Barack Obama wants shift from ‘permanent war footing’

2014-01-29 08:51

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Washington – US President Barack Obama has told Americans that 2014 should be the year to finally close the US prison at Guantanamo Bay as the US winds down its military role in Afghanistan and shifts away from a “permanent war footing”.

In his annual state of the union address, Obama renewed his old vow – dating back to the start of his presidency five years ago – to shut the internationally condemned jail at the US naval base in Cuba, and he called on Congress for further action to help him do so.

“This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay,” Obama said. “Because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.”

While seeking to add a sense of urgency to the issue, Obama stopped short of offering any new prescriptions on how he intends to empty Guantanamo of its remaining 155 prisoners. They were rounded up overseas after the September 11 2001 attacks and have been held without trial ever since.

After US law makers made it easier late last year to transfer Guantanamo inmates to their home countries, Obama is now in a better position to gradually reduce the detainee population. But signalling that major obstacles remain, he said Congress needed to give him further flexibility.

The effort to close Guantanamo is a critical part of Obama’s broader drive to roll back some of controversial aspects of the global fight against Islamist militants as he presses ahead with plans to formally end the long, unpopular war in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

“Even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks,” Obama said, “America must move off a permanent war footing.”

In a speech that focused mostly on domestic issues, Obama reminded Americans that he had already imposed “prudent limits” on deadly US drone strikes against al-Qaeda and its allies – a campaign that has drawn criticism for civilian casualties in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

“We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence,” he said.

He also reasserted the pledge he made earlier this month to reform US surveillance activities. The move was triggered by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of the government's vast collection of phone data, including eavesdropping on some allied foreign leaders.

Reaction from human rights groups was initially muted. “President Obama’s legacy is at stake and his time is slipping away,” said Zeke Johnson, the director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program.

“We’ve heard this before and now is the time for action, to finally transfer the 77 Guantanamo detainees cleared to leave, reveal the names of people killed by drones, end mass surveillance and end the constant state of war,” he said.

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