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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.