Human Rights / International Relations

Repression in the name of Anti-Terrorism

Across the globe, Islamist zealots draw no distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Jihadists target women, children, and the elderly without even the pretence of discrimination. In June 2004, an Al-Qaeda affiliated group distributed a video proudly documenting the beheading of a U.S. civilian, proclaiming:“the mujahedeen from the Fallujah Squadron slaughtered the American hostage Paul Johnson.” By spurning the laws of armed conflict, terrorists have created a conundrum for democracies: how do you fight people who throw the rulebook of warfare out the window?

The attacks of 9/11, and the following “war on terror,” have had such a destructive impact on human rights and security, firstly because terrorism aims to attack the values that lie at the heart of the Charter of the United Nations: respect for human rights; the rule of law; rules governing armed conflict and the protection of civilians; tolerance among peoples and nations; and the peaceful resolution of conflict. However, its impact on human rights also lies in states’ response to these terrorist attacks and their treatment of the perpetrators. Terrorism and human rights is a highly controversial topic because even those who commit these human rights violations are still entitled to human rights themselves.

The death of Osama bin Laden for example both at the time and now raises questions about the respect of human rights when countering terrorism. An operation to capture Bin Laden was justified; however there remain doubts about the legality of the operation as it was carried out. United Secretary General Ban Ki Moon spoke of bin Laden’s killing as “a watershed moment in our common global fight against terrorism,” adding that personally he was “very much relieved by the news that justice has been done to such a mastermind of international terrorism.” And although this act put an end to bin Laden’s treacherous ways, was “justice” really achieved, even if it was justified?

However, Human Rights Watch could not find enough information to deem the killing illegal. In fact, their attitude concerning bin Laden and the treatment of other terrorists has been highly criticised. But what are we if we just retaliate? The end goal of terrorists is not to kill thousands of innocent lives. That is merely a means to an end, in search of a greater impact, a message. And if one of their aims is to erode the peaceful resolution of conflict, by retaliating, are we not just handing them what they want? When young, we learn not to fight back so as to evolve into this better person. If these are the lessons that we are taught at such an age, why is it that governments cannot use this advice (which they presumably have told their children at one point or another) and apply it to counter-terrorism?

After all, rights are rights, not privileges. Everyone is born with human rights, and should technically possess them for the entirety of their lives. They do not have to be earned or deserved, and by that logic, should not be able to be taken away or abused. The Bush Administration treated human rights as privileges, believing that members of an enemy organization that flies hijacked airliners into office buildings should not be rewarded for their crimes. What is flawed about this way of thinking is that granting terrorists their human rights would not be rewarding them, it would be merely giving them what they are entitled to.

But governments can be heavily influenced by public opinion, especially when it concerns such a major issue that has affected such a wide range of people as 9/11. For instance, the response to Obama’s apparent attempts to close Guantanamo.  I find the T-Shirts emblazoned with the sarcastic message, “Thank you President Obama for protecting terrorists’ rights by closing Guantanamo Bay and pretending 9/11 never happened” naive and disrespectful towards the entire principle of human rights. People are angry, and anger leads to a desire for revenge. Revenge is not justice at all, even if justified, and often justice is served, but is not justified at all. This complicated proposition is what lies at the very core of the question, “Do (and should) terrorists have human rights?”.

Severe acts of counter-terrorism were, and still are, completely necessary, but not to the extent where the status of human rights is questioned. If terrorists’ aim is to attack the values that lie at the heart of the Charter of the United Nations, then they have succeeded, for we have contributed to the degradation of these values due to governments across the globe facilitating this. Human rights are the victims of terrorism too, and this needs to be recognised. It may not seem fair, but we need human rights to retain some form of dignity, or else, what kind of world would we live in today?

As first appeared on 


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