Flags fly above the sign for Camp Justice at Guantanamo Bay.

© 2013 Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC, October 8, 2015) – United States President Barack Obama should veto a defense spending bill that will hinder his efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill, passed by the Senate on October 7, 2015, increases restrictions on the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo, maintains a ban on detainee transfers to the US, and imposes onerous new transfer reporting requirements.

“President Obama has made clear that Guantanamo weakens US national security and at great expense,” said Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Obama should veto this bill, which will only make it harder to shut Guantanamo down.”

For several years, the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has included provisions that make it difficult, but not impossible, to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo to their home countries, or resettle them elsewhere. To transfer detainees, the US defense secretary is required to take certain factors into consideration, such as the security situation in the country of transfer and the threat posed by certain terrorist groups.

Under the new provisions, the defense secretary must personally “certify” that certain conditions exist in transfer countries, such as the ability to maintain control over specific detention facilities. The defense secretary must also provide Congress with information about the receiving country – such as the capacity and willingness to share information about past transfers – that could deter a government from accepting Guantanamo detainees. The new provisions also impose, for the first time, a complete ban on transfers to Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Libya.

The bill continues a complete ban on all Guantanamo transfers to the US. The administration, as part of its efforts to close Guantanamo, has pushed to lift this ban so that it could transfer some of the 114 detainees to the US for continued detention. The US should transfer the detainees being prosecuted to the US for trial in federal court rather than in the fundamentally flawed military commissions at Guantanamo, Human Rights Watch said. However, transferring them to the US for continued indefinite detention without trial would continue a practice that violates international law.

The US government should ensure that closing Guantanamo would end all indefinite detention without charge. Any detainees currently at Guantanamo should either be prosecuted in courts that comport with international fair trial standards or be released, Human Rights Watch said.

The Obama administration has threatened to veto the NDAA over the Guantanamo provisions. However, similar veto threats for previous Guantanamo provisions have not been carried out. Though the bill authorizes funding for most Defense Department operations, it is not essential for the US armed forces to function. Four of five presidents preceding Obama vetoed a defense authorization act. The president must either veto or sign the bill into law within 10 days* (excluding Sundays) of receivig the bill from Congress. 

“Obama’s window of opportunity for closing Guantanamo is shutting,” Pitter said. “Vetoing this defense bill is crucial for him to do so.”