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The UN Security Council's (Slowly) Improving Message on Counterterrorism and Human Rights


Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007

What has the UN Security Council done to advance the fight against terrorism? And what has it done to ensure that counterterrorism efforts do not go hand in hand with the abuse of human rights?

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Security Council took rapid steps to press member states to address the serious threat of terrorism. In late September, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 1373, requiring states to deny support to terrorists and terrorist groups, provide mutual assistance in prosecuting terrorism, take steps to prevent terrorism, and ensure that terrorist acts are established as serious criminal offences in domestic laws and regulations.

Because resolution 1373 was passed under the Security Council's Chapter VII powers, it is considered binding on all UN member states. And underscoring the mandatory nature of its prescriptions, resolution 1373 established the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) to monitor its implementation.

The CTC was given exceptional power to compel governments to explain their actions, setting up a mandatory counterterrorism reporting system for all UN member states.

What's Missing from Resolution 1373

Resolution 1373 is viewed as the cornerstone of the UN's counterterrorism efforts. But unfortunately, given its importance, it sent a worrying message on the issue of human rights.

Although fundamental human rights protections are often threatened by government counterterrorism measures--and this was true even pre-September 11--the resolution did not mention human rights, except in a narrow reference to the granting of refugee status.

This apparent indifference to human rights norms was confirmed by the CTC's first chair. In a January 2002 briefing, he declared that assessing compliance with human rights standards was simply "outside the scope of the Counter-Terrorism Committee's mandate." The CTC, with its Chapter VII authorization, would review states' counterterrorism efforts without assessing the impact of these efforts on human rights.

In practice, moreover, the CTC maintained a strict focus on security even when the negative human rights consequences of counterterrorism practices were obvious. Indeed, in a 2004 report, Human Rights Watch documented how the CTC simply closed its eyes to the human rights implications of government counterterrorism laws and policies.

The report found that the CTC failed to raise human rights concerns even when:

  • governments presented new draft terrorism or security laws containing provisions that rights-trained experts would readily recognize as inviting abuse;
  • governments trumpeted repressive laws used for crackdowns against nonviolent political opponents as part of their contribution to counterterrorism efforts;
  • governments promoted repressive laws used in the past for transparently political ends as part of their contribution to counterterrorism efforts;
  • governments made demonstrably inaccurate statements about actions that implicated fundamental human rights, and
  • governments described actions with major rights implications.

Human Rights Watch also concluded that, in some cases, the CTC might be indirectly encouraging abuses by pressing governments to demonstrate counterterrorism results without at the same time raising relevant and well-founded human rights concerns. The CTC's efforts were not, the report concluded, merely indifferent to human rights; they were potentially damaging.

Signs of Progress

Despite this unpromising start, human rights progress has been made in recent years. Particularly when compared to its rocky beginnings, the CTC is now taking steps to integrate human rights into its work.

To begin with, the blatant human rights deficit established by resolution 1373 was at least partially remedied in a subsequent Security Council resolution: resolution 1456 of January 20, 2003. The latter resolution includes the simple phrase that resolution 1373 forgot: it requires states to ensure that counterterrorism measures comply "with international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law."

Shortly after the Security Council's adoption of resolution 1456, in a small but tangible sign of progress, the CTC began including a paragraph in its letters to states reiterating their obligation to respect human rights when fighting terrorism. It was a bureaucratic victory, to be sure, but one indicating that the CTC's firewall against human rights issues had been breached.

In the following years, barriers between counterterrorism and human rights were further eroded. A 2004 plan for the CTC's Executive Directorate (CTED), for example, specifically instructed the CTED to "liaise with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and other human rights organizations in matters related to counter-terrorism."

Even better, at both the symbolic and operational levels, the CTED hired its own senior human rights officer in 2005. While efforts to mainstream the work of this officer into the full range of CTED activities have proceeded slowly, the general trend is positive.

More Progress Needed

Abuses at Guantanamo, in CIA "black sites," and elsewhere evidence the dangers that counterterrorism measures pose to even the most established of human rights norms. Rights violations, in turn, threaten to undermine counterterrorism achievements in some countries by alienating vulnerable populations.

Long-term success in fighting terrorism requires respect for human rights. The UN's Counter-Terrorism Committee, which remains largely responsible for leading the UN's counterterrorism efforts, should take further, aggressive steps to integrate human rights concerns into all aspects of its work.

Joanne Mariner investigates counterterrorism issues at Human Rights Watch. Her columns on Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons, and related questions can be found in FindLaw's archive.

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