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UN Human Rights Investigator in Afghanistan Ousted Under U.S. Pressure

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We speak with Cherif Bassiouni, a top human rights investigator in Afghanistan who was recently forced out of the United Nations under pressure from the U.S. just days after he released a report criticizing the US for committing human rights abuses. He says, “The U.S. has done an enormous disservice to the cause of human rights in Afghanistan simply because they wanted somebody who was going to look the other way on what their practices were.” [includes rush transcript]

Today is the first anniversary of the publication of photos that exposed the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. 60 Minutes first broadcast the pictures that shocked the world: Images of Iraqis with bags over their heads, beaten, set upon by dogs and forced into sexually humiliating acts. US soldiers looking on and smiling. And the enduring photograph of a prisoner cloaked in black, standing on a box with wires attached to his outstretched arms.

Since then, it has become clear that the U.S. torture of prisoners in Iraq was part of a larger pattern of abuse that stretched from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay and beyond. The use of so-called “extraordinary rendition” sent detainees to foreign countries where the use of torture was widespread.

Now, one year after the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib became public, the scandal continues.

This past week, news emerged that the U.S. forced out a top human rights investigator at the United Nations just days after he released a report criticizing the US for committing human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

The Egyptian-born law professor Cherif Bassiouni had spent a year in Afghanistan interviewing Afghans, international agency staff and the Afghan Human Rights Commission. His official title was “independent expert on human rights in Afghanistan.”

In his new report, Bassiouni accused US troops of breaking into homes, arbitrarily arresting residents and torturing detainees. He estimated that around 1,000 Afghans had been detained. Bassiouni also indicated that the US-led forces had committed “sexual abuse, beatings, torture and use of force resulting in death.” He wrote, “When these forces directly engage in practices that violate… international human rights and international humanitarian law, they undermine the national project of establishing a legal basis for the use of force.”

Last week, just days after Bassiouni released his report, the UN Human Rights Commission ended his mandate at a meeting in Geneva.

Cherif Bassiouni joins us on the line today from his home in Chicago.

  • Cherif Bassiouni, the former United Nations human rights investigator in Afghanistan. He is a professor of law at DePaul University. He is the author of 27 books on a wide range of legal issues and president of the International Human Rights Law Institute.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Cherif Bassiouni joins us on the phone right now from his home in Chicago. He’s a professor of law at DePaul University, author of 27 books on a wide range of legal issues, and he’s President of the International Human Rights Law Institute. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Bassiouni.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, why don’t you first tell us what you found in Afghanistan?

CHERIF BASSIOUNI: Well, Afghanistan, we have to distinguish between the general human rights situation in that country and the problem connected with the coalition forces. First, Afghanistan is a very poor country that has gone through almost a quarter of a century of wars, and is very ethnically and tribally and regionally divided. It has had warlords who have controlled the fate of the country for years. During the last 25 years, many of these warlords have emerged as having committed major atrocities, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and because they have been useful to U.S. forces when they invaded Afghanistan in 2003, they — many of the leaders were basically rewarded with plum positions, and above all, they were rewarded with impunity for their past crimes. In time, their help may not have proven to be that useful to the U.S. In fact, the elusive Bin Laden has still not been captured, and his al Qaeda leadership, presumably still in Afghanistan, has not been captured.

But in the meantime, these warlords have converted into drug lords. They control the drug economy or give it protection. It brings them over $2 billion a year in income. They have $80,000 men under arms. And they’re literally a power within the country. For the U.S. to have allied itself to these people for political military strategic purposes was a judgment that many in time will certainly dispute, particularly because of the dangers of this alliance, and the fact that it’s not likely to produce much of the desired benefits that the U.S. wants.

The result of that is a terrible human rights situation in Afghanistan, particularly for weaker elements of society: women, children, the handicapped. The justice system is totally inefficient, corrupt. The prison conditions there are medieval. I have seen not hundreds, but thousands of prisoners live in incredibly inhuman conditions. Prisons are sometimes made of a metal container, a small metal container in which 12 people are put in there. No toilets, no running water, no heat in the cold when it gets down to 10 or 0 degrees. People in medieval shackles, hand and feet with a metal bar between them. All of these situations and instances are matters that I brought up to the government, and I must say that the government of President Karzai has always been very responsive and desirous of making changes, but they don’t have the resources, and that’s not really one of their top priorities. So, that’s one aspect, and that’s why a human rights monitor representing the United Nations, with experience and with a certain personal prestige and the prestige of the United Nations, is important to be there. Whether it’s me or somebody else is immaterial.

Now, the next issue is the fact that the United States and the coalition forces consider themselves above and beyond the reach of the law. They feel they — that human rights don’t apply to them, the international conventions don’t apply to them, nobody can ask them what they’re doing, and nobody can hold them accountable. And that type of position is simply untenable. And then as one goes further into it, these forces have acted in a manner which maybe in their mind is justified, but in a country where now you have a constitution and presumably a rule of law, you simply cannot allow foreign troops to go anywhere they want, break into any houses at any time of the day, arrest anybody, take them to any prison detention facilities without going through any legal process and without being accountable. So, that’s the essential problem.

Now, the Defense Department and the U.S. government take the position that nobody can ask the U.S. government what it’s doing in Afghanistan. And I take the very simple position, which I think is principle and principled and valid, that that’s not really true. If the United States are there, and we’re not questioning why they’re there, and we’re not questioning what they’re doing, that’s a political judgment. But how you behave with ordinary citizens, that’s something that is questionable.

AMY GOODMAN: Cherif Bassiouni, we have to break, but when we come back, I want to ask about what happened to you, about the U.S. saying that the human rights situation has improved in Afghanistan, so the U.N. doesn’t need an independent and human rights investigator. We’re speaking to Professor Cherif Bassiouni, who teaches law at DePaul University, President of the International Human Rights Law Institute, just let go by the United Nations after he came up with a report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan.


AMY GOODMAN: As we continue with Professor Cherif Bassiouni. He teaches law at DePaul University, President of the International Human Rights Law Institute. Then, we’re joined in our studio for the first time by Dahr Jamail, who we are used to speaking to on the telephone from Iraq, from Baghdad, an unembedded reporter.

But Professor Bassiouni, can you talk about what happened to you at the United Nations? First, specifically what your title was, what your mandate was, and why you don’t have that title anymore.

CHERIF BASSIOUNI: Well, the United Nations was concerned with the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and wanted to monitor them, and one of the mechanisms and devices that the U.N. uses is to have an independent expert which it appoints to a particular country, and that person is then invested with what is called a mandate, which defines the parameter of that person’s work, and the person then reports back. Half the reports go to the General Assembly and the other halves go to the Commission on Human Rights. So, two years ago, the Commission on Human Rights established such a mandate, and then for about a year the United States obstructed the appointment of an independent expert. Obviously, the U.S. didn’t want a human rights monitor there on the ground. And a year later the Secretary General appointed me, probably because I had served for two years as chairman of the Security Council commission to investigate the war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, which ultimately brought about the creation of the Yugoslavia Tribunal, and now Milosevic, the former head of state, is on trial. So, he assumed somebody with my experience and somebody who’s reasonable and balanced would do well in the job, and so I set on to do the work.

Interestingly enough, the U.N. doesn’t provide any resources for the work, so I had to come up with my own resources. They also don’t pay anything, so it’s not something that many people really accept. And my first report was submitted to the General Assembly in October, and it contains the same subjects that this last report did, including the same criticism that you mentioned, Amy, about the situation in the U.S. prison facilities there. No objection by the United States at the time. Everybody approved the report and was very happy with it. A second report was in April to the Commission on Human Rights, and again everybody agreed with everything, including President Karzai and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Khalilzad, with whom I had discussed the report before. And everything seemed to be so well, in fact, that the resolution of the Commission unprecedentedly for ten pages adopted almost every recommendation I had.

But, when it came to inquiry into what the U.S. forces are doing, there a stone wall was put. And I suspect it has to do with the fact that in the last two months the U.S. has been moving prisoners from Guantanamo to Afghanistan, and that soon we will see the D.O.D. open up Guantanamo for international inspection. And by then the worst cases will have been transferred to Afghanistan; Guantanamo will have been repainted, recarpeted, and would look very nice, and people who would go to inspect it there will find nothing wrong. But, of course, that means that those people who have been transferred from Guantanamo to Afghanistan could not be interviewed or seen by anybody else. So, I speculate (but I think there’s valid reason to make such speculation) that the reason that the mandate was not renewed was really to avoid having somebody like myself, and certainly myself, if I were to be renewed, insisting on going into the prison facilities and talking to the people, which would in this case have included those transferred from Guantanamo. So it was a chance that I think the U.S. didn’t want to take.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bassiouni, how do you know that these hundreds of prisoners are being moved? I mean, for a lot of people this is going to be the first time they’ve heard any word of this, from Guantanamo to Afghanistan; and if that’s true, where are they being held in Afghanistan?

CHERIF BASSIOUNI: Well, the U.S. officially announced that it released 18 prisoners from Guantanamo who are Afghani citizens, and they were returned to Afghanistan. Obviously, people who have been prisoners in Guantanamo for two years or more, when they return home, especially in tribal societies, the entire tribe rejoices, and it’s not a question of only a small circle of family and friends who know it. The news spread out, and as you can well imagine, again in a large family setting or tribal setting, people are going to ask, you know, 'How were you there?' and 'How were you treated?' and, you know, 'Do you know of anybody else?' and 'Is so-and-so still there?' or something like that. And I think that news started spreading out that — of what was happening in Guantanamo, and that a number of them had indeed been transferred to two main facilities in Afghanistan and that they were there. But you also have to remember that it’s difficult to move — the estimates that I heard (and it’s purely rumors and speculative, so there’s no way that I can back these figures) that about 200 prisoners were moved from Guantanamo to Afghanistan. If that is correct it’s a very large number of people. And, you know, they land at military air force bases. There are civilian workers. There are local people. You need buses to transport them, convoys. Prisons have more food and the cooks and personnel in the prisons start realizing that there are newcomers there in large numbers. And so, words, in a tribal society like Afghanistan, sort of travels fast.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bassiouni, was there anyone in particular at the United Nations who was gunning for you, who was trying to force you out?

CHERIF BASSIOUNI: Well, no. I think that with the exception of the United States, which sort of really dug in for the non-renewal of the mandate, then I don’t really think that it was anything personal.

AMY GOODMAN: And who at the U.N. — in the U.S. was doing that?

CHERIF BASSIOUNI: Well, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva is a man by the name of Kevin Moley. He’s one of the owners of the Texas Rangers, and I think he’s the one who brought in George W. Bush as a part owner of the Texas Rangers before President Bush ran for Governor of Texas. So, he is a close, personal family relationship. He’s very much of a Texan entrepreneur, and I think his threshold of sympathy for human rights issues is probably very low, and to him this was just a question of total support for the administration, and anybody who in any way asked questions or criticized was — fell in the category of you’re either with me or against me. And I think that’s the way he saw it and that’s the way he directed his staff to make it a point with all of the other delegations at the commission that the U.S. is adamantly opposed to the renewal of the mandate.

AMY GOODMAN: What will happen with the report that you have just put out, again, that is very forceful in criticizing the U.S. for committing human rights abuses in Afghanistan?

CHERIF BASSIOUNI: Well, this latest report was twenty-one pages. The part that deals with the U.S. is one page. As I said earlier, there are many, many problems in Afghanistan with human rights. The prison situation is very bad. The situation with women is very bad. This is a country in which violence against women is practiced daily in almost every family. You know, the idea of slapping down your wife or hitting her or whatnot is part of social discourse. Women are routinely judged by tribal judges as opposed to going through the justice process. They are frequently assigned for their prisons to serve in the house of tribal chiefs where they become literal slaves there including sex slaves. Frequently, their families kick out their children and these women have to take their small children with them, so it becomes a second generation of enslavement. Young girls, ages nine to fifteen, are given in marriage, but really in payment for blood money. So that if you have a dispute or a settlement of a claim between two families or two tribes the settlement is not, you know, necessarily two cows or two horses, it’s two little girls. You know, these are very serious matters, and it’s so important to have somebody with the U.N. backing there reminding the government that these things should be changed. Without that, I think the U.S. has done an enormous disservice to the cause of human rights in Afghanistan simply because they wanted somebody who was going to look the other way on what U.S. practices were. And as I said to Ambassador Moley, I said: ’It’s not only bad for human rights in Afghanistan, but it’s so counterproductive for the U.S., because these are not the practices that a great nation should engage in, and these are not the practices that will endear the U.S. to the Afghani people or to the Muslim people.’

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cherif Bassiouni, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Teaches law at DePaul University, President of the International Human Rights Law Institute, has written twenty-seven books on a wide range of legal issues, has just lost his mandate as the independent expert on Afghanistan investigating the human rights situation. His report on the situation there has just come out.

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