U.S. President Barack Obama vetoes the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on October 22, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

The US Congress should reject provisions in an annual defense spending bill that will impede efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, Human Rights Watch said today. Congress should retain provisions that protect military victims of sexual assault.

The Senate and House of Representatives are soon expected to begin reconciling competing versions of the bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for Fiscal Year 2017. It was approved by the Senate on June 14, 2016, and the House on May 18.

“Passing the defense bill’s Guantanamo provisions will make it extremely difficult for the Obama administration to transfer detainees who should have been released years ago,” said Laura Pitter, senior US national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should cut these unnecessary and inhumane restrictions that prolong indefinite detention without trial.”

Both versions of the bill contain problematic provisions on Guantanamo, including onerous transfer restrictions, bans on transferring detainees to the US for continued detention or trial, and complete bans on detainee transfers to Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The Senate version adds a new provision that bans the transfer of detainees to countries where the State Department has issued travel warnings. The House version requires the administration to provide Congress with information on how it plans to handle current and future detainees.

The Senate version of the bill contains a provision that permits the transfer of detainees to the US for emergency medical treatment. This provision should be retained in any conferenced version of the bill, Human Rights Watch said.

Once Congress passes a final version of the bill, it will go to President Barack Obama for his signature. The Obama administration has threatened to veto both versions of the bill. It has expressed particularly strong objections to the Guantanamo provisions in the Senate version, noting that State Department travel warnings are designed to “[convey] information to individual tourists and other travelers,” and do not “reflect a country's ability to mitigate potential risk with regard to transferred [Guantanamo] detainees.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly failed to follow through on threats to veto previous Defense Authorization bills over Guantanamo restrictions. Though Obama did veto the 2016 NDAA last year, he ultimately signed an amended bill into law with no changes to the Guantanamo provisions.

A total of 80 prisoners remain at Guantanamo. Of those, 30 have been cleared for release, while another 40 await review by an interagency Periodic Review Board, which assesses whether certain detainees meet the US government’s standards for release. Of the remaining 10 detainees, seven face charges before the fundamentally flawed military commission system and another three have been convicted. Half of the eight convictions obtained in the commissions have been overturned.

Despite its problematic Guantanamo provisions, the NDAA contains important provisions to help prevent wrongful non-disability mental health discharges of US military sexual assault victims with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Human Rights Watch said. Other provisions strengthen the ability of veterans who believe they were wrongfully discharged to have their cases reviewed by military administrative bodies. A Human Rights Watch report released in May documented the devastating effect of unfair discharges on military sexual assault survivors.

“Sexual assault survivors in the military need to be protected against wrongful discharge from service, and those who have been unfairly kicked out should have a way to correct errors in their records,” said Sara Darehshori, senior US counsel at Human Rights Watch, and author of the May report. “Congress should be sure to include the provisions in the defense bill offering better protections for military survivors of sexual assault.”