Dictatorships and illiberal states are not the only ones who disregard human rights. Time and again, Western democracies violate fundamental human rights. Mass surveillance of their own citizens, drone strikes that kill civilians, the torture of detainees – these are just some of the crimes that for example the United States has overseen in recent years.
After the 9/11 attacks, the US brutally pursued those they considered their "enemies." From early 2002, the CIA and the US military – with approval at the highest levels – kidnapped, unlawfully detained and tortured hundreds of people. The US torture program violated international as well as human rights law (including the UN Convention against Torture) – under the pretext of the fight against terrorism.
The US use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, as part of counter-terrorism operations began under President George W. Bush and was greatly expanded under President Barack Obama. The US uses armed drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas, including outside areas of armed conflict. In many cases the drones kill innocent civilians. The practice of using lethal force against individuals outside of any armed conflict, or – in the case of attacks conducted during an armed conflict – without properly determining their status (whether they are military targets or civilians) results in egregious violations of human rights and international (humanitarian) law.
For more than ten years, ECCHR has been taking legal action against systematic US torture and unlawful drone strikes. The focus of our work is on establishing the accountability of those bearing the greatest responsibility: the senior politicians, officials, intelligence agents and military personnel who established and implemented these policies.
In March 2019, the Higher Administrative Court in Münster, Germany, ruled that the German government must take action to ensure that the US respects international law in its use of Ramstein airbase. In its judgment the court found in favor of the claimants from Yemen on several key aspects.
Sigonella Air Base in Sicily, Italy, is considered of strategic importance for US drone operations in North Africa. ECCHR has filed requests to access information regarding US drones located at Sigonella according to the Italian Freedom of Information Act.
ECCHR has filed a criminal complaint with the German Federal Public Prosecutor calling for investigations into Gina Haspel’s role in the torture of detainees at a CIA secret prison in Thailand in 2002. Haspel was appointed director of the CIA by President Donald Trump in May 2018.
After learning that Mourad Benchellali and Nizar Sassi were being detained by the US at Guantánamo detention center, their families filed a criminal complaint before French courts asking authorities to investigate torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention. That was in November 2002. Since then, the French judiciary has been conducting investigations into the US torture program and the high-ranking officials responsible for it.
Between 2004 and 2007, three complaints were filed in Germany and in France against members of the US Government, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and members of the military forces in connection with war crimes, torture and other criminal acts in the military prisons of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.
As a signatory of the Convention against Torture, the US is obliged to prosecute for these crimes. Nevertheless, there is evidence concerning the torture program after 11 September 2001 with a particular focus on the liability of high ranking US officials, including former President Bush.
ECCHR sumbitted an amici curiae brief in order to support the compensation claim in the Arar case. Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was arrested and abducted by US officials in 2002 and brought to Syria. During his one-year detention he suffered torture and was imprisoned under inhumane conditions.
In March 2009, ECCHR partner lawyer Gonzalo Boye filed a criminal complaint against six former US officials of the Bush administration regarding their accountability for violations of international law, including war crimes and torture. The US officials became known as the “Bush Six.”
ECCHR advises in the case of the German victim of a drone strike in Pakistan, Bünyamin E. According to ECCHR’s examinations, the case raises a number of serious doubts as to the application and interpretation of the law and shows insufficient investigations.