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7.4: Counter Terrorism, Human Rights and Human Security

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    There is no single definition of terrorism in existence. It is a contentious term that has different meanings for different people. For the purposes of this chapter, terrorism can be defined as “a premeditated, politically [socially, ideologically or religiously] motivated use of violence or its threat to intimidate or coerce a government or the general public” (Whittaker, 2004, p. 1). If we compare this definition, to the above definition by de Mesquita, we see they both convey the same basic principles, they are just phrased differently. Therefore, these definitions are fairly representative of mainstream definitions on terrorism (in the absence of an official, universal definition of terrorism). Terrorists use force, or the threat of force, to push their particular agenda, targeting civilians and other non-combatants for maximum media, political and domestic attention and flow on results. Terrorism is also a means whereby a significantly weaker party can close the power gap with a stronger force, by virtue of surprise attacks that are unexpected and indefensible. Sovereign borders do not contain terrorism and over the past few decades, globalisation and its associated communications technologies have helped terrorists to recruit members, finance operations and carry out terrorist attacks. Terrorism experts are concerned that by ‘going global’, future incidents of terrorism will be more lethal, particularly if terrorist organisations are able to access and use nuclear, chemical and biological weapons (Crenshaw & Cusimano Love, 2011).

    While terrorists and terrorism increasingly cross state borders, states still need to respect sovereign borders when countering terrorism. As terrorists constitute non-state actors, one of the difficulties faced by states in countering terrorism has been how they respond to an enemy that is not a state. Counter terrorism has been developed to aid national defence against terrorism, as governments have increasingly scrutinised who enters their borders as well as monitoring the activities of their citizens, or others, residing within their borders. However, this defence has sometimes incurred significant costs to human rights and human security, and some consider it aptly named.

    Tsoukala (2006) warns that post 9/11, many EU countries have adopted counter terrorism policies that negatively impact on human rights, in the interests of state security and the war on terror. These changes have increased police powers, enabled trials on terrorism charges to take extraordinary forms, and there are pathways for unusual terms and conditions of detention for terror suspects and those convicted of terrorism (Tsoukala, 2006). Similar changes have occurred in the US and the UK, where human rights activists and lawyers have been increasingly concerned about the erosion of human rights in the face of counter terrorism measures. Gearty (2005) concluded that in the US, human rights appear to have “little or no place at all” (p. 31) in the fight against terror. If we re-visit the earlier quote from Callaway and Harrelson-Stephens (2006) that “the genesis of terrorism around the world…always occurs in conjunction with the denial of basic human rights” (p. 774), it would seem that counter terrorism measures that deny or infringe upon human rights are counter-productive and may actually result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.[13] Gearty (2005) concurred with these sentiments, believing that the war on terror and the curtailing of human rights that has been a part of the war, would likely lead to future attacks by virtue of people’s experiences of the war.

    In their assessment of home grown terrorism in the US, Reveron and Mahoney-Norris (2019) examined the links between counter terrorism operations and the role it plays in indoctrinating US citizens to commit terrorist acts. They identified the 2009 Fort Hood shooting (which killed 13 people), the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing (which killed three people), the 2015 Chattanooga shootings (which killed five people), and the 2015 San Bernardino attack (which killed 14 people) as examples that have led to debates over whether such acts have resulted, in part, from the US’s continued military involvement in predominantly Muslim countries as part of the ongoing war on terror. Their discussion identifies the role of cyberspace as a recruitment tool for extremism, meaning citizens no longer have to leave their home state but rather they can connect with other alienated peoples across the world within their own homes via the internet.

    On the flipside, Reveron and Mahoney-Norris also identified how counter terrorism operations and exclusionary rhetoric have also led to the rise of anti-Islamic and white nationalist hate groups online and domestically within the US. Furthermore, they identified a 91% increase in the rise of hate crimes against Muslims in the US in just the first half of 2017 (Reveron & Mahoney-Norris, 2019, pp. 53-54). Examples of such hate crimes ranged from mosques being vandalised or bombed (numerous examples across the country), the 2017 stabbing deaths of two bystanders who intervened to assist a Muslim girl in Portland who was being harassed by a white nationalist, the shooting murders of nine African-American parishioners by a white nationalist at a church in Charleston in 2015, and the 2017 vehicular attack on peaceful protestors in Charlottesville, which lead to the death of one person and left 19 others injured (Reveron & Mahoney-Norris, 2019). Both forms of extremism are concerning and both threaten human and national security within the US.

    The introduction of special powers or measures to counter terrorism is not a new occurrence, however. Tsoukala (2006) stated that these types of measures have been used by various states across Europe since World War Two when countering terrorism. Conversely, the post-9/11 counter terrorism measures and the intensity and applicability of these measures have had significant ramifications for human rights and human security worldwide because they are so all-encompassing and far reaching. As we discussed earlier, states like the US, the UK and Australia have been less open to receiving refugees and asylum seekers since 9/11 and the onset of the war on terror. Restricting entry to refugees and asylum seekers is but one example of a state trying to counter terrorism by controlling who enters their borders. However, the linking of refugees with terrorism, or militancy, represents seriously flawed logic and reflects an intersection of racism or other ideological bias with extreme security measures. Whittaker (2004) describes such an approach as being marked by “suspicion and over-zealous security measures [which] easily exploit[s] divisions between people of different origins and faiths and breed[s] xenophobia” (p. 140).

    In his evaluation of US counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the 2007 troop surge, Gilmore (2011) concluded that the war on terror has continued to be a high-impact war, despite US claims of adopting a more restrained and empathic approach, one that incorporated principles of human security. In addition, Gilmore (2011) concluded that rather than pursuing a human security approach, “US counterinsurgency represents an oppressive instrument of the global War on Terror—one that is likely to result in the disempowerment of local populations” (p. 34). This is confirmed when we consider torture. Throughout the war on terror, torture has been used in efforts to extract information from suspected terrorists in military policing facilities such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison. In fact, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been cited as advising President George W. Bush on 25 January 2005 that “[t]his new paradigm [the war on terror] renders obsolete Geneva’s [the 1949 Geneva Protocol on the Treatment of Prisoners of War] strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners” (cited in Bellamy, 2006, p. 123). It would appear that in the war on terror, human rights and human security have been among the first casualties of war as states have been prepared to contravene basic principles of human rights that have been the foundation of modern democracies.

    So how then can states counter terrorism while maintaining human rights and human security? Callaway and Harrelson-Stephens (2006) have demonstrated that when it comes to the root causes of terrorism, ‘the human condition’ (p. 776) is at the heart of the matter. They identified political, civil, security, and subsistence rights, international factors such as past experiences of colonisation and imperialism, as well as present day political and economic development, all to be fundamental elements in causing terrorism. These factors can alienate citizens against their own state, or states they see as being responsible for the lack of human, political or economic rights to be found in their own society or state. Therefore, in order to successfully counter terrorism, one needs to go to the source. This would require more active commitment by states to promote and uphold human rights and human security worldwide, not just in pockets that hold specific national interest to selected states. Whittaker (2004) confirmed this position when he stated:

    Real security can only be achieved through full respect for human rights. Nobody should be able to pick and choose their obligations under international law. A combination of forces is seeking to roll back the human rights gains of the last five decades in the name of security and counter terrorism. These restrictions on liberty have not necessarily led to increased dividends on safety. (p. 141)

    Obviously, states need to be able to defend themselves and their populace from acts of terror. However, the aforementioned counter terrorism measures are really only band-aid solutions, if they are in fact even that, and they are almost certain to contribute to more acts of terror in the future. The key to effective and long-term counter terrorism is to strike at the core of the issues and human insecurities that lead people to commit acts of terror in the first instance. If we reflect on Wafa Idris for a moment, if she had been born a citizen of Palestine, and not a stateless Palestinian in a refugee camp, do you think her life would have turned out differently? If she had not been witness to the daily violence and conflict resulting from ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands by Israeli authorities, do you think she still would have committed such a gross act of terror – the taking of life and the injuring of others? While we can never know the definite answer to these questions, after what we have examined in this chapter we can probably answer the first question with a confident ‘yes’ – her life could have been different, and ‘no’ to the second question – she would not have turned to terror to try to reclaim human rights and human security for ‘her people’. This demonstrates the links between human insecurity and disempowerment to terrorism. Therefore, by adopting human security approaches rather than current state-centric approaches to counter terrorism, states will be able to prevent lives being lost through acts of terror. This will require more long-term thinking and planning by states, involving state focus on the human condition, and ensuring human rights and human security are never compromised for state interest and state security, in both peace time and in times of conflict. In short, it will involve a marked difference to how states are currently attempting to tackle terrorism.


    7.4: Counter Terrorism, Human Rights and Human Security is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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