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September 22, 2014

Back to Basics: Advancing Human Rights in a Time of Crisis

Keynote Address to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Warsaw, Poland by Elisa Massimino, President and CEO, Human Rights First. Dated September 22, 2014.

Good afternoon. It’s an honor to be here today to help set the context for this important meeting.

And it’s a special pleasure for me to return to Warsaw where, 24 years ago, at a time of great promise and opportunity for Poland and other newly independent states, I began my own work as a human rights activist. I returned home from that trip invigorated by the energy and optimism of the people I met here. Shortly thereafter I joined Human Rights First, an independent non-governmental organization whose mission is to challenge the United States to live up to its ideals and advance the universal values of human rights.

The world is very different—and arguably more dangerous—today than it was back then. It’s not possible in my short time here to address the many threats to peace, security, and human rights that challenge us today. But here is a snapshot.

A war in Ukraine—now in a tenuous lull—threatens to unsettle all of Europe. A war in Syria has killed nearly 200,000 people and displaced more than half of the Syrian population, and grinds on with no end in sight. Together with the longstanding mayhem in Iraq, Syria’s war has bred a new threat that combines genocidal barbarism with social media savvy.

Guantanamo, ensure release of the Senate’s report on the CIA torture program, come clean about the rules that govern its use of drones for targeted killing, and address legitimate concerns about overly broad data collection and wholesale invasions of privacy that seem unrelated to addressing threats to national security.

The world recently got a window into how the reflexive resort to military force risks infecting broader law enforcement tactics. In the aftermath of the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri this summer, police used excessive force against protestors. The police department of this small town had militarized weapons, as well as a militarized mindset—both products, in part, of the war on terrorism.

By the time nations feel the need to resort to force to confront terrorism, the challenges are compounded. Counterterrorism strategies that rely too heavily on force have invariably led to human rights abuses, exacerbating the very conditions that give rise to terrorism and creating a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.

Perpetual war—without geographical limits, a declared enemy, and a sound legal foundation—poses a real and present danger to our societies. Last year, President Obama declared his intention to move U.S. counterterrorism operations off of a war footing. He should use his speech at the UN this week to reaffirm that goal. And he should assure other nations that U.S. military action against ISIS will be tailored to meet that threat and does not represent an unbounded broadening of the use of military force as part of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

Download Full Keynote Address