In light of the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, there is an even greater need for governments, the European Union, and the United Nations to impose effective counter-terrorism measures. Arguably, the severity and intensity of these attacks has led to a popular demand to know what exactly is being done to prevent such attacks in the future. Fear is causing panic in a war on terror that seems to have no end in sight. While bodies such as the United Nations uphold the regulations of Human Rights Councils, surely the measures that must be taken to prevent the rise of violent extremism, namely increasing social surveillance and security measures, infringe upon some of the premises of the 1998 Human Rights Act. The question has become how much we are prepared to concede our Human Rights in order to win the war on terror.
It is easy to conjure an Orwellian 1984 image of “Big Brother is watching you,” although there are legitimate issues regarding how far social surveillance can go in the aim of greater safety for all of us in the long run. Recently, the UN Human Rights Council has considered whether “initiatives to ‘counter and prevent violent extremism’ raise serious human rights concerns.” Primarily, they raise the issue of defining ‘violent extremism’ and not confusing this with terrorism. This is dangerous insofar as extreme measures may be sanctioned that are acceptable as a reaction to terrorism, but are potentially too severe for ‘violent extremism’ and thus abuse human rights. Violent extremists include animal rights or environmental activists; they are not terrorists, although they are still potentially dangerous. This level of violence may warrant a different method of counter-action. The Human Rights Council argues that Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE) initiatives “have a significant potential to threaten the human rights to equality and freedom from discrimination, the right to privacy, and the freedoms of expression, association, and religion or belief.” Terrorists are, by definition, extremists; however extremists, though potentially violent, are not by default terrorists.
The right to privacy is probably the most debated element here, especially considering Edward Snowden’s leak of classified information from the NSA. Global reactions to this in 2013 were deafening. While it is a clear abuse of our human rights, it is possible to comprehend how, in an age of technology, internet surveillance may help recognise terrorist actions and the actions of violent extremists before they cause any harm. The grey area that has been exploited by the NSA and other non-government surveillance companies needs to be defined. Some surveillance is obviously essential, however the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy of 2006 does not define the boundaries of this surveillance. Therefore, a new and comprehensive approach needs to be adopted and recognised. The Thirtieth Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015 reiterated that counter-terrorism measures should not be used as a ‘smoke-screen’ for any state to justify mass surveillance; human rights principles are a “prerequisite to any effective counter-terrorism response.”
Another consideration following the mass outrage is that some members of society may feel that they are inconvenienced by methods of counter-terrorism efforts. Freedom of movement between countries is a particular example of this as it becomes increasingly regulated. We can all picture the rushed businessman cursing the backlog in airport security. Nonetheless, it is necessary to remember that this is for our protection; it is not an infringement on our human rights, but the defence of them. These forms of security measures are more important than ever reflecting on the specific places that were attacked in the Paris and Brussels attacks: concert halls, metro stations, the entrance of the airport. All of these are places without intrusive security measures. Did these attacks prove we need extensive security measures to be more common? If so, how is this to be carried out without hindering our modern way of living or abusing our human rights by increasing intrusive surveillance methods? These are only two possible factors among a myriad in counter-terrorism efforts, although they are perhaps the most controversial.
The issue appears to be that the government’s methods to secure our safety infringe upon our human rights. Terrorism itself deprives us of our most fundamental human right, the right to life. Perhaps no government, or any ruling body can contradict such malicious attempts without beating terrorists at their own game, so to speak. This seems an overly negative conclusion. Justly or not, the western world prides itself on its civility; this concept must be applied to how we treat counter-terrorism measures. Human rights should not be conceded in this battle. This does not make us powerless, although the search for a viable solution is a matter of drawn out debate, which is more and more pressing as the number of attacks continues to rocket.
One of the fundamental pillars of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which is coming up to its tenth anniversary this year, is to ensure that human rights laws are abided by when implementing counter-terrorism measures. And yet, when member states committed to tackling terrorist organisations such as ISIL via airstrikes, they knew that civilian casualties were possible and likely. The debate in the British Houses of Parliament on the 2nd December 2015 was a neat summary of the possible divisions on the issue. Clearly public safety and the security of troops are high priority, however, the actions are a definite human rights violation for the civilians who are ‘getting caught in the crossfire.’ It is a matter of conscience whether we personally agree or not with the use of air strikes as possibly the lesser of two evils, especially considering the egregious abuses of human rights that are employed by terrorist organisations. However, while these air strikes may be a breach of human rights laws and thus in a sense illegal, they are also accepted and necessary to a certain degree. Airstrikes, like intrusive surveillance and security measures, can push the boundaries of our human rights. However, we must ask ourselves: how safe would we feel without them?
For more information on the United Nation approach to counter-terrorism and how this affects human rights click here.