Fighting Terrorism While Safeguarding Human Rights

Experts convene at CLS to discuss the progress of the UN’s counter-terrorism strategy
The long-term success of the United Nations’ global counter-terrorism strategy depends upon the protection of human rights, said experts at a panel discussion held at the Law School’s Jerome Greene Hall on February 28, 2008.
The five speakers discussed the trying challenges -- from a lack of resources to a lack of will – and also offered ideas to advance both goals.
The first step in the plan came with “United National Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” adopted by member states in 2006, said Eric Rosand ’95, a senior fellow at the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation. Rosand’s report, “Human Rights and the Implementation of the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” outlined the strategy’s initial missteps and how member states have since succeeded in fighting terrorism while protecting human rights. 
The report was released by the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation. The U.N. struggles with limited resources, he said, as well as a lack of coordination between agencies and a failure to monitor compliance in many nations. Global, national, and regional political leaders may have plans to ensure that counterterrorism measures do not impinge upon human rights, but coordinating them and putting them into action can be difficult, if not impossible.
“There are often five fingers of a hand,” Rosand said. “But there’s no fist there.” The politically sensitive nature of counterterrorism issues, particularly while the United States occupies Iraq, has only exacerbated the challenges, Rosand added.
U.N. member states must work with non-governmental organizations, nonprofit agencies and political bodies to push the strategy forward on the ground, he said. Too often ordinary people are “the forgotten players in all this,” he said.
However, these groups can be valuable allies in raising awareness of human rights abuses among ordinary citizens, whose influence and support should not be overlooked, Rosand said.
A significant problem in understanding and compliance is the fact that guidelines and other materials, published by NGOs and other organizations, are sometimes “either overly legalistic or overly broad,” said Alex Comte, a reader in law at the University of Southampton England, where he teaches public international law. He has attempted to address the problem with a more practical compliance handbook for decision makers called “Human Rights Compliance While Countering Terrorism,” also released by the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation. 
Comte’s handbook lists conditions that political leaders should consider before they debate and pass counterterrorism laws. First, counterterrorism law must comply with human rights law. Second, rights or freedoms restricted by counterterrorism measures must allow for limitations. And, third, counterterrorism laws must be established by due process, must be necessary, and should be proportional, he said.
Despite the seemingly glacial pace of change, the U.N. and its member states have made progress in recent years, said speaker E.J. Flynn, a senior human rights officer at the U.N. Counterterrorism Executive Directorate, created in 2004 to support the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee.
“It’s a sensitive issue,” Flynn said. “We didn’t plunge into it.”
By way of success, he pointed to the passage of the United National Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, as well as earlier initiatives. In 2003, the U.N. Security Council passed a counterterrorism resolution requiring states to adopt measures that comply with international human rights law. The same language was adopted in a 2005 resolution passed after terrorist bombings in London killed 52 people.
“Now it really is part of our approved agenda,” Flynn said. “That’s not to say we’re satisfied.”
The U.S. fight against terrorism and its well-publicized human rights right violations during the war in Iraq was addressed by the final speaker, Margaret Satterthwaite, a Columbia clinical law professor who is also faculty director at the Center on Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University Law School.
The success of U.N. efforts is hampered when the United States openly flaunts international human rights laws by engaging in activities such as extraordinary rendition, secret detentions, and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, she said, because such programs, when they are assessed, are found to be completely legal.
Another issue not discussed by the panel was how coercive measures, such as extreme isolation, are used to gather intelligence, Satterthwaite said. “Intelligence gathering is very important, but it can have grave human rights consequences,” she said. “The problem is that these activities are covert. It’s very, very difficult to ascertain how they work.”
Panelists suggested that U.S. foreign policy could change next year when a new administration takes control of the White House. Rosand, like the others, agreed with Satterthwaite. But change, like everything else, takes time.
“There are a lot of small animals in the room that can be tended to,” Rosand said. “And it’s the small steps that could make a world of difference.” 
Amy Miller writes for American Lawyer Media.