Introduction to Human Rights | Lesson 26: “Terrorism and Human Rights”

Although violence has always been used to
spread fear among people in the pursuance of political/ideological goals, it was not
until the French Revolution that the term “Terror” became a household expression
in the realm of politics. It initially referred to the use of violence by the revolutionary
French government to keep in line the population of France in the aftermath of the Revolution. The use of violence to instill fear in the public for political goals was subsequently
a common strategy applied by different extremist groups, such as the anarchists in 19th century
Europe and America; extremist Zionists groups in the late 1940s; nationalists in 20th century
Ireland, Palestine and Spain; radically anti-Israel groups; and by religious fundamentalists in
the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Different authors roughly agree on a concept
of terrorism which entails the use, or the threat thereof, of force, against civilian
or unarmed targets, with political purposes. The term “terrorism” is often used in reference to acts, as well as organizations and strategies. Under international law, there is no clear-cut definition of terrorism. Since the 1970s,
there has been a tendency to criminalize certain actions in specific international treaties (12 of them of international scope, and others of regional scope). These treaties have certain
common features: (i) they list acts of terrorism instead of setting forth an abstract definition
thereof; (ii) they establish the duty to criminalize such acts under domestic legislations; (iii)
they also set forth the duty to prevent, prosecute and punish acts of terrorism; (iv) they have special clauses for money laundering and financing of terrorism; (v) the parties undertake the duty to cooperate in international and trans-border prosecution; (vi) terrorism is denied the
nature of political crime, so there can always be extradition for such acts; (vii) alleged
terrorists cannot invoke political asylum or refuge; and (viii) some treaties include the exercise of universal jurisdiction to prosecute acts of terrorism. Now, the closest to a legal definition of terrorism in international law is that set
forth in the UN 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.
This treaty understands a terrorist act to be an “act intended to cause death or serious
bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities
in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context,
is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization
to do or to abstain from doing any act”. The UN is currently working on a more specific
treaty on the definition of the concept of terrorism. Some authors disagree on whether the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United
States constitute a landmark that changed the way terrorism was understood until the
end of the 20th century. However, it would be safe to state that we do live in a “post
9/11” world. Security measures taken by governments all over the world have clearly
affected people’s ordinary lives, in places like airports, bus stations, schools, the
internet and even in the privacy of their homes. For good or bad, the first decade of
the 21st century can be labeled as the decade of the “war on terror”. The first attack on a grand scale on United States continental soil in nearly two centuries,
led the U.S. government to reply by military means, first deploying troops in Afghanistan,
in 2001, and then invading Iraq, in 2003. This military approach found its climax when
U.S. special forces eliminated Osama Bin Laden at his Pakistan refuge, in 2011. Some legal authors think that the criminal approach taken by the United States in the
prosecution of terrorist suspects amounts to a doctrine named “criminal law of the
enemy”, as opposed to a “criminal law of the citizen”. The latter treats a criminal
as a citizen who committed a transgression and can be reformed. Instead, “criminal
law of the enemy” sees in the criminal, particularly the terrorist, an enemy of the
State, who must be contained and neutralized, indefinitely if necessary, due to his refusal
to play by society’s rules. This neutralization has taken place all over the world, in secret
places known as “black sites” and in the infamous U.S. military base of Guantánamo
Bay, in Cuba. Since 9/11, no major terrorist attack has
taken place within the U.S. (barring the 2013 Boston attack). However, its allies, Spain
and Great Britain, have suffered such attacks, in 2004 and 2005, respectively. This calls
into question the high price the international community has paid for an imperfect peace
after a decade of war on terror. Not only the attacks have continued, but also, in its
zeal to make progress in this kind of war, the U.S. has arguably violated moral and legal
standards referred to the right to resort to war (or jus ad bellum), the laws of armed
conflict (jus in bello or international humanitarian law) and human rights law, particularly criminal
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