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Human rights whitewash from the White House
Barack Obama at Westminster Hall|
US turns a blind eye to the savagery in Bahrain and in America’s own jails
LAST UPDATED 9:09 AM,
MAY 26, 2011
Was there ever a nation so marinated in hypocrisy as America? Week after week President Barack Obama trumpets Uncle Sam's virtues and dispenses homilies to other nations on how to behave themselves and honour freedom and democracy. This last week it's been Europe's turn to hear these self-righteous preachments.
A couple of weeks ago, Secretary of State Clinton attacked China, contrasting untiring efforts by the US to encourage human rights around the world, at a time when the Chinese "are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand. They cannot do it. But they're going to hold it off as long as possible".
A week earlier Obama signed an expanded trade pact with Colombia where, in 2010, 51 Colombian labour organisers were murdered, many of them by government-sponsored death squads. As Richard Trumka, America's top labour leader, remarked, it was doubtful the trade agreement would be moving forward if 51 CEOs had been killed.
If there's one state in the Middle East where the US surely has clout it's Bahrain, which just happens to be the base for the US Fifth Fleet. While Clinton was wagging her finger at China, details were surfacing of the ferocious repression of Bahrain's Shia majority by the island state's Sunni rulers, backed by Saudi troops.
Masked squads raid Shia villages at night. At least 27 Shia mosques and religious meeting places have so far been wrecked or bulldozed flat. If this was Libya, Clinton would be trumpeting the repression as requiring Nato intervention. Not so in Bahrain.
As my brother, Patrick Cockburn, has reported in the Independent, "Facing little criticism from the US, otherwise so concerned about human rights abuses in Libya, the al-Khalifa family is ruthlessly crushing opposition at every level... al-Jazeera revealed... that the Bahraini police has been raiding girls' schools, detaining and beating schoolgirls, and is accused of threatening to rape them."
Amid Obama's grandiose eloquence about freedom, he has effectively excluded Palestinians from his supportive embrace and, amid meaningless verbal froth, collapsed yet again in the face of Israeli intransigence.
The New York Times reported last week that, thus far with US government complaisance, Abu Dhabi has hired Erik Prince, the former SEAL and founder of the private security firm Blackwater, to recruit an 800-member battalion of foreign troops for the United Arab Emirates. The troops include Colombian veterans, probably fresh from shooting and torturing union organisers back home.
The Times said it has documentary evidence that the unit is being formed by Prince's new company, Reflex Responses, with $529 million from the UAE, and will be used to thwart internal revolt, conduct special operations and defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from attack.
So at the practical level, where it really counts, the US is doing its level best to "stop history".
Nauseating though the self-righteousness is about the US's double standards abroad, it pales before the macabre spectacle of Obama and Clinton extolling the moral credentials of a country with a vast gulag of some 2.3 million behind bars - 743 prisoners per 100,000 population, compared to Russia's 580, China's 186, England and Wales' 154 and India's 32. In America today, more than seven million people are under correctional supervision.
At the start of last week, the US Supreme Court ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population, currently running at 143,335, by more than 30,000. The state's prisons, at anything even remotely approaching standards not in violation of the Eighth Amendment forbidding cruel and unusual punishment, could accommodate 80,000.
Not for the first time, the ghastly conditions of California's prisons have been unsparingly described: people with terminal cancer in spaces the size of telephone booths left to die without treatment or even painkillers; convicts crammed three tiers high in prison gyms.
California rarely executes prisoners in San Quentin on death row. Informal executions are a different matter. A California court found that "an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies". Prison rape across the country is a given - at least 216,000 cases in 2008. Most of the rapists (according to the libertarian magazine Reason, which recently published a fine report on US prisons) aren't other prisoners but corrections officials.
Yet one million of the 2.3 million prison population are inside for non-violent offences, predominantly related to drugs. More than 800,000 are arrested each year for marijuana alone.
Governor Jerry Brown has suggested non-violent prisoners be sent from the state prisons to local jails, but California has no money to beef up the local hoosegows. Meanwhile policies deriving from the 1990s and before feed more and more prisoners into the system, many of them under the three-strikes law which hands out 25-year sentences for a third offence as trivial as stealing a $2 pair of socks.
America's penal conditions make a mockery of the constitution and foster crime, all against a backdrop of statistics - the FBI dispensed another batch last week - showing that crime rates have been steadily falling to levels unseen for a generation or more. America's current Depression has not seen a surge in robberies and violent crime, as many expected. Attempts to prove the efficacy of harsh codes of imprisonment and sentencing speedily collapse under statistical data.
America's prison population and treatment of citizens and immigrants trapped in the judicial system is a foul blot on the entire society and its political culture - but not one that Obama has shown the slightest interest in confronting. Indeed, his Justice Department is intent on adding more "mandatory minimum sentences" to the sentencing guidelines.
How much more pleasant it is to lecture other nations, while running on a re-election platform currently based on dispatching a death squad halfway round the world to Abbottabad on a lawless mission of revenge.