• Sheet of paper Report

Words, War, and the Rule of Law

In a landmark speech delivered on 23 May 2013, President Barack Obama revisited his administration’s framework for US counter-terrorism strategy four years after a similar address he gave early in his first term. While there were encouraging signs in the recent speech, the continuing absence of international human rights law from this framework remains a cause for concern.

In neither speech did President Obama make any express reference to human rights. This is regrettable, not least given that his administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism has “respect for human rights” as a “core value” underlying all counterterrorism policies.2 The National Security Strategy and the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism issued during the administration of George W. Bush had said much the same thing, but the human rights of detainees in US custody were systematically violated nonetheless.3 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.

In his 2009 address, President Obama fully endorsed the flawed theory that the USA had been engaged in a “global war” since the attacks of 11 September 2001: “Let me be clear”, he said then, “we are indeed at war with al Qa’ida and its affiliates”. In his latest speech, he did so again: “We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qa’ida, the Taliban, and their associated forces.” As Amnesty International has long pointed out, the broad congressional authorization to which he refers – the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) – was passed after little substantive debate as well as apparent confusion among members of Congress about what they were voting for, and the resolution has been exploited over the years to justify a range of human rights violations.

In his latest speech, however, President Obama did raise the prospect of a change in approach to meet what he said was the changing nature of the terrorist threat, from a transnational al-Qa’ida capacity to more localized affiliates operating within specific countries and regions, as well as the threat posed by “homegrown extremists” in the USA. As an additional reason for a rethink, President Obama pointed to the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan of US combat troops after a dozen years there. Beyond Afghanistan, he asserted, “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America”. Every war, he said, “has to come to an end” and in this regard the USA was “at a crossroads” requiring it to “define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us”.