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USA: Another Year, Same Missing Ingredient

"So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us."

President Barack Obama, May 23, 2013


For a speech seen as signalling a turning point, the direction travelled since it was delivered has been frustratingly familiar.

It is now one year since President Barack Obama revisited his administration's framework for the USA's counter-terrorism strategy, four years after a similar address he had given early in his first term. "From our use of drones to detention of terrorism suspects", President Obama proclaimed on 23 May 2013, "the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation – and world – that we leave to our children".

At the time, Amnesty International expressed some cautious optimism at signs of a possible change for the better heralded by the speech, while noting that international human rights law was the ingredient still missing from the framework. The organization noted:

"Words are one thing, actions another. Despite their positive aspects, President Obama's words leave a lot to be desired, and it remains to be seen how much will change, and how quickly, after this latest national security speech."

One year on, little has changed. Why? Because the USA, a country not averse to promoting itself as a, or even the global human rights champion, continues in its singular failure to put respect for human rights at the centre of its counter-terrorism policies, despite a stated commitment to do so by successive administrations.

Various outcomes are now long past familiar. Scores of men held without charge or trial at the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay; trial proceedings being run against a few detainees there under a military commission system that does not meet international fair trial standards, and still only one trial of a Guantánamo detainee in ordinary federal court in 12 years of detentions; truth, remedy and accountability for torture, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations blocked; and serious questions about the lawfulness of US killings by drone unanswered.

That there is a human rights deficit in the USA's counter-terrorism policies and in addressing violations, including crimes under international law committed by US personnel in this context, was again made clear in March 2014. This was when the USA appeared before the UN Human Rights Committee, the expert body established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to monitor implementation of and compliance with that core human rights treaty, which the USA ratified in 1992. All of the above issues raised the Committee's serious concern in its concluding observations finalized in April.