Human Rights in the Age of Counter-Terrorism

UNITED NATIONS - Member states of the U.N. have frequently disregarded international human rights laws and principles in the name of counter-terrorism, an expert panel here 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 U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who moderated the panel.

Some areas of concern with regards to counter-terrorism 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 for non-lethal crimes.

'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, terrorism and counter-terrorism programme director at 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 U.S. 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 New York University School of Law, noted that, 'this argument has been rejected by a number of key high courts of various member states of the U.N. and even if one were to accept such an argument, one would still be under the rule of international humanitarian principles of customary 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 -- a non-profit organisation affiliated with Columbia University -- 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 quite adamant that the Council would not make safeguarding human rights part of its anti-terror agenda and I remember very vividly 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.'

Weschler referenced Security Council resolution 1390, which expanded the Council's sanctions on Afghanistan to be applicable worldwide. One result of this resolution was the creation of a list of individuals and entities that could be subjected to asset freezes, travel bans, and other sanctions -- but there were no clear rules governing how parties were placed or removed from the list, and once listed, parties could not find out the reason for their listing or challenge it. Numerous cases of mistaken identity, post-mortem listing of individuals, and other human rights violations stemmed from the creation of the list, Weschler said.

The original sanctions were imposed on the Taliban in part because of their violation of human rights and were supported by human rights groups because they targeted governing bodies as opposed to citizens. To date the Security Council members have raised strong opposition to the creation of an independent review panel for the list.

Although there are many areas in which human rights continue to be neglected, the Security Council and other U.N. bodies have recently begun to take significant steps towards integrating human rights into counter-terrorist activities. The 2006 U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy lists human rights as one of its 4 pillars and states that, 'the promotion and protection of human rights for all and the rule of law is essential to all components of the Strategy, recognising that effective counter-terrorism measures and the protection of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing.'

The final document of the International Process on Global Counter-Terrorism Cooperation has recently been released and lists numerous recommendations for the General Assembly to consider in advance of the first formal review of the of the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in September. Among the recommendations the document lists are numerous enhancements of U.N. efforts to promote human rights within the context of counter-terrorism including further inclusion of human rights experts within the counter- terrorist bodies of the U.N. and greater support for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Emi MacLean of the Centre for Constitutional Rights concluded, 'There seem to be varying options as we move forward. We could see international rights and humanitarian obligations as inapplicable to the current paradigm and forcing a paradigm shift... or we can reaffirm that [human rights] laws continue to have resonance and import and indeed continue to carry obligations even, or perhaps, especially within this context when we are tempted to derogate from them.'

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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