U.S. Human Rights Abuses in the War on Terror


Since September 2001, the U.S. government has been directly responsible for a broad array of serious human rights violations in fighting terrorism, including torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials. In many instances, US abuses were carried out in collaboration other governments.

To cite one example—albeit a particularly notable one—Pakistan’s intelligence agencies worked closely with the CIA to “disappear” terrorist suspects, hold them in secret detention, and subject them to torture and other abuses.

With Barack Obama’s term as U.S. president, the U.S. approach to fighting terrorism has changed. The scope of the Obama administration’s reforms is not yet clear, but it is obvious that the new administration wants to rethink many of the policies that were instituted over the past eight years.

This change in the U.S. approach is long overdue. What is called for, however, is not only for the United States to reform its own abusive policies, but also for U.S. officials to try to counteract the negative influence of past policies worldwide. As a brief review of US counterterrorism efforts will suggest, the human rights impact of the US-led “war on terror” has been felt across the globe.

Collaboration and Assistance in U.S. “War on Terror” Operations

In carrying out post-9/11 “war on terror” operations—including the detention, interrogation, and transfer of terrorist suspects—the United States relied on the assistance of a broad array of countries, from close allies like Britain to pariah states like Syria.

A few states in this long list stand out. Among the leading partners of the United States in the “war on terror” were Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Jordan. Other countries that played a crucial role in facilitating abusive U.S. practices were Egypt, Thailand, Poland, and Romania.

Some governments carried out abuses at the behest of the United States, as a means of gaining U.S. favor or counterterrorism funding. More often, however, the collaboration was genuine, because the perceived interests of the two countries were aligned. Libya, for example, took custody of a number of Libyan nationals who were rendered to Libya by the CIA in 2004-2006. While the detention and interrogation of these men were deemed to serve U.S. interests, the Libyan authorities had independent reasons for wanting to hold them.

The forms of cooperation varied from intelligence sharing to prisoner transfers to allowing the U.S. to hold prisoners in secret detention on a country’s territory. It is worth noting that many of the countries that were most deeply implicated in abusive U.S. practices received millions of dollars in U.S. military and counterterrorism assistance.

Some governments adopted abusive practices in response to direct US pressure. Most notably, the US encouraged a number of countries to pass draconian counterterrorism laws, often laws that expand police powers, reduce due process guarantees, and set out vague and overbroad definitions of terrorism.

Leading by Negative Example

The negative global impact of US human rights abuses post-9/11 does not, however, end there. Besides direct collaboration and pressure, the US also led by example. Many governments latched onto the Bush administration’s “war on terror” arguments to justify their own abuses, particularly the notion that defeating terrorism trumps any countervailing human rights obligations.

As then-Justice Department official John Yoo expressed the idea in a March 2003 memo, abuses against suspected terrorists can be justified by reference to a “national and international version of the right to self-defense.” The torture of terrorist suspects, according to this rationale, may be deemed necessary and defensible because of the government’s overriding obligation “to protect the nation from attack.” When fighting terrorism, in other words, the stakes are so high that respect for human rights is optional.

While the United States is not the first government to put forward such arguments, its post-9/11 iteration of these views had tremendous global resonance. The political and economic power of the United States, its historical reputation as a defender of human rights, and the vehemence with which it expressed its positions on the “war on terror” all amplified the negative global impact of these views.

Repressive governments, always seeking rhetorical cover for their violations, were quick to adopt the language of counterterrorism to help shield their abuses from critical scrutiny. In Egypt, for example, the government specifically cited the “war on terrorism” and new security laws passed in the United States and elsewhere to justify the 2003 renewal of long-standing emergency powers.

The Bush Legacy

By closing Guantanamo, shutting down CIA prisons, and condemning rather than justifying torture, the new administration will have made enormous strides. It should know, nonetheless, that the global legacy of the past eight years may not be quick to disappear.

The prisoners that the United States handed over to Libya and Syria will still be held without charge; the repressive laws that were passed will remain on the statute books, and the example of U.S. abuses will not be easily forgotten. Not only should the U.S. reform its own practices, it should remedy their impact on the rest of the world.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in Paris.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

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