Hagel Confirmation Should Feature Human Rights Issues Key to National Security

Washington, DC – Tomorrow the Senate Armed Services Committee questions Senator Chuck Hagel about his qualifications to be President Obama’s Secretary of Defense. Human Rights First urges the Committee to use the opportunity of that hearing to examine how Senator Hagel would advance U.S. national security policies that protect and promote American ideals.  President Obama has said that, in the arena of national security, our values and our interests are aligned.  Senator Hagel should be given an opportunity to explain how he will operationalize this vision with respect to a range of issues that raise serious human challenges, including: closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo, drones, military commissions, ending the wars spawned by the 9/11 attacks, the changing U.S. role in the Middle East, and combating crimes against humanity.  A thorough vetting of the nominee should include a clear understanding of his strategies in these areas.

“Senator Hagel has a reputation for straight talk and a belief in values-driven foreign policy based on the ideals for which America stands,” said Human Rights First’s Elisa Massimino. “The Armed Services Committee should use this hearing to explore how Senator Hagel will align U.S. defense policy with these ideals.”

Human Rights First will closely monitor Senator Hagel’s Jan. 31 confirmation hearing and looks forward to hearing his responses to questions about the following topics:

  • Closing Guantanamo: In June 2005, Senator Hagel told CNN that Guantanamo is one reason the United States is “losing the image war around the world.” He observed, “It’s identifiable with, for right or wrong, a part of America that people in the world believe is a power, an empire that pushes people around, we do it our way, we don’t live up to our commitments to multilateral institutions.” SASC members should ask Senator Hagel if he plans to use his post as Secretary of Defense to carry out the President’s Executive Order to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo.

For more information, see Human Rights First’s blueprint How To Close Guantanamo

  • Drones: Former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair and former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center Robert Grenier have warned that the drone program may be doing more to create enemies than eliminate them.  John Brennan has expressed concern about the precedent the U.S. is setting as other nations acquire and could potentially deploy the technology.  Human Rights First notes that confidence in the U.S. targeted killing program depends on full clarity about its governing laws, yet the program remains shrouded in secrecy.  The committee should ask Senator Hagel if he will commit to ensuring additional transparency and oversight of the U.S. targeted killing program, including the release of the Office of Legal Counsel memos that set forth the government’s legal justification for the program. Senator Hagel should also clarify how he will ensure that the program is conducted in a manner that is effective and consistent with the rule of law.For more information, see Human Rights First’s blueprint How to Ensure that the U.S. Drone Program Does Not Undermine Human Rights.
  • Military Commissions: Though the administration continues to support so-called “reformed” military commissions for some terrorism cases, the military commission system as a whole remains controversial and subject to legal challenge on basic issues.  According to DOJ data obtained by Human Rights First, federal courts have completed nearly 500 international terrorism cases, while military commissions have convicted only 7 individuals.  Two of those convictions—in the Hamdan and al Bahlul cases—have recently been overturned by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals because the convictions were based on charges that were not war crimes at the time, as is typically required for military commissions prosecutions. Moreover, the chief prosecutor of the military commissions, Brigadier General Mark Martins, recommended dropping conspiracy charges from the 9/11 case because conspiracy is not an internationally recognized war crime. Given this context, Senator Hagel should be asked whether he will direct the convening authority to move forward with cases in military commission only if they allege internationally recognized war crimes.For more information, see Human Rights First’s Some Key Facts on Military Commissions v. Federal Courts.
  • Ending wars spawned by the 9/11 attacks: Immediately after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, Senator Hagel told Lincoln Journal Star that Obama has “got to start heading toward the exits.” He added that the pursuit of bin Laden and al-Qaida was “the reason we invaded Afghanistan.” Jeh Johnson, former Pentagon General Counsel, said in a speech at Oxford Union that the administration should envision a post-war counterterrorism world.  Johnson said, “At that point, we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an ‘armed conflict’ against al Qaeda and its associated forces; rather, a counterterrorism effort against individuals.” The committee should ask Senator Hagel what his strategy is for “heading toward the exits” and how he sees the shift from armed conflict to a post-war counterterrorism effort.
  • Combatting Crimes Against Humanity:    The U.S. faces calls to intervene in crises around the world at points when there are often no good solutions.  Syria is a case in point, but history is littered with examples of when we have responded well, poorly, or not at all — appropriately or, tragically. On August 4, 2011, President Obama issued an Executive Order that elevated the prevention of mass atrocities to a “core national security interest.” As part of  this new mandate, the Department of Defense is committed to several steps, such as developing operational principles and planning techniques specifically tailored around atrocity prevention and response; incorporating mass atrocity prevention and response in combatant commands’ planning, activities, and engagements; organizing exercises incorporating mass atrocity prevention and response scenarios; developing more agile planning processes and tools; and incorporating mass atrocity and genocide prevention into service academies’ curricula. The Committee should ask Senator Hagel his views on this approach and what strategies and tools he will employ from the Pentagon to execute on the President’s Order.

For more information, read Human Rights First’s How to Disrupt Enablers of Mass Atrocities.

  • Bahrain: U.S. policy in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is often framed as a conflict between competing priorities—America’s commitment to stand with those demanding fundamental rights and freedoms, and security interests in the Gulf. As Bahrain has endured a well-documented series of political protests and crackdowns; a long string of arrests, detention and torture of human rights activists; and various political efforts to resolve the crisis, the fact is US policy is also tolerating the disintegration of Bahraini society and the growing list of gross violations of human rights by the Bahraini regime.  These trends threaten the security of the Fifth Fleet, and therefore demand the attention of the U.S.  The Committee should ask Senator Hagel to describe how he sees the problems facing the U.S. in Bahrain now and what his vision is for a U.S.-Bahraini alliance two years from now, and explain what leverage points the U.S. should use to get there. Human rights and democracy activists in Bahrain and the wider region see U.S. policy there as a test of U.S. global leadership and America’s commitment to its ideals.

Published on January 30, 2013


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