The War on Terror and Human Rights

The relationship between human rights and combatting terrorism is increasingly prominent, especially since the ‘war on terror’. Human rights are rights which people are entitled by virtue of being human. It could be argued that an infringement on human rights is acceptable as it is the lesser of two evils compared to terrorism. However, others may argue that an infringement is simply unacceptable and can never be justified. It is also argued to be counterproductive in terms of countering terrorism. There is often much debate regarding human rights and terrorism as it is often seen as a government’s responsibility to protect the right to life of citizens therefore suggesting that both human rights and combatting terrorism should complement one another, in reality however, this is not the case. This essay will explore the ways in which terrorism is combatted, for example through: military, state security and ideological approaches, and the ways in which they do and don’t undermine human rights.

One method of combatting terrorism is through the use of military and is often criticised for undermining human rights. The ‘war on terror’ and the use of torture are examples of such a method. Many human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the use of torture as it is undeniably immoral and violates human rights. Therefore, it can be argued that the ‘war on terror’ is not a ‘just war’ because it has not been fought using just means. Donald Trump has recently said that he is ready to ‘fight fire with fire’ and is open to the methods of torture such as ‘waterboarding’ (simulated drowning). It is also suspected that 9 prisoners who died in Guantanamo Bay did so resulting from torture. The violation of human rights such as this have weakened global support for the USA, particularly in majority Muslim countries, damaging their ‘soft’ power. Another example of the USA undermining human rights in the attempt to combat terrorism is Trump’s first covert counter-terrorism operation in Yemen February 2017. The raids taken place in Yemen have been described as a ‘brutal firefight’ and it has been reported that civilians were killed, including 10 women and children. This clearly illustrates that human rights are being not only undermined but defied in order to combat terrorism through military means. Realists would subscribe to this method of combatting terrorism as they believe that the most important form of power is military. They also believe all states have to consider survival and so, if using military is the ultimate way of keeping citizens safe and surviving, these means can be justified.

On the other hand, it could be argued that using military means to combat terrorism does not undermine human rights. Terrorism is a covert military threat posed by people who often have fanatical views and belief. Additionally, it is often claimed that unconventional threats require unconventional responses. The use of military is often justified by being a balance of a suffering cause. The 9/11 attacks itself was a major human rights violation, killing 3,000 innocent civilians, therefore it can be argued that any way of preventing this is not undermining human rights but instead protecting them. This shows how human rights are being upheld when the public are being saved from terrorists’ actions. In some exceptional circumstances, some restrictions on enjoyment of certain human rights may be permissible, therefore it can be argued that they aren’t being undermined, only temporarily restricted. Terrorism requires states to take steps to protect the most fundamental right, the right to life, so it is often argued that by whatever means a state tackles terrorism is not undermining human rights. Additionally, the ‘ticking bomb scenario’, where terrorists may need to be tortured if the location of a bomb can be found, suggests that military means can be justified in order to protect human rights. This supports Article 3 stating that everyone has a right to life, liberty and security of person.

Another method of tackling terrorism is by using state security for example Guantanamo Bay. Human right activist groups have condemned Guantanamo and the detention of prisoners without trial on the grounds that human rights are inviolable and so therefore anything that undermines them is wrong. There is little evidence to support many of the captures, only 8 prisoners have been convicted by the military and 86% of all prisoners were captured because of a bounty offer. This evidence suggests that most of the people detained in Guantanamo Bay are wrongly imprisoned. This is further illustrated by the fact 28 prisoners have no evidence against them but are still designated as ‘dangerous’. Not only is this means of tackling terrorism undermining human rights, but it is also seen as an ineffective way at countering terrorism and leads to an increased chance of radicalisation. Furthermore, the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’, whereby detainees are transferred – without legal process – to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation, has allowed the easier violation of human rights. Another example of the use of state security and domestic repression to combat terrorism is Trump’s recent immigration ban. The ban consists of the suspension of the entire US refugee admission for 120 days and banned entry from 7 majority-Muslim countries. This ban is a clear violation of Article 2 and Article 13 (entitlement to all rights regardless of race and the right to freedom of movement) under the UN’s universal declaration of human rights. France is also known to condemn religion/religious symbols. Hollande called the burka a ‘uniform for terrorism’ and in 2010 France passed an act prohibiting concealment of the face in a public space, clearly violating basic rights to freedom of expression. This suggests that it is not possible to effectively tackle terrorism without compromising rights.

On the other hand, it can be argued that using state security to tackle terrorism does not undermine human rights. Sensitivity to issues concerning human rights would put governments at a grave disadvantage in confronting an enemy that has no concern itself for human rights, suggesting that unconventional responses are required to be an effective solution. Although many methods of tackling terrorism are controversial, it can be argued that they are all within the law. The United Nations Security Council acted swiftly after 9/11 to strengthen the legal framework for international cooperation and common approaches to the threat of terrorism, for example: preventing their financing, reducing the risk of them acquiring weapons of mass destruction and improving cross-border information-sharing by law enforcement authorities as well as establishing a monitoring body (Counter-Terrorism Committee), all of which do not undermine human rights but protect them. Ignatieff, a Canadian liberal, believes that if a state complies with certain principles by which democracies can navigate between the competing moral imperatives of protecting individual rights and protecting the community, then combatting terrorism and upholding human rights can both be achieved. The UK’s recent advancement of the Snooper’s Charter becoming Law (Investigatory Powers Act) has been very controversial and many have claimed that it is an infringement upon human rights. However, it can be argued that human rights are not being compromised as no information about citizens is being released, and therefore the act allows terrorism to be tackled/prevented without rights being undermined. Amber Rudd, home secretary, said that the act provided ‘unprecedented transparency and substantial privacy protection’. Therefore, it can be argued that it is very much possible for terrorism to be tackled without the individual’s’ rights to be compromised.

The third way a state may tackle terrorism is by taking an ideological approach and focusing more on preventing terrorism. The UK’s prevent agenda promotes British values and aims to prevent people before following the trajectory from anger to terrorism. A certain ‘type of Islam’ is being proactively pushed, stating what a good Muslim should be like and what a bad Muslim is like. This is a deep and problematic strategy which, by condemning religion doesn’t only undermine human rights but also fuels even more terrorism as by oppressing people it only gives them a reason to be angry. This ideological approach has led to various viewpoints, including the ‘Radicals vs Sufis’ perspective. This viewpoint suggests that Takfiri, Salafi, and Wahhabi ideologies are radical and responsible for promoting terrorism. Opposed to these radical ideologies is Sufism which is seen as a moderate version of Islam capable of countering radicalism and has little or no political dimension. However, these are based on assumptions that terrorists gain inspiration from Takfiri, Salafi and Wahhabi versions of Islam. It is also assuming that Sufis cannot be extremist. This implies that this method of tackling terrorism is in line with Western liberal views, eg secularism, and therefore violating human rights as it isn’t treating everyone equally. Additionally, Trump’s new National Security Adviser believes that a more human approach should be taken to tackle terrorism, because Trump’s association of terrorism Islam is alienating many people and is discriminating against one particular religion.

However, an ideological approach is often seen as the best way of tackling terrorism without compromising human rights. It sets ‘deradicalisation’ and prevent strategies as the most appropriate approach. The idea is to prevent radicalisation at its roots by winning over community figures and promoting British values to prevent people who are angry combining their emotions with conservative Islam/fundamentalism and becoming terrorists, also known as the conveyor belt argument. It has seen to be successful method, for example Egypt successfully deradicalised radicals by sending preachers to prisons preaching anti-radical rhetoric. This approach is not only successful at preventing terrorism but it also doesn’t undermine any human rights. Ignatieff believes that neither security nor liberalism holds trump card; governments may indeed need to violate some rights in a terrorist emergency but it should be done with a ‘conservative bias’ ensuring that Western societies remain faithful to liberal values of openness and freedom. The ‘conservative bias’ means that terrorism should be tackled with due process, adversarial proceedings and other legal safeguards helping to protect rights.

In conclusion, there is a clear trade-off between combatting terrorism and upholding all human rights. Although tackling terrorism in itself is protecting human rights, including the right to life, it can be argued that other rights may need to be temporarily restricted in order to combat terrorism efficiently. If human rights do have to be compromised then this can be seen as the lesser of two evils and that unconventional responses are necessary and appropriate for unconventional threats. Historically there have been very few methods of tackling terrorism that haven’t undermined human rights suggesting that one of the two need to be compromised to achieve one.

Tess Williams

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