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December 06, 2016

President Obama Outlines Counterterrorism Approach Rooted in Human Rights

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First today welcomed President Obama’s speech on his administration’s approach to counterterrorism, noting that the policies outlined protect the United States’ national security while being rooted in respect for human rights and American ideals. 

“Today’s speech laid out an important framework for U.S. counterterrorism operations based on American ideals and best practices in national security. We urge President-elect Trump to continue to protect Americans while upholding human rights and the rule of law,” said Human Rights First’s Raha Wala. 

Today’s speech comes following yesterday’s release of presidential report and memorandum—and related policy documents—on the legal and policy frameworks for counterterrorism operations.   

The Obama Administration's report describes the legal and policy frameworks and rules that govern use of force, capture, detention, interrogation, transfer, and prosecution in the counterterrorism context; it comes as the administration is briefing President-elect Trump's transition team on the government's counterterrorism efforts. The president also issued a memorandum that directs the National Security Council staff to update the report on an annual basis and make it available to the public. The report describes key counterterrorism policy efforts that reflect an emerging consensus in favor of approaches that comply with human rights norms and the rule of law.  

In today’s speech, President Obama highlighted key accomplishments of his presidency, including banning the use of torture. The use of torture and cruel treatment, such as waterboarding and other so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques,” is unlawful under domestic and international law, as General Joseph Dunford, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently recognized. Last year Congress reaffirmed the prohibitions on torture and cruel treatment by limiting all national security interrogations to approaches in the Army Field Manual with a strong, bipartisan vote of 78-21 that included support from the chairs and ranking members of the Senate intelligence, armed services, foreign affairs, homeland security, and judiciary committees. It has been reported that General James Mattis, President-elect Trump's nominee to be the next secretary of defense, advised the president-elect against the use of waterboarding.  

President Obama also expressed his disappointment at being unable to shutter the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. While President George W. Bush opened the detention facilities at Guantanamo, he eventually determined it should be closed because it had become, in his words, "a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies." President Bush transferred over 500 detainees from Guantanamo and President Obama has continued forward with this effort. The population was reduced to 59 detainees with the transfer, announced this weekend, of a Yemeni man, Shawki Awad Balzuhair, who had been held at Guantanamo for more than 14 years without charge or trial. Earlier this year, dozens of our nation's most respected retired generals and admirals, including General Michael Lehnert, the first commander of the Guantanamo detention facility after 9/11, wrote to Congress urging that it work with President Obama to close Guantanamo. 

Earlier this year the president issued an executive order to bolster government efforts to minimize civilian harm when it uses force abroad, including with drone strikes. The executive order supplements Presidential Policy Guidance that imposes limits on the use of force outside of areas of active hostilities, including by requiring that there be near certainty of zero civilian casualties before using force. These executive actions have support from, and are integrated within, the various national security agencies and departments, including the Department of Defense, Department of State, and Central Intelligence Agency.  

As President Obama said today, “Upholding our values and adhering to the rule of law is not weakness—in the long-term, it is our greatest strength.”

“We hope President-elect Trump will continue continue to prioritize the rule of law and American values as critical components of our national security strategy,” added Wala.

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