FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Security, Terrorism and Human Rights

Terrorism is not a new problem, nor is there anything novel in the government tendency to justify repressive policies by reference to the terrorist threat. Yet it is only in recent years, with the greater scale and pervasiveness of contemporary terrorism, that a sustained global focus on security has emerged.

The new global security agenda poses significant normative threats to the existing human rights framework. Governments are increasingly taking actions in the name of counter-terrorism that violate basic human rights norms. International bodies such as the United Nations are not only failing to impede such actions, but are in some ways encouraging them.

A central concern is that now, more than in the past, it is not authoritarian states but instead Western democracies that are opposing human rights protections. Led by the United States, these countries are threatening to override human rights guarantees and nullify the gains that the human rights movement has made in recent decades.

How the human rights movement responds to this challenge will likely define the landscape of human rights for many years to come.

Indefinite Detention, Torture and Other Abuses

Not that long ago, the U.S. government was criticizing countries such as Peru that used military tribunals to try suspected terrorists; now it is emulating them. It currently holds more than 500 people in indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay. It has been holding others for years in undisclosed locations abroad, and one in incommunicado detention in a South Carolina naval brig.

Besides infringing upon the rights to due process and liberty of person, the U.S. has inflicted physical and mental pain on some of the detainees in its custody, even abuses that constitute torture. In addition, U.S. officials have turned suspected terrorists over to countries such as Syria and Jordan that routinely engage in torture themselves.

The record of certain European countries is also far from exemplary. Spain is known to physically abuse suspected terrorists. Until the House of Lords struck down the policy, the U.K. held immigrants suspected of terrorism in indefinite detention. Sweden, France, and other countries have deported suspected terrorists back to countries where they face torture.

And one can expect that if attacks comparable to the March 2004 Madrid bombings or the July 2005 London attacks occur in other European cities–a fairly likely possibility over the next decade–then such abuses will become more common. Past experience suggests that when governments confront a significant threat of terrorism they often react abusively.

A Transformative Global Impact

The increased threat of terrorism has important ramifications. Because U.S. power and influence are so critical in the development of global structures, institutions and standards–and because the U.S. has a demonstrated willingness to sabotage international bodies such as the United Nations and the ICC that are perceived as inconvenient to U.S. goals–the shift in the U.S. approach, in particular, could have a potentially transformative global impact.

Indeed, it is arguable that the new global security agenda spearheaded by the U.S. poses the single most serious threat to the existing system of human rights protections.

Already, other governments have tried to assimilate their own situations to the global “war on terror.” In Colombia, Uzbekistan, Russia, China, and a host of other countries, guerrilla insurgencies, separatist movements, and even non-violent dissident activities are being stigmatized by governments as terrorist. Such labels are used to rob the targeted groups of legitimacy, both domestically and internationally, and to allow governments to recast their struggles against these groups as counter-terrorism.

The danger of this tendency, from a human rights perspective, is the presumption that normal human rights and humanitarian law constraints are relaxed in the fight against terrorism. Equally worrisome is the fact that such claims are often asserted in the hope of attracting U.S. support, or at least of tempering U.S. criticism of abuses. As during the Cold War, the United States seeming willing to make tactical alliances with little concern for human rights values.
Human Rights and Security

Governments are in some instances using the so-called war on terror to further preexisting political and security agendas. Yet it would still be wrong to dismiss governments’ references to terrorism as pretextual. Granted, the Bush Administration used the threat of terrorism largely as a pretext when it decided to invade Iraq. And former Attorney General John Ashcroft most certainly took advantage of the Patriot Act to prosecute telemarketers, pornographers, and others far beyond the law’s intended scope.

But human rights organizations must still recognize that many of the security measures instituted by governments respond, however misguidedly, to very real dangers. One might, therefore, frame the problem facing the human rights movement as how to persuade governments to strike a fair balance between human rights and security.

An even more constructive approach would be to craft responses that maximize the likelihood of achieving both objectives. Because in the end the protection of human rights enhances human security, rather than undermining it.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights attorney based in New York.

This column originally appeared on Writ Findlaw.

 

More articles by:

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

November 20, 2018
John Davis
Geographies of Violence in Southern California
Anthony Pahnke
Abolishing ICE Means Defunding it
Maximilian Werner
Why (Mostly) Men Trophy Hunt: a Biocultural Explanation
Masturah Alatas
Undercutting Female Circumcision
Jack Rasmus
Global Oil Price Deflation 2018 and Beyond
Geoff Dutton
Why High Technology’s Double-Edged Sword is So Hard to Swallow
Binoy Kampmark
Charges Under Seal: US Prosecutors Get Busy With Julian Assange
Rev. William Alberts
America Fiddles While California Burns
Forrest Hylton, Aaron Tauss and Juan Felipe Duque Agudelo
Remaking the Common Good: the Crisis of Public Higher Education in Colombia
Patrick Cockburn
What Can We Learn From a Headmaster Who Refused to Allow His Students to Celebrate Armistice Day?
Clark T. Scott
Our Most Stalwart Company
Tom H. Hastings
Look to the Right for Corruption
Edward Hunt
With Nearly 400,000 Dead in South Sudan, Will the US Finally Change Its Policy?
Thomas Knapp
Hypocrisy Alert: Republicans Agreed with Ocasio-Cortez Until About One Minute Ago
November 19, 2018
David Rosen
Amazon Deal: New York Taxpayers Fund World Biggest Sex-Toy Retailer
Sheldon Richman
Art of the Smear: the Israel Lobby Busted
Chad Hanson
Why Trump is Wrong About the California Wildfires
Dean Baker
Will Progressives Ever Think About How We Structure Markets, Instead of Accepting them as Given?
Robert Fisk
We Remember the Great War, While Palestinians Live It
Dave Lindorff
Pelosi’s Deceptive Plan: Blocking any Tax Rise Could Rule Out Medicare-for-All and Bolstering Social Security
Rick Baum
What Can We Expect From the Democrat “Alternative” Given Their Record in California?
Thomas Scott Tucker
Trump, World War I and the Lessons of Poetry
John W. Whitehead
Red Flag Gun Laws
Newton Finn
On Earth, as in Heaven: the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy
Robert Fantina
Shithole Countries: Made in the USA
René Voss
Have Your Say about Ranching in Our Point Reyes National Seashore
Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail