Has the “war on terror” enhanced or harmed human rights?
In the words of Howard Zinn, historian, playwright, social activist:
“How can you make a war on terror if war itself is terrorism?”
The war on or against terrorism continues to wage as we talk about it and attempt to find solutions to the looming danger that threatens our civilization in itself. The war on terror has been used as a weapon by governments around the world to achieve selfish motives, to satisfy ego’s and secure futures. There is no tangible enemy, and it is unlikely that international terrorism can be brought to an end by means of war. Terrorism continues to be an unknown enemy, without a clear identity and that is why military invasion like the ones repeatedly brought about by United States on already ravaged countries is not a solution. Terrorism is a theatre where the acts of terror attract the attention of the public in a dramatic manner creating a sense of shock, awe and unprecedented grief. However it must be remembered that no war is correct, no war is worth the loss of our morals as human beings.
In the present article, the argument that is to be presented is that the so called ‘war’ on terror has harmed the human rights of many all over the world. The phrase has been used to deprive millions of people of their dignity, assets and life itself. The article attempts to understand the question of how many rights can be given up for security of the nations that claim to have been attacked and have hence waged the war on terror. Terrorism in the modern sense is violence or other harmful acts committed (or threatened) against civilians for political or other ideological goals. Most definitions of terrorism include only those acts which are intended to create fear or ‘terror’, are perpetrated for an ideological goal as opposed to a lone attack), and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non combatants.
Any form of military action can be termed terrorism. The famous quote that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, has been the basis of attempts to justify revolutionary movements which have been termed as acts of terror. It was during the French Revolution that the words terrorist and terrorism became popular. The word terrorism began in 1795 during the reign of terror by the revolutionary government during the French Revolution. Terrorist acts were committed in order to gain attention of the world. For example, in the Munich Olympics in 1972, 11 Israelis were killed by the Black September Organisation and even though the eleven killed were the immediate sufferers the true effect was felt by nearly 1 billion people watching the news in the world. Terror has been continuing over the ages in one form or another. What is seen as a crime by some is the act of protection of one’s own identity and culture by the other.
In this sense, the most recent event that completely stunned the world was the bombing of the two world trade centre towers on September 11, 2001. The world watched with disbelief as United States faced attack on its own soil. What followed and continues is an example of the “war on terror”, as specified and focused on by George Bush, President, United States of America. The use of the word war here is not only misleading but regressive. According to the US understanding, terrorism includes only the anti state violence acts like September 11, 2001. The question here that can be put forward is then what about state violence, what about the use of excess police force, the use of military/ paramilitary in an indiscriminate manner. The morning of September 11, 2001, was a day that will remain etched in our minds forever as the event killed 2973 innocent people whose human right to life had been curtailed. However the world must remember what followed and continues as you read this is also gross violation of human rights. In an attempt to fight the terror which caused September 11, United States government has been carrying out massacres on innocent civilians in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In attempting to find the enemy, and eradicate it, the US policies and arbitrary use of military force has not only killed many more people but has resulted in some of the worst human rights violations witnessed in human history. The immediate effect of September 11 was the widespread discrimination against Islamic Muslims especially young males.
The world has remained a silent spectator to the steps taken by US which has used providing long denied “freedom” to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan as an excuse to enter these countries. The reason provided for the invasion has been the emancipation or the upliftment of the people in these two countries. However, instead of upliftment these countries have been ravaged of all resources and are continued to be plundered. Human rights have become a latter issue with people attempting to stay alive amongst continuous bombings and military invasions. The world has been a silent spectator for nearly five years after the falling of the two towers to United States government that has been taking steps, using force to achieve illusioned motives and actions completely opposed to the basis of International Law. The right to fair trial is a basic human right, constructed to protect individuals from restriction or deprivation of basic rights and freedoms such as right to life and liberty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for this right in Article 10. Along with this the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides for the right to fair trial in Article 14. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), also includes the right to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention(Article 9), the right to be present at trial(Article 21), the right to be free from torture(Article 7) and the right to appeal(Article 26). The four Geneva Conventions of 1949, which protect civilian populations and those fighting in hostilities, principally during international armed conflicts but also during internal conflicts such as civil wars, contain provisions to ensure a fair trial.
However legitimizing of the Patriot Act puts all this in a gaping question. This act is squarely against various rights protected and guaranteed by the Constitution of United States and various international documents such like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention against torture and All forms of Racial Discrimination. The Patriot Act allows non- citizens to be detained without charge without a right to fair trial and be held in prison indefinitely if convicted. This Act also allows the government in United States to look into details of the lives of the citizens in the country without prior permission. This includes, monitoring of emails, wiretapping, keeping an eye on property acquisitions, educational as well as financial records. This Act is clearly against the right to privacy and allows the government to arbitrarily interfere. The United States government’s acceptance to the Military Commissions Act can be considered a major step towards human rights violation in the ongoing “war on terror”. Acceptance of such documents which allow the use of uncensored force are opposed to the basic idea of International Law. Under the rubric of the “war on terror”, the United States government has detained thousands of people in their own territory and around the world. A majority of the detainees are denied access to a fair trial and are held without a charge. There is a clear violation of the basic fundamental right to due process, which is a clear right guaranteed by the US Constitution.
Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib tell a story of torture so evil that it shakes the foundation of human rights. There have been revelations of brutality in these prisons in the form of beatings, sexual humiliation and methods of torture which are almost surreal to a normal person. Guantanamo Bay, the famous prison outside territories of United States has given the world pictures of the torture within the “war on terror”. It has been and continues to be a lawless place. The circumstantial evidence of torture at Guantanamo Bay is cogent and well documented. The most discouraging revelation is the fact that the methods of torture were encouraged and propagated by the Military Commission which provided acceptance to such inhuman treatment. Though the detention at the Guantanamo Bay prison is clearly against the articles of the Geneva Conventions, and particularly Article 75 of the First Protocol Additional to the Geneva Convention of 1977 which states that coercing a prisoner to confess in unlawful, the defence of United States government to the detention remains that the definition of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay includes enemy combatants and not prisoners of war; hence the Geneva Convention does not apply. It is clear that Guantanamo was chosen as a base for torture so as to hold detainees beyond the reach of the United States as well as International Law, which clearly states that the use of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment is prohibited.
No matter how one defines the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the fact underlying the whole scenario remains that sadism and humiliation are at work in every cell in this prison by one of the strongest governments in the world. Guantanamo Bay has become one of the strongest symbols of human rights abuse carried out in a planned manner by the United States government, and five years of such lawlessness and killing is too long a time to go unstopped. President Bush indeed confirmed the fact that there are secret prisons of the CIA in various countries away from the United States soil. The clear indication here is that somehow US wants to take its suspects beyond the reach of their own law and treat them in an inhuman manner. Another important thing to note here is that there are countries all over the world which have allowed United States to create such torture prisons on their own soil. Not only the United States but many countries in the world are losing sight of the basic human right to life, dignity and respect in the ongoing “war on terror”.
United States Government also has policies under which individuals are transported to other countries for the purpose of interrogation. Among these countries are countries with records of torture. This policy is known as the policy of “extraordinary rendition” of detainees for the purpose of gathering information using forms of torture. “Extraordinary Rendition” is the illegal practice of abducting foreign nationals for detention and interrogation in secret overseas prisons. Recent accounts of rendition have a chilling pattern- black clad masked men grab foreign nationals, strip them, beat them and take them to the so called “black site” prisons, where these people are subjected to unspeakable horrors including no sleep, water boarding, beatings, isolation and mental torture. This often leads to false confessions. After the September 11 attacks, extraordinary renditions clearly involve kidnapping of persons the United States suspects to be a part of the Al Qaeda network and transporting them to countries where torture is used to derive information on how to bring the “war on terror” to a successful end. On 18th December 2001, CIA operatives kidnapped two Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zery, who had sought asylum in Sweden. They were seized and conveyed by a US government-leased private jet to Egypt where both were subjected to, amongst other things, the use of electrodes to sensitive parts of the body. It transpired that the Swedish government cooperated after being assured that the exiles would not be tortured.
Seymour Hersh in his book Chain of Command: the road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib has revealed that the CIA confessed to Congress that before 2001 it there were about 70 extraordinary renditions, which were assigned the status of being absolutely urgent. However since 9/11 the Bush Government has refused to even discuss the forced return of such prisoners. The worldwide flow of prisoners in relation to the “war on terror” continues to grow and prisoners have been kidnapped and tortured not only from the war zones but also from contries like Sudan, Croatia, Albania, Malaysia and Pakistan. If the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay represent what democracy means to countries like Iraq then the whole credibility of American leadership is under question.
Across the country and the world racial discrimination has been faced by many, particularly the Muslims. Across United States, after the attacks on 9/11 individuals of Middle Eastern descent and racial minorities became targets of vicious racial discrimination. Thousands of Islamic men were taken into custody without a right to fair trial. Deportation of thousands of people belonging to religious minorities has taken place without any access to judiciary. Persons suspected of any connection with terrorist organizations have been detained without any notification to families for unspecified amount of time. The question that arises here is that is President Bush truly above the law, as he is authorizing torture on these thousands of detained individuals on the basis of suspicion, denying them the basic human rights. A sign of the fact that Bush considers himself above the International Law is the instance on December 5th 2007, when the US Supreme Court heard administration lawyers defend the indefensible: that the President can ignore the writ of Habeaus Corpus and hold people indefinitely, without charge and without question. The hearing challenges the judicial system of United States, and attempts to say that fear not freedom is guiding the judiciary in the US. This in itself questions the basic values of truth, justice and liberty which are the cornerstones of a just society.
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” This read along with Article 9(1) of the ICCPR provides everyone with a basic guarantee of protection of the right against arbitrary arrest and detention, a clause that United States government has been flouting for years now. International standards clearly talk about not only the grounds of arrest not being arbitrary but also specify that the arrest should be on definite grounds and procedures established by law. There is a clear fallacy concerning liberty and security. Today we face a trade off between national security which is pitted against civil liberties and human rights. The most important question as posed by David Luban in his article on eight fallacies about liberty and security is “How many of your ‘own’ rights are you willing to sacrifice for added security?” However this trade off seems rather disheartening as there is no definite way off knowing how much added security is a person to gain at the loss of liberties.
The future of human rights as minute increments for security looks bleak as there is a growing belief that basic rights of citizens ought to be abandoned or at least suspended in order to deal with the growing threat of terrorism. This means that if two or more people endanger property in any manner they can be termed a ‘terrorist organization’ by the Secretary of the State, individuals may be put behind bars for thinking of pro Islamic virtues, or teachers is school would be stripped of their headscarves as this a threat to security but not a threat to their religious way of life. In the words of Amnesty International, attacks by armed groups reached new levels of brutality and intensity in 2005 but insisted that the perpetrators should be brought to justice through fair trial, not torture or secret detention. The “war on terror” was failing, the report claimed, and would continue to fail “unless human rights and human security are given precedence over narrow security interests.”
Civil liberties as we have known them are under severe attack now. One belief that threatens them is that the so called “clash of civilizations” has threatened the integrity of a nation to such an extent that exceptional and unprecedented actions are required to deal with the problem and this includes putting civil liberties at stake for national security. In today’s world there are examples that governments world over cannot even provide the rudiments of human security in war torn areas like Sudan and Darfur to people facing hardships at the indigenous levels and to the one billion people who survive with less than one dollar a day. If security of life cannot be provided at such basic levels, even a discussion to gain security in return of liberties being suppressed seems like a lost cause.
The question that can be asked is “Has the era of human rights come and gone?”, the answer to which may be that the era hasn’t gone but human rights are challenged in order to respond to the concerns over human security in the world today. Maybe the restrictions on liberty are justified but only to the extent of preserving liberty itself and not for attaining order or security, which is what the world powers seem to be doing in the ongoing war on terror, with illegal deportations, use of torture and invading all boundaries of privacy of citizens; acts that are opposed to the basic beliefs of liberty and security to human beings. Is it correct to assume guilt, to frame people on beliefs of suspicion and to torture them indefinitely? In the case of Rasul v Bush, the US courts held that the detainees in Guantanamo Bay have a right to be heard. Everyone has a right to fair trial, a right to live with dignity and respect, with protection of privacy and related aspects of human rights.
Addressing a Counter Terrorism Committee, the late High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello said that:
“[Such] measures must be taken in transparency, they must be of short duration and must respect the fundamental non- derogable rights embodied in our human rights norms. They must take place within the framework of the law. Without that, the terrorists will ultimately win and we will ultimately lose- as we would have allowed them to destroy the very foundation of our modern human civilization.”
In conclusion as stated by the 9/11 Commission Report (2004:395), it can be said that:
“We must find ways of reconciling security with liberty, since the success of one helps the other. The choice between security and liberty is a false choice… our history has shown us that insecurity threatens liberty. Yet if liberties are curtailed, we lose the values that we are struggling to defend.”