Counter terror and human rights: mixed messages in first 100 days

Mixed messages from President Obama after 100 days

© Amnesty International

When he took office on 20 January 2009, President Barack Obama inherited a legacy of torture, impunity and unlawful detention. The legacy is the result of the USA’s response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, a response that has been marked by an assault on the international human rights framework.

Human rights violations – including the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance – were not only committed but were also justified by the US government as necessary and legal.

In November 2008, Amnesty International called on US President-elect Barack Obama to reverse the cycle and put human rights at the centre of his administration’s approach to counter-terrorism.

When he took office in January 2009, we asked President Obama, during his first 100 days, to take 17 concrete steps towards:

  • Closing Guantánamo and ending illegal detention
  • Eradicating torture and other ill-treatment
  • Ending impunity

At the end of the 100 days it is clear that significant steps have been taken, including some to undo damaging detention and interrogation policies developed under the previous administration.

But other changes have been more symbolic than substantial, and the little action taken by President Obama’s administration on accountability for past human rights violations has reinforced the impunity nurtured in the past.

Read our report Mixed messages: Counter Terror and Human Rights – President Obama’s first 100 days to find out how far the new administration’s initial steps have gone towards meeting Amnesty International’s appeal to counter terror with justice.


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Obama - Building trust and respect for human rights in the US

(Feature, 29 April 2009) Those who watched Barack Obama take office on 20 January were part of a far-reaching celebration of the once seemingly impossible becoming reality. From isolated villages to sprawling cities, millions of people felt included in the new President’s message of hope and the possibility of change.

USA: President Obama’s first 100 days on counter terrorism - Timeline

(Feature, 29 April 2009) Amnesty International today described US President Barack Obama’s first 100 days when it comes to counter terrorism policies as “promises for change with only limited action”. See a timeline of key events during President Obama's first 100 days in office.

USA: President Obama sends mixed messages on counter terrorism in first 100 days

(Press release, 29 April 2009) Amnesty International today described US President Barack Obama’s first 100 days when it comes to counter terrorism policies as “promises for change with only limited action”.

USA: President Obama’s first 100 days on counter terrorism in numbers

(Feature, 29 April 2009) Amnesty International today described US President Barack Obama’s first 100 days when it comes to counter terrorism policies as “promises for change with only limited action”. See President Obama’s first 100 days on counter terrorism in numbers.

USA: President Obama’s first 100 days on counter terrorism - Case Studies

(Feature, 29 April 2009) Amnesty International today described US President Barack Obama’s first 100 days when it comes to counter terrorism policies as “promises for change with only limited action”. Read about some real stories of people affected by  the USA's counter terrorism policies.

Further US torture revelations highlight need for independent commission of inquiry

(News, 23 April 2009) Condoleezza Rice approved the use of “water-boarding” in 2002 according to information released on Wednesday by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Impunity for CIA torture is incompatible with USA's international obligations

(News, 17 April 2009) US President Barack Obama has announced that CIA agents who used harsh interrogationtechniques on terrorism suspects will not be prosecuted.

USA: Torture in black and white, but impunity continues: Department of Justice releases interrogation memorandums

(Short report, 17 April 2009) On 16 April 2009, the US Department of Justice released, largely un-redacted, four memorandums written in the Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2002 and 2005. The documents give an insight into how the previous administration lost its legal and moral compass in turning to torture and other ill-treatment in the name of counter-terrorism. The accompanying statements issued by the new President and the Attorney General, effectively conferring impunity for acts of torture, are incompatible with the USA’s international legal obligation to bring perpetrators to justice.

USA: Detainees continue to bear costs of delay and lack of remedy

(Report, 9 April 2009) The US administration is committed to closing the Guantánamo detention facility by 22 January 2010. However, the future remains uncertain for the detainees still held there as the executive review of their cases and of US detention policy ordered by the President gets underway. Amnesty International considers it unacceptable that any Guantánamo detainee continues to be held without charge or trial, and calls for each detainee to be either charged with a recognisable criminal offence for trial under fair procedures in existing federal courts or released immediately.

USA: Judicial review and remedy still more myth than reality for Guantánamo detainees

(Report summary, 9 April 2009) Ten months after the US Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that the detainees held in US military custody at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba were entitled to a "prompt" habeas corpus hearing in district court to determine the lawfulness of their detention, only a handful of them have received such a hearing. Amnesty International details its concerns in a new report.

Guantánamo detainees still waiting for judicial review

(Web feature, 9 April 2009) Only a handful of Guantánamo detainees have had court hearings to determine the lawfulness of their detention.

Ireland's offer to accept Guantánamo detainees must be matched

(News, 20 March 2009) The Irish government has offered to accept a small number of Guantánamo detainees who the USA will release but who cannot be returned to their home countries because of fear that they would face human rights violations there. 

USA: Different label, same policy?: Administration drops ‘enemy combatant’ label in Guantánamo litigation, but retains law of war framework for detentions

(Report, 16 March 2009) A memorandum, filed in US District Court on 13 March 2009, sets out the new administration’s view of its authority to detain those still held at Guantánamo. In an accompanying press release, the Justice Department emphasized that, in the case of these particular detainees, it was dropping the “enemy combatant” label. Amnesty International considers that it is well past time for the US administration and courts to recognize that the Guantánamo detainees should not continue to be held in indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Transparency on Bagram detentions needed from Obama administration

(News,10 March 2009) A US federal judge has ordered the US government to provide updated information on the detainees held in Bagram airbase in Afghanistan by 11 March.

USA: CIA tapes show need for full investigation into 'war on terror'

(Press release, 3 March 2009) The destruction of almost 100 tapes containing potential evidence of torture and ill treatment of detainees held in secret detention by the CIA illustrates the urgent need for a full independent commission of inquiry into human rights abuses committed by the USA in the name of “countering terrorism”, said Amnesty International today.

USA: Guantánamo review fails to address key human rights issues

(Public statement, 25 February 2009) The US Secretary of Defense was required to undertake an immediate review of the conditions of detention at Guantánamo. The review was made public in February 2009.

Binyam Mohamed released from Guantánamo 

(News, 24 February 2009) UK resident Binyam Mohamed was released from detention in Guantánamo Bay on Monday and allowed to return to the UK. His family and lawyers, together with human rights activists, including Amnesty International members, had campaigned extensively for his release.

USA: Right to an effective remedy – Administration should release Guantánamo Uighurs into the USA now

(Public statement, 19 February 2009) Amnesty International has for weeks been urging the administration of President Barack Obama to release the Uighurs into the USA. The organization regrets that after a month in office, the new administration has not yet taken this step.

USA: Legal concern/Ill-treatment: Mohammed el Gharani (m)

(Urgent action, 19 February 2009) More than a month after a US federal judge ordered that he be released from Guantánamo, Chadian national Mohammed el Gharani is still being held there. Taken into custody when he was a child, he has spent nearly a third of his life in US military custody.

USA: Obama administration must take new approach on Bagram detentions

(Public statement, 19 February 2009) Amnesty International is urging President Barack Obama and his administration to continue its break from the USA’s unlawful detention policies of recent years by ensuring that detainees held in the US airbase in Bagram in Afghanistan have access to the US courts to challenge their detentions.

USA: Out of sight, out of mind, out of court? The right of Bagram detainees to judicial review

(Report, 18 February 2009) In this document Amnesty International urges the new US administration to adopt a position on all US detentions in Afghanistan fully consistent with its international obligations, including in relation to conditions of confinement, interrogation techniques, and procedural rights.

USA: President Obama’s orders on interrogations and CIA – historic decisions

(Press release, 23 January 2009) Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan today said President Obama’s Executive Orders on interrogations and the end of CIA’s secret detention programme is an “historic decision” and “one of the major steps needed towards bringing the USA back in line with international human rights standards.” 

USA: Executive order to close Guantánamo a major step forward

(Press release, 22 January 2009) Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene Khan today called President Barack Obama’s executive order to close the Guantánamo detention facility “a major step forward” and a “welcome sign that the new administration is willing to right the wrongs of the past.”  

USA: Move to suspend military tribunals a positive first step

(News, 22 January 2009) Amnesty International has welcomed the new US administration’s moves to suspend military commission proceedings at Guantánamo as a “positive sign”. 

Europe: Help close Guantánamo: Offer Humanitarian Protection to Detainees Who Risk Torture or Persecution at Home

(Press release, 22 January 2009) A coalition of human rights organizations called on EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels next week to help close the Guantánamo Bay prison by offering humanitarian protection to detainees who risk torture or persecution at home


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