Human Rights Issues and Terrorism

Expanding anti-terror measures produces new human rights issues

The concept of human rights was first expressed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established "recognition of the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." 

Human rights are relevant to terrorism as concerns both its victims and its perpetrators. The innocent victims of terrorism suffer an attack on their most basic right to live in peace and security. The suspected perpetrators of attacks also have rights, as fellow human beings, in the course of their apprehension and prosecution. They have the right not to be subject to torture or other degrading treatment, the right to be presumed innocent until they are deemed guilty of the crime and the right to public trial.

The "War on Terror" Focused Human Rights Issues

The Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, the subsequent declaration of a "global war on terror," and the rapid development of more stringent counter-terrorism efforts have pitched the issue of human rights and terrorism into high relief. This is true not only in the United States but in a number of countries who have signed on as partners in a global coalition to crack down on terrorist activity.

Indeed, following 9/11 a number of countries that routinely violate the human rights of political prisoners or dissidents found tacit American sanction to expand their repressive practices. The list of such countries is long and includes China, Egypt, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.

Western democracies with long records of an essential respect for human rights and institutional checks on excessive state power also took advantage of 9/11 to erode checks on state power and undermine human rights.

The Bush Administration, as the author of the "global war on terror" has taken significant steps in this direction. Australia, the UK, and European countries have also found advantage in restricting civil liberties for some citizens, and the European Union has been accused by human rights organizations of facilitating the rendition—the illegal detention and transport of terrorist suspects to prisons in third countries, and where their torture is all but guaranteed.

According to Human Rights Watch, the list of countries who found it to their benefit to use terrorism prevention to "intensify their own crackdown on political opponents, separatists and religious groups," or to "advance unnecessarily restrictive or punitive policies against refugees, asylum-seekers, and other foreigners" immediately following the 9/11 attacks includes: Australia, Belarus, China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Israel, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Macedonia, Malaysia, Russia, Syria, the United States, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.

Human Rights for Terrorists Are Not at the Expense of Victims' Rights

The focus by human rights groups and others on the preservation of terrorist suspects' human rights may seem jarring, or as if that focus comes at the expense of attention to the human rights of terrorism's victims. Human rights, however, cannot be considered a zero-sum game. Law Professor Michael Tigar put the issue eloquently when he pointed out that governments, because they are the most powerful actors, have the greatest capacity for injustice. In the long term, an insistence that all states prioritize human rights and prosecute illegitimate violence is the best defense against terrorism. As Tigar puts it,

When we see that the struggle for human rights in all the world is the surest and best means to prevent and to punish terrorism properly so-called, we then understand what progress we have made, and we will see where we need to go from here.

Human Rights and Terrorist Documents