Human Rights First Gives Obama a B, overall, in Foreign Policy

Human Rights First’s Communications Director Sharon Kelly contributed to a Foreign Policy piece that collected grades for President Obama’s performance over a range of issues. Below is her excerpt from the article.

Grade: B

On interrogation policy: A.

President Barack Obama took swift and decisive action by shutting down the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program and mothballing secret prisons on his second full day in office. In August, his Task Force on Interrogations seconded that strong step by deciding that the Army interrogation manual should be the single standard for all agencies of the U.S. government.
These actions allowed the United Sates to begin to rebuild the respect that is so essential to successfully meeting the complex challenges that we as a nation face. Achieving energy security, protecting the environment, combating global terrorism, quelling insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq — these are all issues that require collaboration with allies and a strategy to win goodwill around the world. As Gen. Charles Krulak and Gen. Joseph Hoar — commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999 and commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994, respectively — recently wrote: “If Americans torture and it comes to light — as it inevitably will — it embitters and alienates the very people we need most.”

An A on interrogation is important for the whole report card.

On Guantánamo: B or incomplete.

Obama was off to a strong start when he announced last January that Guantánamo Bay’s prison would close within a year. The administration has less than three months to go and Members of Congress and the public are still anxiously awaiting a plan specifying what will happen to the detainees housed there.

In its defense, the administration inherited a real mess and has since confronted a concerted campaign of fear mongering led by former Vice President Dick Cheney. In the face of real logistical issues and made-up scare tactics, Obama’s recent comments at the United Nations reaffirming his commitment to swiftly close the facility were encouraging.

There’s no reason for delay. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Gen. David Petraeus, and other experts have stated that Guantánamo’s existence has undermined our national security interests. The most comprehensive study of terrorism cases prosecuted in U.S. courts demonstrates that our justice system is up to the job of prosecuting these complex cases — at least 195 terrorists have been convicted since the September 11 attacks. The American Correctional Association has declared that Americans have nothing to fear from terrorists incarcerated in U.S. prisons.

If the administration’s plan puts faith in our strong institutions, this grade could be raised to an A. Opting for unlimited detention without charge would undermine the progress made so far.

On Afghanistan: B- or incomplete.

More needs to be done to guarantee that — when United States forces pick up someone in Afghanistan and detain him as a possible security threat — there are mechanisms in place to challenge that detention. Until this happens, U.S. detention policies will be at odds with its counterinsurgency goals in Afghanistan: we’ll be spending money on schools and roads to win over the population and then undermining our investment by holding people unfairly.

The Obama administration has made some improvements. In September, the Pentagon announced new procedures for the 600 detainees being held in Bagram and Gen. Stanley McChrystal unveiled reforms for both U.S. and Afghan prisons that focus on rehabilitation and skills training aimed at preventing the radicalization of prisoners. He announced that the “desired endstate” for all detention operations — including Bagram — would be the transfer of those responsibilities to the Afghan government once it has the capacity to run these systems in accordance with international and national law.

The devil is in the details. Even under the new procedures, which are similar to the discredited combatant status review tribunals in Guantánamo, there are concerns about detainees’ ability to review and challenge the evidence against them and produce their own evidence, including witnesses, without the assistance of legal representation. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the reforms will resolve the underlying problems of arbitrary and indefinite detention. More can be done to prevent mistaken captures, gather evidence during capture (to promote fair criminal prosecutions in Afghan courts) and increase the capacity of the Afghan authorities to take responsibility for detention and prosecution.

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Published on November 4, 2009

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