Human Rights Advocates Welcome Provisions in Defense Bill

WASHINGTON – Human Rights First applauds the passage of several important provisions related to human rights in the final FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including several for which Human Rights First successfully advocated. President Trump has threatened to veto the bill because it does not include a provision, unrelated to defense authorization, eliminating legal protections for social media companies. Should the President follow through on this threat, Human Rights First urges Congress to override his veto, and we are optimistic that the bill will have enough bipartisan support for Congress to do so if the president makes good on his threat.

“While we applaud the inclusion of these provisions in the final bill, the NDAA on the whole falls short of what is necessary to bolster our national security through rights-respecting policies,” said Human Rights First President and CEO Mike Breen. “As a new Congress and a new administration are sworn in come January, there must be a renewed commitment to ensuring human rights are a cornerstone of U.S. national security and foreign policy. This must include a commitment to build upon some of the positives in this year’s NDAA—for example, adding more restrictions to the 1033 program—as well as address measures that were stripped from the final bill, such as a prohibition of funds for the war in Yemen and human rights-based conditions for the provision of security assistance to repressive governments.”

One important measure in the bill requires within three years renaming of military bases named after Confederate figures who took up arms against the United States in defense of slavery. Commemorations of the Confederacy on military installations are inconsistent with American ideals; they embrace the legacy of slavery and white supremacy and thus constitute racist affronts to all service members. There are also pragmatic implications of having these commemorations for the military, such as hindering efforts to root out white supremacy within its ranks. At best, maintaining Confederate commemorations glaringly undercuts the credibility of these efforts. At worst, the tributes serve as affirmative signals to white supremacists that their cause is acceptable in the military.

In addition, Confederate commemorations risk undermining military recruitment, retention, and morale, and those impacts on the strength of the armed forces which ultimately jeopardize U.S. national security. These Confederate leaders were also responsible for the largest loss of American life in the history of the Republic. Given the historical significance of this moment and the variety of alternatives for commemorating real heroism, the inclusion of this provision was a necessary and important step in this country’s reckoning with its failure to address issues of systemic racism.

The final bill also includes critical first steps toward reforming the Department of Defense’s “1033” program. This program—which authorizes the transfer of excess military-grade equipment to law enforcement agencies—blurs the line between the military and law enforcement and undermines public safety. Militarized policing disproportionately impacts communities of color. Research indicates that militarized police units are more likely to be deployed against communities of color, even in areas that have low rates of crime. Further, police militarization—fueled and exacerbated by the 1033 program—directly leads to an increase in police violence and an erosion of public trust in police. As noted by Human Rights First’s President and CEO Mike Breen and Representative Anthony Brown (D-MD)—both Army veterans—this practice also risks undermining public support for the military.

While the NDAA provision is insufficient for achieving comprehensive 1033 reform, it would ban the transfer from DoD to law enforcement of bayonets, grenades (other than stun and flash-bang grenades), weaponized tracked combat vehicles, and weaponized drones. This is a necessary and important starting point for achieving reforms, laying the groundwork for Congress to enact more meaningful restrictions on the program and implement additional oversight and accountability measures in the future.

In addition, Human Rights First supported a  range of human rights-related provisions included in the final bill. These include:

  • Congressional reporting requirements related to U.S. military support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen;
  • A prohibition on the commercial export of items like tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray to the Hong Kong Police Force;
  • A provision curtailing the misuse of anonymous shell companies for illicit purposes and enacting key reforms to U.S. anti-money laundering laws;
  • A provision requiring federal law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces or National Guard deployed in response to public protests to visibly display their name and agency on their uniforms;
  • Reporting requirements related to Section 127e (Support of Special Operations to Combat Terrorism);
  • A provision requiring the Department of Defense to assess its processes and systems for responding to Congressional reporting requirements;
  • Reporting requirements that call on DoD to evaluate and proactively mitigate risks to civilians and to human rights in relation to the department’s support to partner forces in the Sahel and Afghanistan (separate provisions);
  • A provision requiring the Secretaries of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs to publish a report on discharge-upgrade applications related to the DoD’s sexual orientation and gender identity policies; and
  • An extension of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program.

Published on December 11, 2020


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