U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Concluding Observations on U.S. Human Rights

As discussed in a prior post, in March 2014, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (the Committee) issued a negative evaluation of how the United States of America (U.S.) was implementing and complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant), which is regarded as an important part of the International Bill of Rights. That prior post reviewed the background of the ICCPR and the events leading up to the Committee’s evaluation. Another post looked at the Committee’s recent hearings regarding U.S. human rights.

Now we examine the Committee’s report of concluding observations that resulted from the hearings and all the evidence on that subject.

The Committee’s Concluding Observations[1]

After considering the written materials and the testimony and remarks at the hearing, on March 26, 2014, the Committee adopted its 11-page report (Concluding observations on the fourth report of the United States of America). Given the hostile nature of the Committee members’ comments during the hearing, it is not surprising that the report was very critical of the U.S.[2]

With respect to various topics, the Committee expressed its regrets or concerns about the U.S. record and then made the recommendations outlined below.

Applicability of the Covenant at national level.[3] The U.S. should: “(a) Interpret the Covenant in good faith, in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to its terms in their context, including subsequent practice, and in the light of its object and purpose and review its legal position so as to acknowledge the extraterritorial application of the Covenant under certain circumstances . . . .(b) [I]dentify ways to give greater effect to the Covenant at federal, state and local levels, taking into account that the obligations under the Covenant are binding on the State party as a whole. . . . (c) [E]nsure that effective remedies are available for violations of the Covenant, including . . . proposing to the Congress implementing legislation to fill any legislative gaps. . . . [and considering] acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Covenant providing for an individual communication procedure. [4] (d) Strengthen and expand existing mechanisms mandated to monitor the implementation of human rights at federal, state, local and tribal levels . . . . (e) Reconsider its position regarding its reservations and declarations to the Covenant with a view to withdrawing them.”[5]

Accountability for past human rights violations. The U.S. should: “[E]nsure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in command positions, [6] are prosecuted and sanctioned, and that victims are provided with effective remedies. The responsibility of those who provided legal pretexts for manifestly illegal behavior should also be established. [7] The State party should also consider the full incorporation of the doctrine of ‘command responsibility’ in its criminal law and declassify and make public the report of the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence into the CIA secret detention programme.”

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system and Racial profiling. The U.S. should: “[R]obustly address racial disparities in the criminal justice system . . . [and] effectively combat and eliminate racial profiling by federal, state and local law enforcement officials . . . .”[8]

Death penalty. The U.S. should: “(a) take measures to effectively ensure that the death penalty is not imposed as a result of racial bias; (b) strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring inter alia effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage; (c) ensure that retentionist states [those that maintain the death penalty] provide adequate compensation for the wrongfully convicted; (d) ensure that lethal drugs for executions originate from legal, regulated sources, and are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that information on the origin and composition of such drugs is made available to individuals scheduled for execution; [9] (e) consider establishing a moratorium on the death penalty at the federal level and engage with retentionist states with a view to achieving a nationwide moratorium;” [f] Consider acceding to on the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant aiming at the abolition of the death penalty on or before July 11, 2116, the 25th anniversary of its entry into force.

Targeted killing using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). The U.S. should: “revisit its position regarding legal justifications for the use of deadly force through drone attacks [and] . . . (a) ensure that any use of armed drones complies fully with its obligations under article 6 of the Covenant, including in particular with respect to the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality in the context of an armed conflict; (b) subject to operational security, disclose the criteria for drone strikes, including the legal basis for specific attacks, the process of target identification and the circumstances in which drones are used; (c) provide for independent supervision and oversight over the specific implementation of regulations governing the use of drone strikes; (d) in armed conflict situations, take all feasible measures to ensure the protection of civilians in specific drone attacks and to track and assess civilian casualties, as well as all necessary precautionary measures in order to avoid such casualties; (e) conduct independent, impartial, prompt and effective investigations of allegations of violations of the right to life and bring to justice those responsible; (f) provide victims or their families with an effective remedy where there has been a violation, including adequate compensation, and establish accountability mechanisms for victims of allegedly unlawful drone attacks who are not compensated by their home governments.”

Gun violence. The U.S. should: “[T]ake all necessary measures to abide by its obligation to effectively protect the right to life. . . . [including] (a) continue its efforts to effectively curb gun violence, including through the continued pursuit of legislation requiring background checks for all private firearm transfers in order to prevent possession of arms by persons recognized as prohibited individuals under federal law . . . ; and (b) review Stand Your Ground Laws to remove far-reaching immunity and ensure strict adherence to the principles of necessity and proportionality when using deadly force in self-defence.”

Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. The U.S. should: “(a) step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers; (b) ensure that the new CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] directive on use of deadly force is applied and enforced in practice; and (c) improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.”

Legislation prohibiting torture. The U.S. should: “[E]nact legislation to explicitly prohibit torture, including mental torture, wherever committed and ensure that the law provides for penalties commensurate with the gravity of such acts, whether committed by public officials or other persons acting on behalf of the State, or by private persons. . . . [and] ensure the availability of compensation to victims of torture.”[10]

Non-refoulment [ban on returning persecuted to persecutor]. The U.S. should: “[S]trictly apply the absolute prohibition against refoulement under articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant, [11] continue exercising the utmost care in evaluating diplomatic assurances, and refrain from relying on such assurances where it is not in a position to effectively monitor the treatment of such persons after their . . . return to other countries and take appropriate remedial action when assurances are not fulfilled.”

Trafficking and forced labour. The U.S. should: “[C]ontinue its efforts to combat trafficking in persons, inter alia by strengthening its preventive measures, increasing victim identification and systematically and vigorously investigating allegations of trafficking in persons, prosecuting and punishing those responsible and providing effective remedies to victims, including protection, rehabilitation and compensation. [T]ake all appropriate measures to prevent the criminalization of victims of sex trafficking, including child victims, to the extent that they have been compelled to engage in unlawful activities. [R]eview its laws and regulations to ensure full protection against forced labour for all categories of workers and ensure effective oversight of labour conditions in any temporary visa program. [R]einforce its training activities and provide training to law enforcement and border and immigration officials, . . . [and] other relevant agencies. . . .”

Immigrants. The U.S. should: “review its policies of mandatory detention and deportation of certain categories of immigrants in order to allow for individualized decisions, to take measures ensuring that affected persons have access to legal representation, and to identify ways to facilitate access of undocumented immigrants and immigrants residing lawfully in the U.S. for less than five years and their families to adequate health care, including reproductive health care services.”

Domestic violence. The U.S. should: “[S]trengthen measures to prevent and combat domestic violence, as well as to ensure that law enforcement personnel appropriately respond to acts of domestic violence. [E]nsure that cases of domestic violence are effectively investigated and that perpetrators are prosecuted and sanctioned. [E]nsure remedies for all victims of domestic violence, and take steps to improve the provision of emergency shelter, housing, child care, rehabilitative services and legal representation for women victims of domestic violence. [T]ake measures to assist tribal authorities in their efforts to address domestic violence against Native American women.”

Corporal punishment. The U.S. should: “Take practical steps, including through legislative measures where appropriate, to put an end to corporal punishment in all settings. [E]ncourage non-violent forms of discipline as alternatives to corporal punishment and . . . conduct public information campaigns to raise awareness about its harmful effects. [P]romote the use of alternatives to the application of criminal law to address disciplinary issues in schools.”

Non-consensual psychiatric treatment. The U.S. should: “[E]nsure that non-consensual use of psychiatric medication, electroshock and other restrictive and coercive practices in mental health services is generally prohibited. Non-consensual psychiatric treatment may only be applied, if at all, in exceptional cases as a measure of last resort where absolutely necessary for the benefit of the person concerned provided that he or she is unable to give consent, for the shortest possible time, without any long-term impact, and under independent review. . . . [P]romote psychiatric care aimed at preserving the dignity of patients, both adults and minors.”

Criminalization of homelessness. The U.S. should: “[E]ngage with state and local authorities to: (a) abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels; (b) ensure close cooperation between all relevant stakeholders . . . to intensify efforts to find solutions for the homeless in accordance with human rights standards; and (c) offer incentives for decriminalization and implementation of such solutions, including by providing continued financial support to local authorities implementing alternatives to criminalization and withdrawing funding for local authorities criminalizing the homeless.”

Conditions of detention and use of solitary confinement. The U.S. should: “[M]onitor conditions of detention in prisons, including private detention facilities, with a view to ensuring that persons deprived of their liberty be treated in accordance with the requirements of articles 7 and 10 of the Covenant [12] and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. . . . [I]mpose strict limits on the use of solitary confinement, both pretrial and following conviction, in the federal system, as well as nationwide, and abolish the practice in respect of anyone under the age of 18 and prisoners with serious mental illness. . . . [B]ring detention conditions of prisoners on death row in line with international standards.”

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. should: “[E]xpedite the transfer of detainees designated for transfer, including to Yemen, as well as the process of periodic review for Guantánamo detainees, and ensure either their trial or immediate release, and the closure of the Guantánamo facility. [E]nd the system of administrative detention without charge or trial and ensure that any criminal cases against detainees held in Guantánamo and military facilities in Afghanistan are dealt with within the criminal justice system rather than military commissions and that those detainees are afforded the fair trial guarantees enshrined in article 14 of the Covenant.” [13]

NSA surveillance. The U.S. should: “(a) take all necessary measures to ensure that its surveillance activities, both within and outside the [U.S.], conform to its obligations under the Covenant, including article 17; [14] in particular, measures should be taken to ensure that any interference with the right to privacy complies with the principles of legality, proportionality and necessity regardless of the nationality or location of individuals whose communications are under direct surveillance; (b) ensure that any interference with the right to privacy, family, home or correspondence be authorized by laws that (i) are publicly accessible; (ii) contain provisions that ensure that collection of, access to and use of communications data are tailored to specific legitimate aims; (iii) are sufficiently precise specifying in detail the precise circumstances in which any such interference may be permitted; the procedures for authorizing; the categories of persons who may be placed under surveillance; limits on the duration of surveillance; procedures for the use and storage of the data collected; and (iv) provide for effective safeguards against abuse; (c) reform the current system of oversight over surveillance activities to ensure its effectiveness, including by providing for judicial involvement in authorization or monitoring of surveillance measures, and considering to establish strong and independent oversight mandates with a view to prevent abuses; (d) refrain from imposing mandatory retention of data by third parties;(e) ensure that affected persons have access to effective remedies in cases of abuse.”

Juvenile justice and life without parole sentences. The U.S. should: “prohibit and abolish all juvenile life without parole sentences irrespective of the crime committed, as well as all mandatory and non-homicide related sentences of life without parole. . . . [15] ensure that all juveniles are separated from adults during pretrial detention and after sentencing and that juveniles are not transferred to adult courts. . . . [encourage] states that automatically exclude 16 and 17 year olds from juvenile court jurisdictions . . . to change their laws.”

Voting rights. The U.S. should: “ensure that all states reinstate voting rights to felons who have fully served their sentences, provide inmates with information about their voting restoration options and remove or streamline lengthy and cumbersome state voting restoration procedures, as well as review automatic denial of the vote to any imprisoned felon, regardless of the nature of the offence. [T]ake all necessary measures to ensure that voter identification requirements and the new eligibility requirements do not impose excessive burdens on voters resulting in de facto disenfranchisement. [P]rovide . . . full voting rights of residents of Washington, D.C.”

Rights of indigenous people. The U.S. should: “adopt measures to effectively protect sacred areas of indigenous peoples against desecration, contamination and destruction and ensure that consultations are held with the communities that might be adversely affected by State party’s development projects and exploitation of natural resources with a view to obtaining their free, prior and informed consent for the potential project activities.”

Other. The U.S. should: “widely disseminate the Covenant, the text of the . . . [recent U.S. report to the Committee], the written responses that . . . [the U.S.] has provided in response to the list of issues drawn up by the Committee and the present concluding observations so as to increase awareness among the judicial, legislative and administrative authorities, civil society and non-governmental organizations . . . [in the U.S.] as well as the general public.” “[For] its fifth periodic report, . . . continue its practice of broadly consulting with civil society and non-governmental organizations. [P]rovide, within one year, relevant information on its implementation of the Committee’s recommendations regarding accountability for [past human rights violations, gun violence, detainees at Guantanamo Bay and NSA surveillance]. [Submit] its next periodic report . . . [on March 28, 2019 with] specific, up-to-date information on all . . . [the Committee’s] recommendations and on the Covenant as a whole.”

Conclusion

One of the overriding issues in the Committee’s review was the geographical coverage of the entire treaty, whether it applies to U.S. conduct outside the U.S. territory, but where it has jurisdiction. The proper conclusion to this issue, in this blogger’s opinion, is that it does so apply or does have extraterritorial application. This conclusion was succinctly stated by the Committee’s Chairperson, Sir Nigel Rodley, during the hearing as noted in a prior post.

Essentially the same conclusion was reached in an October 2010 memo by Harold Koh, then the U.S. State Department’s Principal Legal Adviser.[16] After what he described as an “exhaustive review,” he stated, “an interpretation of Article 2(1) [of the ICCPR] that is truer to the Covenant’s language, context, object and purpose, negotiating history, and subsequent understandings of other States Parties, as well as the interpretations of other international bodies, would provide that in fact, . . . [a] state incurs obligations to respect Covenant rights — is itself obligated not to violate those rights through its own actions or the actions of its agents– in those circumstances where a state exercises authority or effective control over the person or context at issue.”[17]

Civil society organizations in the U.S. lauded the Committee’s “scathing report” and characterized the review as an opportunity for the Obama Administration to meaningfully improve its human rights legacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, among other groups, welcomed the Committee’s explicit recognition of the extraterritorial nature of the State’s obligations and its specific recommendations regarding surveillance, and urged immediate implementation by the United States.

The U.S. press coverage of this important international critique of U.S. human rights was pathetic. I did not find any such coverage in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, two respected national newspapers.

The New York Times, on the other hand, had limited coverage. Before the hearings, the Times published one article on the then likely U.S. rejection of the treaty’s having extraterritorial effect along with the actual text of the contrary opinion on that issue by Harold Koh. Later the Times had an article about the first day of the Committee’s hearings that was primarily about the U.S.’ actual rejection of the treaty’s extraterritoriality with two short paragraphs about other issues. Finally the Times had an exceedingly short article about the Committee’s report that touched only on a few of its issues (drone strikes; the virtual lack of any U.S. investigation and prosecutions for alleged unlawful killings; use of torture and authors of legal memoranda purportedly justifying torture in the so called “war on terror;” and the call for publication of the U.S. Senate’s investigation of the CIA’s secret rendition program (turning over suspects to other countries)).

Finally, the Committee’s critique can be taken as an agenda for change by U.S. human rights advocates. Such change will not happen quickly given the dysfunctionality of the U.S. political system and culture. As President Obama frequently says, change does not come easily.                                                                 —————————————————————–

[1] This summary of the Committee’s concluding observations is based upon the observations themselves plus extensive articles about them in the Guardian, Reuters, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and a very short New York Times article.

[2] Before making its criticisms, the Committee noted its “appreciation [for] the many [U.S.] efforts undertaken, and the progress made in protecting civil and political rights.” The Committee then welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s abolition of the death penalty for offenders who were under the age of 18 when the crimes were committed (Roper v. Simmons (2005)); the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of extraterritorial habeas corpus for aliens detained at Guantanamo Bay (Boumediene v. Bush (2008)); the expansion of rights for such detainees (Presidential Executive Orders 13491 and 13493); and the U.S. President’s support of the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

[3] This issue concerned Article 2(1) of the ICCPR, which states, “Each State Party . . . undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” (Emphasis added.)

[4] The Optional Protocol to the ICCPR allows alleged victims of an alleged violation by a State Party of any of the rights set forth in the Covenant to submit a communication of complaint to the Committee, and after it has received a response from that State Party, the Committee shall submit ”its views” [akin to an advisory opinion] on the matter to the alleged victim and State Party.

[5] The U.S. reservations and understandings to its ratification of the treaty were covered in a prior post.

[6] “Persons in command positions” presumably include former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

[7] “Those who provided legal pretexts” presumably include John Yoo, Alberto Gonzalez and four other lawyers who in the George W. Bush Administration were authors of legal memoranda justifying the so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques. At least some of these memoranda are available online. The issue of their legal responsibility for such memoranda has been raised in at least three proceedings. First, under Spain’s previous version of its universal jurisdiction statute, a Spanish court opened a criminal investigation regarding these six lawyers, but later the case was stayed when the Spanish court asked the U.S. for information about any U.S. investigation of such allegations. Second, Mr. Yoo was sued in U.S. federal court for money damages and declaratory relief by an individual who had been arrested and detained for interrogation in a military brig in the U.S. for three and a half years, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in May 2012 held that Mr. Yoo was entitled to immunity and thus reversed the district court’s denial of Yoo’s dismissal motion. Third, in January 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that Yoo and another lawyer had used flawed legal reasoning in these memoranda, but that this had not constituted professional misconduct This issue also has been raised in other contexts. In the midst of all this, Yoo continues vigorously to assert the validity of the memoranda and thus his innocence.

[8] One of the Committee’s concerns that prompted this recommendation was, in the Committee’s words, “surveillance of Muslims undertaken by . . . the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the absence of any suspicion of wrongdoing.” On April 15th (or nearly three weeks after the issuance of the Committee’s report), the NYPD announced that it was terminating this program. This decision was welcomed by Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights of New York City while lamenting that the NYPD did not say it was ending its broad surveillance practices.

[9] There is litigation in U.S. courts over lethal drugs used in executions under death penalty laws. In Oklahoma, for example, a state trial court on March 26, 2014, decided that a state law mandating secrecy for the identity of suppliers of such drugs was unconstitutional. On April 21st the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed two executions so that the court could resolve “grave constitutional claims.” Since then there has been an unseemly intra-state squabble over whether that court had the power to stay the executions with the Oklahoma Governor vowing to conduct the executions as previously scheduled, a state legislator introducing a resolution to impeach the court’s judges who voted for the stay and the Supreme Court itself on April 23rd vacating the stay.

[10] The U.S. has a criminal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. sec. 2340A. It states, “Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.” (Emphasis added.) Thus, this criminal statute does not apply if the torture occurs in the U.S. In addition, the U.S. has the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) that provides for a civil action for money damages by an “individual” who has been subjected to “torture” against an “individual, who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation” committed the torture. (Emphasis added.) Thus, this statute does not apply if the torture is committed by someone acting under U.S. law.

[11] The ICCPR’s Article 6 bans arbitrary deprivation of life and any derogation from the genocide treaty while its Article 7 bans torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

[12] The ICCPR’s Article 7 bans “torture . . . [and] cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment while its Article 10 requires all inmates to be “treated with humanity and respect for the dignity of the human person,” separation of accused persons from convicts and juveniles from adults and in facilities whose aims shall be “reformation and social rehabilitation” of inmates.

[13] Article 14 of the ICCPR contains detailed provisions that in the U.S. would be regarded as constitutional criminal due process rights.

[14] Article 17 of the ICCPR says “[e]veryone has the right to the protection of law against . . . arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, . . . [and] unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.”

[15] The Committee’s report recognized with satisfaction that the U.S. Supreme Court had decided under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” that (a) sentences of life without parole for juveniles for non-homicide crimes were not permitted (Graham v. Florida (2010)); and (b) mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles for homicide were not permitted (Miller v. Alabama (2012)).

[16] Koh is one of the U.S.’ preeminent international lawyers. He has taught at the Yale Law School since 1985 except for his years as the State Department’s Legal Adviser (2009-2013) and as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (1998-2001). He served as the Dean of the Yale Law School (2004-2009) and returned to Yale in 2013 as the Sterling Professor of International Law. He has received many awards and holds degrees from Harvard University (B.A. and J.D.) and the University of Oxford (B.A. and M.A.)

[17] The Koh memorandum also stated that the contrary 1995 opinion by the Department’s Legal Adviser was “not compelled by either the language or the negotiating history of the Covenant . . . [and] that the 1995 Interpretation is in fact in significant tension with the treaty’s language, context, and object and purpose, as well as with interpretations of importantU.S. allies, the Human Rights Committee and the ICJ [International Court of Justice], and developments in related bodies of law [and, therefore,] was no longer tenable.” Nevertheless, the U.S. continues to rely on the 1995 opinion for its resistance to extraterritorial application of the ICCPR. The Koh memorandum was published by the New York Times along with a discussion of the document a week prior to the Committee’s hearings, and it is safe to assume that copies of same were provided to all the Committee members before the hearings.

Federal Appellate Court Allows Lawsuit by Guantanamo Detainees

On February 11th the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C. ruled, 2 to 1, that the federal courts had jurisdiction over habeas corpus petitions by three detainees challenging their being subjected to force-feeding at  the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Therefore, the court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the petitions and remanded the cases to that court for further proceedings. (Aamer v. Obama, No. 13-5223 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 11, 2014).)[1]

These claims arose after a major hunger strike at Guantánamo a year ago. Detainees who lost sufficient weight were forced to eat a nutritional supplement.

The Majority Opinion

1. Federal courts’ jurisdiction.

The key issue for the court was whether habeas jurisdiction was forbidden by section 7(1) of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (“MCA”), which provided as follows:

  • “No court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination.”
Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel

In reaching its conclusion that this provision did not foreclose jurisdiction, the court in an opinion by Circuit Judge David S. Tatel that was joined by Circuit Judge Thomas B. Griffith started with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008).

In Boumediene the Supreme Court held that this statutory section was unconstitutional under Article One, Section 9, Clause 2 of the U.S, Constitution (the Suspension Clause), which states, “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” This was so, held the Supreme Court, because there was no other means for a Guantanamo detainee to attempt to show that he was being held pursuant to an erroneous application or interpretation of relevant law before a court with the power to order his conditional release.

The next step in the analysis was determining that the D.C. Circuit’s own subsequent decisions had decided that Boumediene had invalidated section 7(1) of the MCA for all habeas petitions by Guantanamo detainees. As a result, the determinative issue for the majority in Aamer was whether these petitioners’ claims were the sort that properly could be raised in habeas petitions.

The circuit court then concluded that these claims were properly within the scope of habeas corpus. This was so, the majority stated, because (a) the Supreme Court had suggested that habeas covers claims challenging conditions of confinement while leaving the issue open for that Court’s decision in a future case; (b) the D.C. Circuit’s own binding precedents had established that “one in custody may challenge the conditions of his confinement “ by a habeas petition; and (c) “the weight of the reasoned precedent” in other circuits had reached the same conclusion.

2. Preliminary injunction.

The detainees on appeal also challenged the district court’s denial of their requests for preliminary injunctive relief against their force-feeding, but the D.C. Circuit affirmed that denial because they had not shown likelihood of success on the merits.

This was so even though the appellate court said,”[W]e have no doubt that force-feeding is a painful and invasive process that raises serious ethical concerns.” But “it is not enough for us to say that force-feeding may cause physical pain, invade bodily integrity, or even implicate petitioners’ fundamental individual rights.”

The majority in Aamer recognized that this claim for injunctive relief had to be evaluated under Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), which held that “the legality of a prison regulation that ‘impinges on’ an inmate’s constitutional rights” must be upheld if it “’is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.’”

Here, said the majority, the government had asserted two penological interests: “preserving the lives of those in its custody and maintaining security and discipline in the detention facility.”  These were legitimate interests as “the overwhelming majority of courts have concluded . . . that absent exceptional circumstances prison officials may force-feed a starving inmate actually facing the risk of death.”

The Dissent

Senior Judge Stephen F. Williams’ dissenting opinion concluded that the majority should have followed what he deemed to be Congress’s intentions in enacting the MCA and affirmed the dismissal of the cases. Congress, he said, “unmistakably sought to prevent the federal courts from entertaining claims based on detainees’ conditions of confinement.” “Such evident congressional intent would seem to counsel a cautious rather than a bravura reading” of whether such claims fell into the category of habeas corpus lawsuit.

Conclusion

We now wait to find out what the government will do. Ask the entire D.C. Circuit (en banc) to rehear the case?   Petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case? Or return to the district court and litigate the claims there?

The majority in this case emphasized that they were only addressing the likelihood of the petitioners’ succeeding on their claims for preliminary injunctive relief, and not the actual merits. But the majority’s analysis and language, in my opinion, suggests that it is highly unlikely that the petitioners would succeed on the merits.

This case is not the only one involving Guantanamo detainees before the D.C. Circuit.

On February 21, 2014, Judge Tatel joined by Circuit Judges Janice Rogers Brown and A. Raymond Randolph heard oral arguments in an appeal from a dismissal of a complaint for money damages by six such detainees against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former U.S. military officials for alleged torture, religious abuse and other mistreatment at Guantanamo. (Allaithi v. Rumsfeld, No. 13-5096 (D.C. Cir.).) The main issues in this case are the following:

  • whether the claims are barred by the Westfall Act (28 U.S.C. sec. 2679), which makes lawsuits against the U.S. the exclusive remedy for injury “arising or resulting from the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any [government] employee while acting within the scope of his office or employment;” and
  • whether the defendants are immune from such a suit.

A decision on this case should issue later this year.


[1] The D.C. Circuit’s opinion was reported in the New York Times and Associated Press. Judge Tatel is a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of the blogger.