A Cruel and Unusual Record
By JIMMY CARTER
THE United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.
Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.
While the country has made mistakes in the past, the widespread abuse of human rights over the last decade has been a dramatic change from the past. With leadership from the United States, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” This was a bold and clear commitment that power would no longer serve as a cover to oppress or injure people, and it established equal rights of all people to life, liberty, security of person, equal protection of the law and freedom from torture, arbitrary detention or forced exile.
The declaration has been invoked by human rights activists and the international community to replace most of the world’s dictatorships with democracies and to promote the rule of law in domestic and global affairs. It is disturbing that, instead of strengthening these principles, our government’s counterterrorism policies are now clearly violating at least 10 of the declaration’s 30 articles, including the prohibition against “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.
In addition to American citizens’ being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications. Popular state laws permit detaining individuals because of their appearance, where they worship or with whom they associate.
Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times.
These policies clearly affect American foreign policy. Top intelligence and military officials, as well as rights defenders in targeted areas, affirm that the great escalation in drone attacks has turned aggrieved families toward terrorist organizations, aroused civilian populations against us and permitted repressive governments to cite such actions to justify their own despotic behavior.
Meanwhile, the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, now houses 169 prisoners. About half have been cleared for release, yet have little prospect of ever obtaining their freedom. American authorities have revealed that, in order to obtain confessions, some of the few being tried (only in military courts) have been tortured by waterboarding more than 100 times or intimidated with semiautomatic weapons, power drills or threats to sexually assault their mothers. Astoundingly, these facts cannot be used as a defense by the accused, because the government claims they occurred under the cover of “national security.” Most of the other prisoners have no prospect of ever being charged or tried either.
At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.
As concerned citizens, we must persuade Washington to reverse course and regain moral leadership according to international human rights norms that we had officially adopted as our own and cherished throughout the years.
Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, is the founder of the Carter Center and the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
Call Off the Global Drug War
By JIMMY CARTER
IN an extraordinary new initiative announced earlier this month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has made some courageous and profoundly important recommendations in a report on how to bring more effective control over the illicit drug trade. The commission includes the former presidents or prime ministers of five countries, a former secretary general of the United Nations, human rights leaders, and business and government leaders, including Richard Branson, George P. Shultz and Paul A. Volcker.
The report describes the total failure of the present global antidrug effort, and in particular America’s “war on drugs,” which was declared 40 years ago today. It notes that the global consumption of opiates has increased 34.5 percent, cocaine 27 percent and cannabis 8.5 percent from 1998 to 2008. Its primary recommendations are to substitute treatment for imprisonment for people who use drugs but do no harm to others, and to concentrate more coordinated international effort on combating violent criminal organizations rather than nonviolent, low-level offenders.
These recommendations are compatible with United States drug policy from three decades ago. In a message to Congress in 1977, I said the country should decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, with a full program of treatment for addicts. I also cautioned against filling our prisons with young people who were no threat to society, and summarized by saying: “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”
These ideas were widely accepted at the time. But in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan and Congress began to shift from balanced drug policies, including the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts, toward futile efforts to control drug imports from foreign countries.
This approach entailed an enormous expenditure of resources and the dependence on police and military forces to reduce the foreign cultivation of marijuana, coca and opium poppy and the production of cocaine and heroin. One result has been a terrible escalation in drug-related violence, corruption and gross violations of human rights in a growing number of Latin American countries.
The commission’s facts and arguments are persuasive. It recommends that governments be encouraged to experiment “with models of legal regulation of drugs … that are designed to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.” For effective examples, they can look to policies that have shown promising results in Europe, Australia and other places.
But they probably won’t turn to the United States for advice. Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations. At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole — more than 3 percent of all American adults!
Some of this increase has been caused by mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes you’re out” laws. But about three-quarters of new admissions to state prisons are for nonviolent crimes. And the single greatest cause of prison population growth has been the war on drugs, with the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increasing more than twelvefold since 1980.
Not only has this excessive punishment destroyed the lives of millions of young people and their families (disproportionately minorities), but it is wreaking havoc on state and local budgets. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pointed out that, in 1980, 10 percent of his state’s budget went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons; in 2010, almost 11 percent went to prisons and only 7.5 percent to higher education.
Maybe the increased tax burden on wealthy citizens necessary to pay for the war on drugs will help to bring about a reform of America’s drug policies. At least the recommendations of the Global Commission will give some cover to political leaders who wish to do what is right.
A few years ago I worked side by side for four months with a group of prison inmates, who were learning the building trade, to renovate some public buildings in my hometown of Plains, Ga. They were intelligent and dedicated young men, each preparing for a productive life after the completion of his sentence. More than half of them were in prison for drug-related crimes, and would have been better off in college or trade school.
To help such men remain valuable members of society, and to make drug policies more humane and more effective, the American government should support and enact the reforms laid out by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.