Combating Terrorism While Protecting Human Rights

By Palti, Leslie | UN Chronicle, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Combating Terrorism While Protecting Human Rights


Palti, Leslie, UN Chronicle


The United Nations unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms as a violation of human rights. However, finding a rights-based approach to fighting it has been less obvious. The anti-terrorism debate hinges on finding the right balance between human rights protection and effective security measures. Are effective counter-terrorism measures compatible with the full respect for fundamental freedoms? Is it necessary for States to make compromises and infringe on the rule of law in order to better protect their population from the threat of terrorism?

In November 2002, Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks have acerbated the dilemma, "where an understandable focus on preventing still more terrible terrorist acts has increased concerns about the price we must pay in terms of cherished rights and liberties". He added: "We face a nearly unsolvable conflict between two imperatives of modern life--protecting the traditional civil liberties of our citizens, and at the same time ensuring their safety from terrorist attacks with catastrophic consequences." Particular attention needed to be given to balancing anti-terrorism measures and the observance of human rights standards, Mr. Annan said, otherwise the fight against terrorism would be "self-defeating".

For the United Nations, respect for human rights remains an integral part of any comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. UN guidelines to help States strike a balance between human rights and combating terrorism have been established in a number of resolutions adopted by the General Assembly, Security Council and Commission on Human Rights. These resolutions stress that "States must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law and should adopt such measures in accordance with international law".

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), noting that counter-terrorism measures should not "undermine the human rights law that Member States have themselves painstakingly built up over fifty years", has listed a number of fundamental rights that have been violated in the pursuit of counter-terrorism efforts: freedom from torture; the right to life; freedom from arbitrary detention; the right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law; freedom of association and expression; and the rights to asylum and non-discrimination.

The protection of fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism is no new concern to the General Assembly. In 1997, the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights recommended the appointment of a special rapporteur to conduct a comprehensive study on human rights and terrorism. Special Rapporteur Kalliopi Koufa noted that her work needed to be reviewed in light of the events of 11 September and submitted a series of reports. In her progress report presented in July 2002, she reviewed international anti-terrorist actions, as well as comments, observations and decisions adopted by international human rights bodies and mechanisms.

The issue of terrorism and human rights has become more urgent with the global surge in terrorism. While recognizing the importance of the fight against terrorism, some UN bodies have expressed concern that countermeasures may infringe on human rights. In July 2004, the ICJ noted that "in some countries the 'war against terrorism' has given greater legitimacy to long-standing human rights violations carried out in the name of national security", leading to a worrying erosion of international humanitarian law and refugee law, particularly through the "increasingly militarizing judicial functions", transferring "substantial judicial police powers to the armed forces without any judicial control".

The UN system has emphasized that human rights norms must be rigorously respected, even in states of emergency. For the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), protecting human rights in the context of counter-terrorism measures has high priority. …

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