In what ways might commitment to stopping acts of terrorism impact on the protection of human rights?


Since the US terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, terrorism has been the greatest concern of the international community, both with regard to its impact on human rights and its impacts on the protection of the fundamental human rights. Many nations states have therefore, introduced counter terrorism measures to counter acts of terrorism (Wilkinson, 2006, p.172). In practice these attempts by governments to stop acts of terrorism, has resulted in a mechanism that are designed to prevent, or minimize terrorism activities. These methods include new laws that are specifically adapted or created for this purpose. Such counter terrorism laws have made easier to arrest and detained terror suspects, gave new powers to the police, banned suspected terrorist individuals and organisations, and resulted new methods to control people’s movements and activities without criminal convictions. This essay is going to examine the negative and positive impacts of the counter terrorism laws on human rights. This essay does not focus on to one particular state or country but, it’s focal point is to highlight those countries which adopted counter terrorism measures. It does so by looking at how anti terrorism measures infringe some of the basic human rights, for example, how the right not to be subjected to torture is breached, and how some might support these human rights violations by arguing that this is necessary in order to protect lives and properties of their citizens.

There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism; hence, the term terrorism is a contested issue, because “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. One of the most important human rights aspect affected by counter terrorism measures adopted by many countries is the right to privacy. Privacy is a basic human right recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in many other international and regional treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights. The counter terrorism measures created since September 11 have negatively affected the right to privacy in various parts of the world using the excuse of fighting terrorism. Example of these includes racial or ethnic profiling, telephone tapping, surveillance and the use of revealing body scanners at the Airports. These measures clearly violate the international covenant on civil and political rights (ICCPR) which states; that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence…nor to his honour and reputation”(article 17, Universal declaration of Human rights,, 1976). On the other hand, these measures can be valuable tools for the authorities to combat terrorism and might be carried out for good grounds therefore, in a situation where terrorist activity is suspected, some methods such as stop and search on ethnic minorities or control orders which under normal circumstances may infringe human rights can be carried out in order to protect citizens. But, as Trevor Philips, the equality and human rights commissioner identified “without proper care, such course of action can end up being applied in ways which can discriminate against vulnerable groups or damage good community relations”. (BBC, 2010). Therefore, just as terrorism can have  impacts on human rights and other aspects of civil liberties, so too can measures adopted by States to fight acts terrorism.

Freedom of expression is about expressing one’s political affiliation this is a vital part of the process of choosing legitimate government and as John Stuart Mills noted that “it enables the discovery of truth and social progress”. It’s also a component of human dignity (Casper, 1972, p.17) without it; liberal democracy would soon be reduced into an authoritarian state. Such highly rated feature is negatively affected by the counter terrorism measures introduced by various countries in the world. For example, the detention of more than 600 people during the 2005 Labour Party conference in Brighton, and the subsequent use of anti terrorism legislation by the police against 82 year Walter Wolfgang, whose only crime was interrupting Jack Straw’s foreign policy speech, as reported in the daily telegraph (Johnston, 2005). It’s also inevitable that freedom of expression may be limited during an emergency in order to protect public order and national security as stated and permitted within article 4 of ICCPR which states that; in time of emergency… states..may take measures derogating from their obligation in condition that  such measures does not violate international law.

Although arbitrary arrest and torture existed and were used by various groups and regimes, September 11 and the so-called war on terror changed this and paved the way for a gross violation of human rights by the very liberal states that claimed to have upheld liberty and freedom. States like America and its alias’s reaction to the terror attacks on their soil had a major impact on the protection of human rights. For example, the USA wrongfully detained hundreds of terror suspects in Afghanistan   and Pakistan and sent them to Guantanamo Bay. Some of whom were later found to be an innocent (Worthington, 2007a, pp.76-77). Furthermore, the USA has built a prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, has caged hundreds of people without charge, trial, and access to legal representations and was subjected to  torture (Baylis et al., 2008). This clearly violates United Nations convention against torture which the USA is a signatory. The UN Security Council passed resolution 1373 in 2001 authorising member states to adopt measures to confront and fight terrorism. This resolution calls for tough criminal and financial measures aimed at individual and groups considered supportive of or involved in acts of terrorism. In contrast resolution 1456 passed in January 2003 stressed that “states must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligation under international law, in particular international human rights” it is this obligation that is disregarded by some member states particularly United States and some of its allies that have impacted on the protection of human rights (Worthington, 2007b, p.xii). by restricting civil liberties and the basic human rights. Thus the main objective of any counter terrorism measures must be the protection and upholding the rights of victims as well as those suspected of terrorism activities.

Counter terrorism measures adopted after 9/11 has led to measures that had grave impact on human rights for example the USA’s “extraordinary rendition” allows suspects to be moved to countries with poor human rights records, or are known to use degrading torture  techniques. This is intended as Chris Brown (2008) noted to “allow for easier human rights violation” (Baylis et al., 2008, p 509b). It is further alleged that such regimes which include Egypt, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Pakistan and others have been purposely picked to receive captives for interrogation (Worthington, 2007b, pp.215-216). in addition, September 11 attacks on America paved the way for these states to become part of the America’s coalition of the willing, effectively   turning blind eye on their human rights records and subsequently adopting domestic laws and anti terrorism legislation which they claimed to protect their citizens from terrorist attacks. Furthermore, in a report by human rights watch in 2003 pointed out that a wide-spread abuse of human rights around the world in the name of global war on terrorism. The report contains detail analysis of countries that adopted counter terrorism measures and their impacts on human rights. “We have been concerned since September 11 that governments would use the war on terror to justify human rights abuses” said Roy Mungoven, global advocacy for Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch, 2003). The measures taken by these governments has adversely affected human rights for example, following the September 11 attacks the USA has arbitrarily arrested non citizens,  Uyghyurs and Tibetan have been arrested and put to death by Chinese authorities, The United Kingdom has derogated from its human rights obligations and passed measures which include indefinite detention, of foreign nationals. Similarly this gave Russia an excuse to crack down Chechen separatist and thus, labelling them terrorist (HRW, 2003).

In conclusion, terrorism poses a danger to the social and political values that are directly or indirectly connected to the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedom. Every nation has the right to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks, thus, safeguarding their human rights.  Whilst it is a right for states to adopt measures to protect their people, such measures must not be at the expenses of basic human rights, such as the right to privacy, freedom of expression and must not be used to degrade terror suspects for example, by arresting suspects indefinitely or by torturing them.  Terrorist victims as well as the suspected perpetrators also have rights. They have the right not to be subjected  to torture or other humiliating treatment, the right to be presumed innocent until they are deem guilty of the crime they are accused of, and the right to fair trial,  and above all the right to life. These are universally accepted rights, and must therefore be upheld.

Critical Bibliography

  • Baylis, J., Smith, S. & Owens, P., 2008. Human rights. In C. Brown, ed. The globaliztion of world politics, and Introduction to international relations. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.509.

The best introduction to IR so far, this is an exceptional book. Bayliss and Smith deal with present and past international relation’s theme in a manner that is simple, clear and easy to understand. This edition is up to date it covers both new and old information. I recommend this book not only to my fellow undergraduate students but to anyone who is interested in learning the subject of IR. The language used in this book is simple but rich in knowledge; I believe that this book is first of its kind when it comes to International relations.

This article on the BBC website reports the effects of the Airport body scanners on human rights, especially personal privacy. The article does not analysed this directly but cites Equality and human rights conclusion that these scanners violate personal privacy and therefore, may be unlawful. I personally held the Liberal Democrats view express within this article, which states that, the introduction of these measure has no respect for the rule of the law. Because it violates the basic human rights of passengers particularly those who object to going through these scanners for religious reasons.

  • Casper, J.D., 1972. The Political of Civil Liberties. New York: Harper & Row.

In this book, Jonathan Casper examines freedom of expression in detail. Casper beliefs that freedom of expression is a fundamental for our existence and therefore, must be upheld at all cost. I found this section of the book helpful for my research without doubt this book is one of the best. The author presents his arguments very clearly and supports with an academic source, although this book is quite old, the information it contains seems to be relevant to this day and age. I totally recommend this book to those who want to explore freedom of expression and it is features in details.

  • HRW, 2003. U.N.: Counter-Terrorism Watchdog Needed. New York: Human Rights Watch Human Rights Watch.

Fairly good report which highlights the effects of counter terrorism measures on human rights. This report argues that, UN should set up a watchdog that oversees the human rights violations in countries that adopted such measures. This Human Rights Watch report specifically points fingers to usual suspects, countries such as China, Russia Egypt, Uzbekistan and others. Even though the US and UK governments was mentioned in this report, the report should have criticise these two states more, because  of their actions in violating international law thus, abusing human rights of Iraqis, Afghanis,  and the thousands of innocent people detained in their countries.

  • Worthington, A., 2007a. The Guantanamo Files, the story of the 774 detainees in America’s illigal prison. London: Pluto Press.
  • Worthington, A., 2007b. The Guantanamo files. London: Pluto Press.

An Excellent book, this book exposes in great detail about one of the biggest victims of George Bush’s war on terror, the Guantanamo Detainees.  In my opinion, this book is the first and the best of its kind to bring together the stories of the Guantanamo prisoners.  The author clearly narrates how these human beings were treated by their captors the US government. In humane treatment such as torture, sexual abuse and even death were used against these detainees.  Andy Worthington used various evidence including  some produced by the US government to support his arguments that most of the detainees were innocent people captured Afghanis  and Pakistanis and sold to the CIA. If you want to know the story about Guantanamo detainees, this is the book to read.


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