Protecting Human Rights While Countering Terrorism

Since the start of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights were introduced as a system that exceeded any boundaries, such as religion, gender, ethnicity and nationality, in order to protect each individual. It was an attempt to universalize human standards of decency, morality and dignity, by way of constructing a global human community. It is through this that human rights were able to be changed and recognised as a standard for global order, regulated through international law.
The act of terrorism is not a new concept, and has been responsible for many innocent lives over many years, however not until the attacks on the United States, known as 9/11, has terrorism become such a globalized issue. It was through the symbolic destruction of capitalism, coupled with the vast media outlets to create witnesses that allowed for Western society to face a new threat of vulnerability. The mass production of human rights violations aimed at such a seemingly powerful Western country induced a culture of fear, specifically regarding the weaknesses in national security.
Terrorism, national security, and war became the dominant dialogue throughout international politics, and governments began to develop counter-terrorism legislation in order to enhance feelings of safety and security, but also to seek retribution against terrorist groups. It is through this introduction of new counter-terrorism legislation that allows the expectations of human rights protection to become confused, as state security becomes the prime concern.

This new legislation becomes a shield to hide behind when human rights violations are committed, allowing the state to use the premise of counter terrorism as a justification for neglecting what was previously an internationally standardized notion of human rights protection. It then becomes a paradoxical debate of violation and protection, where policies designed to protect society from these human rights violations, not only affect the terrorists whom they are aimed at, but start to affect the people who’s rights they aim to protect.
Where the notion of human rights is concerned in protecting the individual, counter-terrorism in the age of global terror re-employs these boundaries between the individual in the interest of the state, and disregards human rights. Pojman (2006) states that terrorism is a type of violence employed to deliberately target non-combatants in a ruthlessly destructive and often random manner in order to support concrete political or religious objectives. Because of its random ature, the act of terrorism destabilizes any notion of a human rights system by allowing each individual to be susceptible to its effects. Denying one their right to life is depriving them of their most fundamental human right. According to Anthony Giddens (in Pojman), the difference between what he labels as “old-terrorism” and “new-terrorism” lies in its locality in geographical terms, where the first is concerned with nationalist ideology and remained local, and the latter is focused on its global implementation (2006).
September 11th became the poster for this “new-terrorism”, bringing with it the stark realisation that Western Society was not impervious to terrorist regimes. The vulnerability of the United States seemed not to have been considered previously, and the mass murder evoked an intense culture of fear amongst the people, only to be further manipulated by the media, causing governments to strike with new legislation. The notion of prevention was a strong instigator for new strategies, where the state intended to seek out terrorist activity before it happened.
Terrorism uncovers the limits of the human rights system in achieving universal consensus. However the authority of rights is more so undermined when counter-terrorist acts violate these moral principles in the constant pursuit of their re-avouchment. Under the title of counter-terrorism, democratically defined countries are deserting fundamental principles of human rights that were once upheld, such as the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression and the right to seek asylum (McCulloch, 2003).
The entire premise behind having a universal declaration of human rights was to maintain a society in which people could have access to a global mechanism of protection and support. However counter-terrorism has dismantled these ideals and replaced them with suspect and presumed guilt. The position of human rights in the international community has been seen as dispensary to the higher priority of achieving security through counter-terrorism.
Faced with the exposure of the weakness to its homeland, the US opted for a military based counter-terrorism approach, resulting in the deployment of military forces into the Middle East and Central Asia, initiating what was known as the War on Terror (Schorlemer, 2003). The invasion of Afghanistan was designed to strengthen state borders from afar by defeating terrorists at their source. However, in order to do so, the US strategy was to utilize violence to secure their human rights. In using violence, they contradicted exactly what they were fighting for.
The state of emergency that was declared following 9/11 and the climate of fear fostered by terrorist activity destabilized the notion that all individuals are entitled to rights protection. In a state of war, honouring human rights is neither practically possible nor theoretically required (Luban, 2002). It becomes intrinsic in the system of war that constitutional rights and civil liberties of populations can be brought to a halt under the pretence of enhancing state security, all the while allowing for the deterioration of basic human rights under circumstances of organised violence.
The US disregard for abiding to the universal human rights of global citizens can strongly be seen in the military intervention in Afghanistan, and further in the counter-terrorism strategies of rendition, torture and detainment practiced by the US and their allies in pursuit of security. Under the model of war, the lethal use of force on enemy troops is permissible, and the accidental maiming and killing of civilians is seen as collateral damage rather than victims of atrocities (Luban, 2002). Therefore, by declaration of war, George W. Bush implemented a counter-terrorism strategy, that by virtue of its nature undermines the system of human rights as an internationally enforceable system available to all individuals. This is reinforced by highlighting its illegitimacy in instances of war. As terrorism is not an enemy in the conventional war sense, as it is not a visible and tangible body with a defined territory, the US forces in Afghanistan have relied on using air strikes to attack insurgents, according to Garlasco (reference).
Usual requirement of evidence or proof before a conviction becomes less regulated or required when at war, with plausible intelligence and insufficient evidence adequate as the foundation for action (Luban, 2002). In situations of flawed or limited intelligence, it has not been terrorists but civilians that have become victims of air strike assaults, thus having their right to life stolen from them (Garlasco).
An example of this kind of fatal mistake occurred in the Afghani town of Uruzgan in 2002, where faulty intelligence concerning the location of Al-Qaeda fighters led to the execution of a lethal air strike, killing 21 civilians. This problematic endeavour to protect our rights is therefore legitimizing civilian casualties as collateral damage of war. Counter-terrorism strategies have justified the illegal detainment, torture and rendition of suspected terrorists as a necessary process in achieving security and paradoxically reasserting the human rights of moral citizens.
The aftermath of September 11th brought about the legitimization of human rights violations through new counter-terrorism laws, whereby these violations can most distinctly be witnessed through the treatment of prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Democratic rights such as the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, and freedom from torture were all eradicated in the operations that took place at the base, denying them these basic civil liberties in an unrelenting pursuit of truth and justice for the violence inflicted on American citizens on September 11th.
Common practice has been the illegal detention of suspected terrorists, where the rights to due process and a fair trial are not upheld. Recently, the evidence against the military has been growing, including official Pentagon documents, indicating that interrogators consistently employed hard line counter-resistance measures in absolution to induce prisoner co-operation. Such measures include sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, painful body positions, feigned suffocation, beatings, sexual provocation and displays of contempt for Islamic symbols (Bloche and Marks, 2005).
Under the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT), an event is considered torture if it satisfies three constitutive elements; the infliction of severe mental or physical suffering, for the recipient to be perpetrated for a purpose, and for this to occur by way of an official (Hocking and Lewis, 2007). The operation of torture in counter-terrorist tactics echoes the breakdown of moral consensus on the use of torture, with the US disrespect for this international human right setting a negative global standard (Wilson, 2005).
Therefore, when another State executes this act of torture, the US and their Western Allies seek their services for interrogating their own suspected terrorists, rather than condemning the act. The US, since September 11th, has engaged in transferring their suspects to other countries, where the torture and interrogation can be carried out. This instance of rendition mirrors the practices undertaken by the Swedish Government, where they abducted extremist Islamic suspects and transferred them to Egypt, where torture under interrogation is considered legal custom (Bloche and Marks, 2005).
Counter-terrorism has allowed for the undermining of the adoption of human rights globally. Where western democratic states were formerly viewed as human rights advocates, they now deny this role of leadership in aid of suppressing this culture of fear induced by global terrorism. Counter-terrorism strategies have both enhanced the degradation of human rights in regards to the moral basis for international relations, and allowed for the threat of terrorism to be used by state governments to increasingly militarize the protocol of law enforcement and increase the surveillance of civilians (McCulloch, 2003).
The war on terror has perpetuated a permanent state of emergency with no foreseeable end. Thus in many western countries, the prolonged war against terror is being used politically rather than legally, to justify the permanent restriction of civilian human rights (Zizek). Shielded by the counter-terrorism legislation, states have put into practice new national security laws whilst pre-existing emergency legislation has achieved legitimacy, claiming to be an essential response to the threat of terrorism (Wilson, 2005).
In support of their counter-terrorism strategies employed abroad, states such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the US have relied upon internal strategies to curtail the threat of terrorism. Such measures include the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without trial or judicial review, the increased surveillance and reduced privacy protections, the dramatic increase in the powers afforded to domestic spy agencies, the right to silence and choice of legal representation eradicated completely, and the vastly expanded resources afforded to military and police engaged in homeland security (McCulloch, 2003).
The civil and political liberties that were considered so important during the devising of the UDHR, are now ironically being violated by the very people who them in place. The power to detain people will increase state security organizations power to suppress dissent by adding detention to the potential adverse consequences of political opinions that challenge the political status quo (McCulloch, 2003).
In times of global terror, the implementation of increased surveillance does not invoke a feeling of security amongst society, but conversely, further extends the culture of fear that occurs through constant intimidation and increasingly inhibited freedoms. The dispensability of human rights in times of state emergency is revealed when our global principles can be undermined by counter-terrorist strategies so immediately.
The principle of counter-terrorism, to enhance state security, has reinforced the rigidity of national borders, by entrenching foreigners and citizenship as acceptable bases for distinction and discrimination and the rejection of humanitarian concerns for individual needs (Mertus and Helsing, 2006). The figure of the refugee as the individual, deprived of citizenship and reliant on the goodwill of other states, illustrates this collision between the protection of individual versus the protection of the state (Humphrey, 2002). After the Second World War, the refugee acquired a measure of political significance as victims of persecution.
However the contemporary threat of terrorism has redefined refugees as victims of an international system of nation states founded on a hierarchy of exclusion (Humphrey, 2002). Rather than generously extending protection to individuals seeking asylum from persecution, torture and war, counter-terrorism strategies have increased the conditionality in the acceptance of refugees. ‘Boat people’ arriving on remote areas of the northwest shoreline of Australia constitute the manifestation of the international refugee crisis in this country.
Recent asylum seekers are confined in remote detention centres in economically poor island communities to the north of Australia. This criminalization of refugees by the Australian government reflects a rejection of their moral responsibility as human rights guarantors whilst ironically committing human rights violations of their own. The detainment of asylum seekers inflicts a greater degree of suffering on these individuals with detention providing a re-traumatizing environment that may contribute to the development of mental health problems (Stout, 2002).
The political discourse employed by the government in relation to ‘boat people’ stripped the refugee of compassion and their human rights by referring to them as ‘illegal’s’ that pay ‘people smugglers’ (Humphrey, 2002). Thus rather than alleviate the suffering imposed on refugees by virtue of their situation, various States are going to extreme lengths to undermine the legitimacy of their asylum claims by making invalid character judgments.
Similar to human rights, the category of refugee is non-racial; in theory a state is obliged to extend support and assistance to a refugee without racial selectivity. Australia has a history of denying asylum based on race, such as the exclusion of Chinese immigrants during the 1880s, and now this racial exclusion is being inflicted on individuals of Middle Eastern descent based upon them sharing the same ethnicity as Al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist groups.
The racial assumptions that acquaint the Afghani or Iraqi race with terrorism have falsely led to the prolonged detainment and refused asylum of Middle Eastern individuals. Thus terrorism has accelerated the shift in global attitudes toward refugees from one of state moral responsibility to the prioritization of state security over accepting claims for asylum. Whilst viewed as a strategy of counter-terrorism, enhanced border security and the increased conditionality required for refugees to gain asylum disqualifies human rights as a unifying discourse without qualification.
The implementation of counter-terrorism strategies by Western nations in reaction to the 9/11 attacks were largely reactionary and centred on enhanced state security to reduce the likelihood of terrorist activity infiltrating national borders. The contemporary manifestation of terrorism represents a clash of civilizations, pitting the culture of Islamic fundamentalism against a Western culture composed of modernity, secularity and democracy (Pojman, 2006). In this clash human rights rests precariously in the middle.
On the one hand, terrorism denies victims their rights, yet the enactment of counter-terrorism strategies to address these violations paradoxically impedes on the rights of global citizens. The way in which western countries have responded to the threat of terrorism has not only violated principles of human rights and international law but has also proved to be ineffective in combating terrorism. Almost eight years after the proclamation of the ‘global war on terror’ terrorists are still striking with alarming frequency and ease in our cities: Madrid, London, Sharm el Sheikh, Bali and Mumbai represent the more recent and appalling acts.
If our world is in a state of war, why is it that western forces have not been as successful as past governments in achieving victory in similar time periods as in past wars (Hocking and Lewis, 2007)? The First World War was won in five years and the Japanese Empire in World War II was defeated in four years following their attack on Pearl Harbour. Despite all the energies and resources deployed to strengthen the West’s ‘War on Terror’, global terrorism has not lost its power to recruit combatants and inflict destruction on unsuspecting communities (Hocking and Lewis, 2007).
In the context of terrorism, war has proven to be ineffective as it fails to address the environment with which terrorism has evolved. Terrorist organizations flourish in societies that have been marginalized by globalization and where there are unresolved conflicts and few accountability mechanisms for addressing political grievances (Hocking and Lewis, 2007). The feeling of despair and sense of hopelessness rooted in oppression, ignorance, poverty and perceived injustice have been identified as causal factors in the development of terrorism.
Just as the benefits of globalization and modernity have been unequally distributed so have the capabilities of marginalized populations to gain access to their human rights. Thus to combat terrorism, the implementation of social and economic policy can help to mitigate exclusion and the impact of rapid socio-economic change which foster the grievances which terrorists exploit to gain legitimacy (Hocking and Lewis, 2007). Greater emphasis on counter-terrorism strategies, which address the causal factors of terrorism, will thus increase individual access to human rights and diminish their marginalization and global inequality.
Terrorism is a political and criminal activity that undermines the foundation of the contemporary human rights system. It rejects the notion that by virtue of every individual’s humanness they should have access to a host of civil, political and socio-economic rights. The attack of 9/11 exposed security weaknesses of the US, subsequently inducing fear in all western states that they could too be easily targeted by religious extremist factions. Counter-terrorism has aimed to heighten state security often to the detriment of upholding universal principles of human rights.
Just as terrorism views all enemy citizens with the same contempt that is there is no distinction between the president and an average citizen, in many regards counter terrorism makes no distinction between terrorists and civilians in that human rights restrictions are imposed on all individuals in states of emergency. Once relied upon as states of human rights advocacy and leadership, western states have legitimized the rejection of human rights under the banner of counter-terrorism.
The ‘War on Terror’, increasing surveillance of citizens, restriction of their constitutional rights and the abandonment of state’s moral duty toward asylum seekers symbolizes the dispensability and conditionality of universal human rights. The abrogation of human rights underlying contemporary counter-terrorism practices reflects the limits of the human rights system to neglect in times of emergency, fear and vulnerability.

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