Hillary Clinton's Disdain for International Law -- Change We Can Believe In?
By Stephen Zunes
For those hoping for a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy under an Obama administration -- particularly regarding human rights, international law, and respect for international institutions -- the appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State is a bitter disappointment. Indeed, Senator Clinton has more often than not sided with the Bush administration against fellow Democrats on key issues regarding America’s international legal obligations, particularly international humanitarian law.
This will be particularly disappointing for those in the international community who were so positive about Obama’s election as president. The selection of Hillary Clinton, at best, represents a return to the policies of her husband’s administration.
Because the Bush administration had taken things to new lows, many seem to have forgotten the fact that the Clinton administration had also greatly alienated the international community. Regarding Iraq, Iran and Israel, the Clinton administration engaged in a series of policies which put the United States sharply at odds with most of its Western allies and a broad consensus of international legal scholars. And these were not the only issues during the Clinton years over which the United States found itself isolated from the rest of the international community: there was U.S. opposition to the land mine treaty, the strengthening of the embargo against Cuba, support for Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, foot-dragging on the Kyoto Protocols, support for Turkey’s vicious military offensive in the Kurdish regions of that country, among others.
Even worse, Hillary Clinton allied herself with the Bush administration on many its most controversial actions, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, threats of war against Iran, support for Israel’s 2006 offensive against Lebanon and 2002 offensive in the West Bank, opposition to the International Criminal Court, attacks against the International Court of Justice, and support for the unrestricted export of cluster bombs and other anti-personnel munitions used against civilian targets.
Hostility Toward Human Rights
Senator Hillary Clinton has opposed restrictions on U.S. arms transfers and police training to governments that engage in gross and systematic human rights abuses. Indeed, she has supported unconditional U.S. arms transfers and police training to such repressive and autocratic governments as Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Pakistan, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Kazakhstan, and Chad, just to name a few.
Senator Clinton voted to send tens of billions of dollars unconditionally to Baghdad to prop up Iraq’s U.S.-backed regime during the height of its repression, apparently unconcerned about the well-documented reports of death squads being run from the Interior Ministry that were killing many thousands of unarmed Sunni men.
She has also refused to join many of her Democratic colleagues in signing a letter endorsing a treaty that would limit arms transfers to countries that engage in a consistent pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations.
Not only has she been willing to support unconditional military assistance to repressive regimes, she has little inclination to control weapons that primarily target innocent civilians. Senator Clinton has refused to support the international treaty to ban land mines, which are responsible for killing and maiming thousands of civilians worldwide, a disproportionate percentage of whom have been children.
She was also among a minority of Democratic Senators to side with the Republican majority in voting down a Democratic-sponsored resolution in 2007 restricting U.S. exports of cluster bombs to countries that use them against civilian-populated areas. Each of these cluster bomb contains hundreds of bomblets that are scattered over an area the size of up to four football fields and, with a failure rate of up to 30 percent, become de facto land mines. Civilians account for as much as 98 percent of the casualties caused by these weapons.
Senator Clinton also has a record of dismissing reports by human rights monitors that highlight large-scale attacks against civilians by allied governments. For example, in the face of widespread criticism by reputable human rights organizations over Israel’s systematic assaults against civilian targets in its April 2002 offensive in the West Bank, Senator Clinton co-sponsored a resolution defending the Israeli actions, claiming that they were “necessary steps to provide security to its people by dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas.” She opposed UN efforts to investigate alleged war crimes by Israeli occupation forces and criticized President Bush for calling on Israel to pull back from its violent re-conquest of Palestinian cities in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
Similarly, when Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights groups issued detailed reports regarding Israeli war crimes during that country’s assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Senator Clinton insisted they were wrong and that Israel’s attacks were legal. Furthermore, though these groups had also criticized the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah for committing war crimes by firing rockets into civilian-populated areas in Israel, exhaustive investigations revealed absolutely no evidence that they had used the civilian population as “human shields” to protect themselves from Israeli assaults. Despite this, Senator Clinton, without providing any credible evidence to the contrary, still insists that they in fact had used human shields and Hezbollah, not the U.S-supplied Israeli armed forces, were therefore responsible for the deaths of more than 800 Lebanese civilians.
In Senator Clinton’s world view, if a country is considered an important strategic ally of the United States, any charges of human rights abuses -- no matter how strong the evidence -- should be summarily dismissed. Indeed, despite the Israeli government’s widespread and well-documented violations of international humanitarian law, Senator Clinton has praised Israel for embracing “values that respect the dignity and rights of human beings.”
Clinton’s Opposition to the United Nations
Senator Clinton has also been one the Senate’s most outspoken critics of the United Nations, even appearing outside the UN headquarters in New York twice during the past five years at right-wing gatherings to denounce the world body. For example, she has falsely accused the UN of not taking a stand against terrorism, even though terrorism has become -- largely at the insistence of the United States -- a major UN focus in recent years.
Senator Clinton’s hostility to international law and the UN system is perhaps best illustrated by her opposition to the International Criminal Court. In 2002, Senator Clinton voted in favor of an amendment by right-wing Senator Jesse Helms that prohibits the United States from cooperating in any way with the International Criminal Court and its prosecution of individuals responsible for serious crimes against humanity, such as those responsible for the genocide in Darfur. In addition, this vindictive law also restricts U.S. foreign aid to countries that support the ICC. Nicknamed the “Hague Invasion Act,” the bill also authorizes the president of the United States “to use all means necessary and appropriate to free members of United States military and certain other allied persons if they are detained or imprisoned by an international criminal court,” including military force.
The International Court of Justice (also known as the World Court, which essentially serves as the judicial arm of the United Nations) has also been a target of Senator Clinton’s hostility toward international law. For example, in 2004, the ICJ ruled by a 14-1 vote (with only the U.S. judge dissenting, largely on a technicality) that Israel, like every country, is obliged to abide by provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Laws of War, and that the international community -- as in any other case in which ongoing violations are taking place -- is obliged to ensure that international humanitarian law is enforced. Affronted that an important U.S. ally would be required to abide by its international legal obligations and that the United States should help ensure such compliance, Senator Clinton strongly condemned the decision.
At issue was the Israeli government’s ongoing construction of a separation barrier deep inside the occupied Palestinian West Bank, which the World Court recognized -- as does the broad consensus of international legal scholarship -- as a violation of international humanitarian law. The ICJ ruled that Israel, like any country, had the right to build the barrier along its internationally recognized border for self-defense, but did not have the right to build it inside another country as a means of illegally annexing occupied Palestinian territory. In an unprecedented congressional action, Senator Clinton immediately introduced a resolution to put the U.S. Senate on record “supporting the construction by Israel of a security fence” and “condemning the decision of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the security fence.” In an effort to render the UN impotent in its enforcement of international law, her resolution (which even the then-Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass as being too extreme) attempted to put the Senate on record “urging no further action by the United Nations to delay or prevent the construction of the security fence.”
Clinton’s resolution also claimed that “the International Court of Justice is politicized and critical of Israel,” ignoring that the World Court has actually been quite consistent in its rulings. In the only other two advisory opinions issued by the ICJ involving occupied territories -- South African-occupied Namibia in 1971 and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara in 1975 -- the court also decided against the occupying powers.
In addition, in what was apparently an effort to misrepresent and discredit the UN, Clinton’s resolution contended that the request by the UN General Assembly for a legal opinion by the ICJ referred to “the security fence being constructed by Israel to prevent Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel.” In reality, the UN request said nothing regarding security measures preventing terrorists from entering Israel. Instead, the document refers only to the legal consequences arising from “the wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory…” Moreover, the UN statement referred to the secretary general’s recently released report on the occupation, which reiterated the longstanding international consensus that Occupied Palestinian Territory refers only to the parts of Palestine seized by Israel in the 1967 War, not to any part of Israel itself.
Senator Clinton’s resolution also represented a departure from any previous congressional resolution in that it referred to the West Bank not as an occupied territory but as a “disputed” territory. This distinction is important for two reasons: The word “disputed” implies that the claims of the West Bank’s Israeli conquerors are as legitimate as the claims of Palestinians who have lived on that land for centuries. And disputed territories -- unlike occupied territories -- are not covered by the Fourth Geneva Convention and many other international legal statutes. As a lawyer, Senator Clinton must have recognized that such wording had the affect of legitimizing the expansion of a country’s territory by force, a clear violation of the UN Charter.
Support for the Illegal Use of Force
The UN Charter forbids its member states from using military force unless under direct attack or authorized by the UN Security Council. Customary international law allows for pre-emptive war only in cases of an imminent threat, such as troops massing along the border or missiles being loaded onto launchers. Senator Clinton, however, believes that the United States had the legal right to invade Iraq, even though it constituted no threat to the national security of the United States and there had been no authorization by the UN Security Council to use force. Indeed, when the United States launched its invasion of Iraq in March 2003 in defiance of widespread global condemnation of this act of aggression, she voted for a Republican-sponsored resolution categorically declaring that the war was “lawful.”
Senator Clinton has tried to rationalize her support for this illegal war by claiming that the UN authorized member states to take military action against Iraq in November of 1990. However, that resolution (687) only referred to using such means to enforce resolution 678, which demanded that Iraq withdraw its occupation forces from Kuwait. Once Iraqi forces withdrew -- which took place more than a dozen years prior to the 2003 invasion -- the resolution was moot.
Similarly, her claim that invading Iraq constituted a legitimate act of self-defense is particularly disturbing. Even if Saddam Hussein had been developing chemical and biological weapons as Senator Clinton falsely alleged, Iraq would have been just one of 40 countries to have developed such arsenals and Iraq had no delivery systems left that were capable of attacking other countries, much less the United States. Her belief that the United States somehow has the right to invade another country simply on the suspicion that it might be developing weapons for future use constitutes a radical departure from international legal norms and is a clear violation of the UN Charter. Hillary Clinton, however, believes the United States should not be bound by such restrictions and that the United States has the right to invade any country that the president believes could even potentially be a threat some time in the future.
Senator Clinton claims that she voted to authorize war against Iraq in October 2002 because "we needed to put inspectors in." However, Saddam Hussein had by that time already agreed to a return of the weapons inspectors. Furthermore, Senator Clinton voted against the substitute Levin amendment, which would have also granted President Bush authority to use force, but only if Iraq defied subsequent UN demands regarding the inspections process. Instead, Senator Clinton voted for the Republican-sponsored resolution to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing regardless of whether inspectors returned. Indeed, unfettered large-scale weapons inspections had been going on in Iraq for nearly four months at the time the Bush administration launched the March 2003 invasion that Senator Clinton had voted to authorize.
Clinton also claimed that the absence of UN personnel in Iraq during the preceding four years was because Saddam “threw out inspectors.” In reality, the inspectors were ordered out in December 1998 by President Bill Clinton in anticipation of the four-day U.S.-led bombing campaign, which was widely condemned at that time as a flagrant violation of international law. (See my article Hillary Clinton Again Lies about Iraq.)
A politician who supported preventive war in the past might do so in the future as well. Indeed, Senator Clinton has criticized Bush for allowing the Europeans to lead the diplomatic efforts with Iran over their nuclear program, insisting that the United States should keep “all options on the table,” presumably meaning military force.
Implications of Clinton as Secretary of State
Though an overwhelming majority of Americans, according to public opinion polls, believe that human rights and international law should be a cornerstone of American foreign policy, Senator Clinton has repeatedly prioritized the profits of American arms manufacturers and the extension of Washington’s hegemonic reach in parts of the world. It is ironic that, with the long-awaited return of the Democratic Party to power, the new Secretary of State essentially advocates a clear break with the internationalist and law-based principles espoused by such previous Democratic leaders as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman.
Hillary Clinton is not the first hawk to be appointed to a key position by Obama. The selection of Joe Biden as his vice-president, the pro-war militarist chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was seen as a slap in the face to his dovish constituency. (See my articles Biden's Foreign Policy "Experience" and Biden, Iraq, and Obama's Betrayal.) Obama’ defenders insisted that his appointment had more to do with political considerations that would enhance the likelihood of an electoral victory in November, that the vice-president does not have a formal role in foreign policy formulation, and should therefore not be interpreted as a harbinger of subsequent appointments.
Then came the selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. (See my article Is Obama Screwing His Base with Rahm Emanuel Selection?) Obama’s defenders emphasized that the White House position was more administrative than policy-oriented, that Emanuel was more a political operative than a policy-wonk, and that his appointment had more to do with his political skills than his political opinions.
Then came the word that Obama was going to keep Robert Gates, Bush’s current Secretary of Defense and a proponent of the Bush’s disastrous Iraq policy, as the Pentagon chief. Obama’s defenders then insisted that Gates wasn’t as bad as his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, that continuity in such a position was important in time of war, and that Gates could provide cover from right-wing attacks in the face of an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Then came the apparent selection of the recently-retired Marine General James Jones, a prominent hawk who supported John McCain for president, as Obama’s national security advisor. Obama’s defenders pointed out that his role would simply be that as an advisor, not a policy maker, and that someone with his strategic understanding and international contacts would be a positive influence.
With the selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, however, it is no longer possible to make any more excuses. It is getting harder to deny that Barack Obama intends to tilt his foreign policy to the right.
This is not simply a situation where Obama desires an opportunity to listen to alternative perspectives from hawks as a means of strengthening his dovish proclivities. These hawkish perspectives have long been dominant in Washington and in the mainstream media, so even without these appointments, Obama would be getting plenty of this kind of feedback anyway. It appears that he has appointed Clinton and these other hawks because he does not have any principled objections to their disdain for human right and international law.
It is important to remember, however, that it has been rare for elected Democratic officials to take the lead in building a more progressive foreign policy. From Vietnam to South Africa to the nuclear freeze to Central America to East Timor to Iraq it has been mass movements which have forced the Democrats away from their initially right-wing militarist agenda to one more supportive of human rights and international law. Hillary Clinton’s about-face on Iraq just prior to her run for president is but one example of how popular pressure can turn an unrepentant war hawk into an anti-war candidate.
As a result, while it is important to recognize the serious implications of the Clinton appointment, it is also important to realize that the ultimate direction of Obama’s foreign policy will not be determined by his Secretary of State, but by the American people.