(Washington, DC) - The inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States should usher in a new era of reformed counterterrorism policies, Human Rights Watch said today. Upon taking office, President Obama should immediately renounce the Bush administration's abusive approach to fighting terrorism and embrace new policies that respect basic rights.

"The policies of the last seven-and-a-half years have not only damaged the reputation of the US as a nation that adheres to the rule of law, but they have undermined Washington's ability to effectively fight terror," said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. "We expect President Obama to take rapid steps to change course - to close Guantanamo, end the military commissions, and abolish the CIA's abusive detention program."

According to news reports, Obama plans to issue an executive order in his first days in office mandating that the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay be closed. Human Rights Watch called on the new administration to bring federal charges against those detainees implicated in serious criminal acts, and to release those it does not plan to charge.

The new president will need to take immediate action to prevent flawed military commission trials from going forward. Seven days after Obama takes office, the trial of former child soldier Omar Khadr is scheduled to take place at Guantanamo.

"I don't think President Obama wants to kick off his administration by prosecuting a child soldier in an unjust court," said Mariner. "The Khadr trial - and the military commissions altogether - should be brought to a swift end."

Human Rights Watch also called upon the new administration to ensure the rights of detainees at Guantanamo who have been slated for release but who cannot be returned home for fear of torture or persecution. It should immediately admit some of them into the United States, and step up negotiations with US allies around the world for the resettlement of the others.

Human Rights Watch said that Obama should reject calls to create a system of preventive detention that would allow detainees to be held without charge in the United States. Such a system of indefinite detention would suffer from the same key defects as the Guantanamo system.

"Creating a preventive detention system on US soil would merely relocate the Guantanamo problem, not solve it," said Mariner.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Obama administration to work with Congress to create a non-partisan investigatory body (a truth commission) with subpoena power to investigate abuses related to US counterterrorism policies and practices. This commission should specifically address who should be held criminally accountable for these abuses and how such accountability can be achieved. It should also make recommendations regarding what steps should be taken to ensure that these abuses do not happen again.

"The new administration has the opportunity to reinvigorate the role of the US as a promoter of human rights globally," said Mariner. "But that will be an uphill battle if the US government allows its own officials to get away with ordering torture."

In a November 2008 briefing paper, "Fighting Terrorism Fairly and Effectively: Recommendations for President-Elect Barack Obama," Human Rights Watch laid out 11 steps that Obama should take to reform US counterterrorism practices:

  • Close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and either release or prosecute the detainees in US federal courts;
  • Abolish the military commissions and prosecute terrorist suspects in federal court;
  • Reject preventive detention (detention without trial) as an alternative to prosecuting terrorist suspects;
  • Reject the "global war on terror" as the basis for detaining terrorist suspects;
  • Issue an executive order to implement the ban on torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in all federal agencies, including the CIA;
  • End the CIA detention program;
  • Prohibit renditions to torture;
  • Account for past abuses in the "global war on terror";
  • Provide redress for those who suffered abuse in US custody;
  • Repudiate Justice Department memos and presidential directives that permit torture and other abusive treatment; and
  • Protect innocent victims of persecution abroad from being defined as terrorists.