To what extent has combatting terrorism undermined human rights?

The overt and unapologetic violation of human rights frameworks has been an integral element of the West’s ‘war on terror’ across the last 16 years. Rooted in the attack on American soil of September 11th 2001, American interventions across the Islamic world have aimed to eradicate the threat that terrorism supposedly poses to the Western world, with little regard for the rights of both civilians and combatants in the implicated states. Meanwhile, questionable domestic policy decisions have been driven by such an assumed threat, manifesting both in security measures and in legislation applied to citizens, often entailing the violation of civil liberties in one realm or another. To many, these are ‘necessary evils’ – former Vice President Dick Cheney proclaiming that in the war on terror, the USA ‘had to work sort of on the dark side’, using ‘any means at its disposal’ – there is, at the least, an acknowledgement of the harm measures could cause. However, a more ignorant view is that these violations of human rights have not occurred whatsoever. This essay will assess both views, examining how human rights have fared in areas of military, security-based, and ideologically-rooted resistance against terrorist activity both in the West and the (Greater) Middle East.

The nature of military strategies in the war against terror entailed an exercise of violence and destruction that can only be labelled as utterly inhumane. The indiscriminate fashion (especially through use of drone strikes and similar) of US-led interventions, killing 26,000 civilians in Afghanistan, and 174,000 civilians in Iraq, meant that ultimately, great numbers of innocent people were implicated in wars they had neither a desire for nor role in waging, as well as disproving any claims of the wars as ‘humanitarian interventions’. This is only exacerbated by an understanding of the actions of occupying forces in these states: frequently, troops would impose disproportionate punishments for low-level local crime – with many cases, such as that of Colonel Donald Payne, of officers killing civilians for petty theft and similar offences, utilising measures such as ‘wetting’ as a means to coerce and ultimately torture generally unthreatening individuals. Similar, though rather more heinous events occurred in the takeover of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison by American troops. The mass abuse of Iraqi prisoners by figures such as Lynndie England inside the prison, well-documented by scarring photos taken by the enthusiastic occupiers themselves and the records of the ‘Torture Memos’, have haunted America’s ‘humanitarian’ image on the global stage ever since.

Scarhill’s reference to ‘endless kill lists’, that manifested in events such as the Mukaradeeb wedding massacre, also play into a disregard for human rights – with little basis to differentiate between the enemy Taliban and innocent locals, large groups were often slaughtered in pursuit of neutralising supposedly key individuals, again undermining the rights of non-combatants to be excluded from conflict. In the realm of military action, the war on terror has had no regard for upholding human rights – as in Abu Ghraib, they have often been undermined gleefully. This only serves to fuel the resentment that radicalisation is seen to be rooted in.

Liberal interventionism hails the importance of viewing invasions such as those of Iraq and Afghanistan as ‘humanitarian interventions’, a means by which to free a people from repressive forces such as those of Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban. Owed to the violent nature of the regimes operated by the above, the means by which they were overthrown are seen by many as insignificant in relation to the importance of the ‘end result’ – according to some, more would have been harmed had these powers remained, though this is of course disputable. In terms of non-combatants harmed, the Pentagon report that drone strikes, far from being indiscriminate, only result in civilian death in one of every three hundred bombings. By this logic also comes the argument that institutions such as Abu Ghraib were far worse in their practices prior to the American takeover, with some commentators describing them as ‘abattoirs’.Regardless of the accuracy of such a statement, it serves to frame the actions of those in Abu Ghraib up during the occupation as ‘liberating’ – this is not, by anyone’s standards, a reasonable assertion. For as long as sites of such abuses of human rights exist, any claims of humanitarian interventionism, or careful strategies of bombing, remain redundant, especially in the context of such high numbers of civilian casualties.

‘Unconventional threats require unconventional responses’, so the argument goes. Security measures, in particular those instigated by governments in Britain and America, have served to disregard the rights of both established citizens and migrants from across the world. In the UK, these have manifested most obviously in procedures like Control Orders, introduced in 2005 as a means to hold power over suspected terrorists or terrorist sympathisers without bringing them to trial, by essentially imprisoning them in their homes, controlling their communications, movements – and often even removing their passports. These have been utilised most famously against the 11 formerly imprisoned without trial at Belmarsh Prison, whose protest led to the orders’ introduction, most of whom have denied any connections with terrorism whatsoever, but for whom a trial would be inappropriate for fear of revealing classified intelligence. It seems, then, that the British government are more than willing to undermine the human rights of those who could potentially threatens their monopoly on intelligence. The government has also threatened its claim of a ‘right to privacy’ through measures such as the highly discriminatory police ‘Stop and Search’ powers introduced in 2000, and its ‘Investigatory Powers Act’ of 2016. The latter obliges all internet service providers to retain information about the sites individuals visit for a full year, and to make these available to the government. Fraught with this dilemma, the liberal Ignatieff has proposed that considering neither security nor civil liberties hold importance over the other, violation of rights should be done with a ‘conservative bias’, meaning it be done with due process, adversarial proceedings and other legal safeguards. The loss of 3,000 innocent lives during the 9/11 attacks is not comparable to the disregard of human rights, and so citizens of liberal democracies should we willing to give up their rights, as it is the lesser evil. Although states may refuse their citizens to the right to privacy or freedom of expression, terrorists violate the most fundamental human right, which is the right to life. Whilst many label efforts such as these as, still, the ‘lesser of two evils’, they still implicate the rights of the country’s population as a whole when it is clear only the actions of a few need great attention. Similar can be said for the role of President Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ – though now contested in the Supreme Court, the ban effectively prevented residents of seven different majority Islamic states from entering the USA. As a result, the measure undermined individual freedom completely, ultimately signifying a manifestation of racism over any real regard for security.

Arguably, however, such as in the area of military action, some of these provisions have done well to prevent terrorism in the countries in which they have been enacted. Owed to the nature of the intelligence collected, it is difficult to gauge the extent to which they have been effective. However, whilst other European countries have suffered greatly at the hands of terrorism in the last two or three years  – with numerous attacks in France, Germany, and Belgium killing hundreds – it seems Britain at least has not, certainly not through supposedly Islamic terrorism (seemingly the only form the government sees as a threat). Similarly, Trump’s efforts can be seen in the context of attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino, and a feeling of insufficient protection in America from terror. The question, ultimately, is whether this apparent success quantifies the clear undermining of human rights involved in prevention. Some would argue that, for as long as British/American blood is not spilled, anything is permissible. But this means little if the matter of concern is upholding the rights of all individuals as opposed to those of a Western minority.

The last approach to combating terrorism, an ‘ideological’ approach, is as contentious as the rest. It strives to alter ‘mindsets’ of radicalisation, and is often rooted in the ‘conveyor belt’ theory: that individuals start off disillusioned and angry, gradually become more religious and politicised, and then turn to violence and terror, as if a ‘slippery slope’ to radicalisation. In the UK, this has manifested in policy choices such as ‘Prevent’ – an interventionist program that attempts to ‘stop radicalisation in its tracks’ by measures of safeguarding-themed intervention directed at young people found to be showing ‘signs of radicalisation’ – disproportionately those of the Islamic faith. Once again, strategies such as these as seen by many, especially liberals, as the ‘lesser of two evils’ in terms of combating terrorism – the measures do not, on the face of it, undermine human rights, ultimately preventing people from coming to harm. Supporters claim these foster de-radicalisation in nonviolent ways, that come in seemingly gentler forms than harsher, more blatantly targeted security measures. On this basis, many proclaim it a better means of combating terrorism than military or security efforts.

This perspective, however, is a naive one, that overlooks the evidently harmful, discriminatory nature of programs such as Prevent, which have been said to undermine freedoms of expression and disproportionately target those of the Islamic faith. The monitoring of minors in particular, especially as Prevent is rolled out to education institutions nationwide incriminates children and hold them responsible for actions of mature groups. A particularly jarring example of this was the well-recorded incident of a child in Lancashire who, after misspelling ‘terraced house’ as ‘terrorist house’ in a class assignment, was interrogated by police officers. Reports have stated the boy is now ‘afraid of writing’, displaying aptly the negative effects of some ideological measures. Critical theorists in particular have argued they promote a ‘particular kind of Islam’ that is palatable to Western governments. This of course undermines freedom of religion and asserts that people can only be Muslims on the terms that the British government sets – liberal ideals, societal participation, and similar.

Clearly, all attempts to combat terrorism have been harmful to the rights of the civilian. Military measures have been damaging and have left a legacy of resentment owed to the human rights violations they have entailed, largely overseas, hugely damaging attitudes to the West both at home and abroad. Such a legacy has only been reinforced by security measures which, aided by an ideological approach, ‘other’ those they seek to aid, doing little to solve terrorism’s root causes, indeed frequently reinforcing anti-government sentiment amongst populations/demographics. It is indisputable that the current convictions of governments in the West regarding the best means by which to combat terrorism are incompatible with upholding human rights in any realm.

Cora Morris

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