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Home / Press Release / Obama Speech Details American Foreign Policy Rooted in Respect for Human Rights, Law
May 28, 2014

Obama Speech Details American Foreign Policy Rooted in Respect for Human Rights, Law

Washington, D.C. – President Obama’s West Point commencement address detailed a vision of American leadership that is not only consistent with our nation’s values and ideals, but also recognizes that respect for human rights and effective national security strategies are inextricably linked. His speech laid a strong foundation for a U.S. foreign policy rooted in the rule of law and the principle that we must use both diplomatic and defense channels to restore America’s leadership around the globe. The administration must now implement this plan and take steps to put President Obama’s words into action.

“Today’s speech lays out an important framework for U.S. leadership based on universal values and collective action. The next step is to take concrete actions to show the leadership that President Obama described so eloquently,” said Human Rights First’s Heather Hurlburt. “The administration should now focus on implementing the promises contained in today’s remarks, with policies reoriented to address the rights and security challenges at the core of today’s threats.”

Human Rights First notes the following highlights from today’s address, as well as recommendations for implementing solutions to these concerns:

POST-WAR COUNTERTERRORISM The president strongly endorsed the principle that not all challenges faced by the United States warrant a military response. President Obama should make the U.S. policy toolbox reflect this principle by working with Congress to establish an enduring legal foundation for postwar counterterrorism in line with domestic and international law.

TARGETED KILLING President Obama again pledged to be more transparent on the targeted killing program. Human Rights First has called on the Obama Administration to explain how it justifies targeting any individuals who do not pose an actual imminent threat to American lives and are not members of armed groups or civilians directly participating in hostilities engaged in an armed conflict with the United State. The administration should also make public the measures in place for agencies engaged in targeted killing to protect civilians, and to conduct post-strike casualty assessments, investigations, and compensation. Human Rights First has urged the Obama Administration to disclose information about the targeted killing program so Americans and others around the world know the government is acting within the law and exercising reasonable judgment. The ability to review and debate whom we are targeting and why is necessary for adherence to the rule of law, and for the program to have legitimacy among Americans and all those who must be our partners in the struggle against terrorism.

COUNTERTERRORISM SUPPORT FOR AMERICAN ALLIES President Obama stressed the key role of training and supporting American allies in fighting terrorism. As the president indicated, making sure such assistance promotes the rule of law and not those abusing it is central to its success. The U.S. government has a common sense approach for sustainable counterterrorism policy: the Leahy Law, which vets U.S. partner units to protect against association with gross human rights abusers and to give partner militaries tools and motives to improve their treatment of citizens.  Effective counterterrorism involves intelligence, law enforcement, and sophisticated military operations, as well as association with local units, which must earn the trust and respect of the local population.  Part of the new stress on training must include a strategy to develop accountability and justice within U.S. partner units from the beginning, and the United States needs to fully commit to these goals when it invests in arming and training foreign units. The new fund announced by the president today must be subject to Leahy Law provisions.

GUANTANAMO Human Rights First strongly agrees with President Obama that “what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” To close the detention facility at Guantanamo, the president should direct his administration to transfer without delay the detainees who have been cleared unanimously by all relevant agencies and departments, complete Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearings for the remaining detainees who have not been charged or cleared for transfer, and work with Congress to remove the remaining restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantanamo.

“The president is right to set a course for a U.S. foreign policy rooted in the recognition that America's vital national interests are best advanced by sustained promotion and protection of universal values,” said Hurlburt. “The question now is what America will do to make these words a reality. It is not a choice between military action and doing nothing. It’s a choice between action and inaction.”

For more information or to speak with Hurlburt, contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319.