dixon, ‘Rhetorical adaptation’.

81 Brooks Rosa, How Everything Became War and War Became Everything (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), p. 284 .

82 International Commission of Jurists, Assessing Damage, Urging Action: Report of the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and Human Rights (Geneva: International Commission of Jurists, 2009), available at: {http://www.un.org/en/sc/ctc/specialmeetings/2011/docs/icj/icj-2009-ejp-report.pdf} accessed 10 July 2016.

83 International Committee of the Red Cross, ‘Detention in Non-International Armed Conflict: The ICRC’s Work on Strengthening Legal Protection’ (21 April 2015), available at: {https://www.icrc.org/eng/what-we-do/other-activities/development-ihl/strengthening-legal-protection-ihl-detention.htm} accessed 10 March 2016.

84 Franck Thomas M., ‘The power of legitimacy and the legitimacy of power: International law in an age of power disequilibrium’, The American Journal of International Law, 100:1 (2006), pp. 88106 .

85 For example, see Koh, ‘The Obama Administration’.

86 Meron Theodor, The Humanization of International Law (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2006).

87 Teitel Ruti G., Humanity’s Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

88 Waldron Jeremy, ‘Torture and positive law: Jurisprudence for the White House’, Columbia Law Review, 105:6 (2005), pp. 17261727 .

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Review of International Studies
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