Human rights in the age of terror

Shiraz Deen

Member states of the UN have frequently disregarded international human rights laws and principles in the name of counter-terrorism, an expert panel at the UN found. The panel entitled ‘Fortress or Sand-Castle? Human Rights in the Age of Counter-Terrorism’, was

the seventh instalment of the New Human Rights Dialogue Series, a 12 part monthly series in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “read today very much like a catalogue of abuses, and quite often abuses carried out in the name of something called counter-terrorism,” said Craig Mokhiber, of the Office of the UNHCR, who moderated the

panel. Some areas of concern with regard to counter-terrorists stressed by the panellists are the expansion of police powers, use of secret courts and evidence, use of preventative detention, and the application of the death penalty.

“Counter-terrorism laws passed worldwide have represented a broad expansion of government power to investigate detain, prosecute, and imprison individuals with minimal judicial oversight, public transparency, and due process,” said Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch.These laws restrict the rights of terrorists, political dissidents, social activists, and common criminals, according to Mariner. The legislation is partly the result of the lack of an international definition for terrorism, without which countries are allowed to create their own broad definitions of what constitutes a terrorist organisation or act. Human rights violations resulting from laws based on these broad definitions are exacerbated by international pressure from the Security Council for member states to show that they are combating terrorism domestically.

The US among other nations has attempted to justify the derogation of certain international human rights laws by claiming that the “war on terror” is a new kind of armed conflict that lies outside of international human rights law and warrants the creation of a new structure of humanitarian law. Margaret Satterthwaite, co-director of the international human rights clinic at the centre of human rights and global justice at NYU School of Law, noted that, “this argument has been rejected by a number of high courts of various member states and even if one were to accept such an argument, one would still be under the rule of international humanitarian principles of international law when forging those new rules.”

The panellists explained that the Security Council has been slow to incorporate human rights into its global counter-terrorism strategy. Joanna Weschler, director of research of the Security Council Report, described the Council’s progress on integrating human rights into the counter-terrorism strategy as a, “process of slow and partial overcoming of a very deep reluctance.”

Weschler recalled that, “Council members were initially adamant that the Council would not make safeguarding human rights part of its anti-terror agenda and I remember in that period when a P5 ambassador said to me, “‘Joanna don’t expect to see the two words human and rights together in any council documents on terrorism any time soon’, and I must say they kept their word for a while.”