Misplaced Priorities: Human Rights and the Campaign against Terrorism. (Perspectives)

By Roth, Kenneth | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Misplaced Priorities: Human Rights and the Campaign against Terrorism. (Perspectives)


Roth, Kenneth, Harvard International Review


The US government's overriding goal since September 11 has been to defeat terrorism. Determined as this campaign has been, it remains to be seen whether it is merely a fight against a particularly ruthless set of criminals or an effort to defeat the motivations of terrorism. Is the war on terrorism a struggle against Osama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda network, and a few like-minded groups, or is it also an effort to undermine the paradigm that anything goes in the name of a cause and the idea that even the slaughter of civilians is an acceptable political act?

The answer to these questions will, in the long run, determine the success of the campaign. If conceived broadly, as it should be, the fight against terrorism must be understood as a campaign for human rights because the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law, with their limits on permissible conduct in war, establish that terrorism is not a legitimate act of war or politics. These rules codify the principle that civilians should never deliberately be killed or abused, regardless of the cause.

Yet the urgency of the effort to defeat particular terrorists has tempted governments to compromise human rights. Many of the governments joining the fight against terrorism have yet to decide whether this battle provides an opportunity to reaffirm the principles of human rights or a new reason to ignore them, whether this is a moment to embrace values governing means over ends or an excuse to subordinate means to ends. Unless the global anti-terror coalition firmly rejects this amorality, and until the rules of international human rights and humanitarian law clearly govern all anti-terror actions, the battle against particular terrorists risks reaffirming the warped instrumentalism of terrorism.

The fight against terrorism is only partly a mater of security; it is also a matter of values. While police, intelligence units, and even armies all have a role to play in meeting particular terrorist threats, terrorism also emanates from the realm of public morality. The pathology that led a group of men to attack thousands of civilians on September 11 may never be understood, but it is essential to understand the mores that would countenance such mass murder as a legitimate political tool. Sympathy for such crimes is the breeding ground for terrorism, and sympathizers are potential recruits. Building a stronger human rights culture--one in which any disregard for civilian life is condemned rather than condoned--is essential for defeating terrorism in the long run.

Middle East Misery

A human rights culture as an antidote to terrorism is especially needed in the Middle East and North Africa, where Al Qaeda attracts many of its adherents. Unfortunately, the willingness of most Western governments to tolerate abuses in the region has undermined human rights. This neglect has incited intense regional anger as the death toll mounts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as Iraqi sanctions drag on with no indication that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will acquiesce to UN demands. The United States has proposed invading Iraq and toppling Hussein, but the Arab world in particular has greeted this proposal coolly, in part because of Washington's weak response to Israeli abuses. The Bush administration has repeatedly called for an end to the "violence," but its reluctance to insist more specifically on a cessation of abuses has made it easier for Israel to respond to suicide bombers with its own disproportionate attacks.

The West's commitment to human rights in places such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt has also been feeble. In Saudi Arabia, the native land of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers, the government strictly limits civil society, severely discriminates against women, and systematically suppresses dissent. But the West has contented itself with purchasing Saudi oil and soliciting Saudi contracts while maintaining its silence toward Saudi abuses. …

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