Preserving Human Rights Central to War on Terror, Massimino Says

November 9, 2004
Elisa Massimino; Introduction by Prof. Deena Hurwitz

The United States' influence as a leader in human rights has been damaged by its actions in the War on Terror and could lead to conditions that foster terrorism or oppression, said Elisa Massimino, Washington Director of Human Rights First, at the Nov. 5 symposium "International Law and U.S. Government Actions in the Global 'War on Terror.'" The conference was co-sponsored by the Law School's Human Rights Program and the Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School in their first joint conference.

"Human rights has to be central to solving our long-term security challenges in this age of terrorism, and when we deviate from that, we will prolong the struggle, not shorten it," Massimino said.

Human rights activists share a sense of alarm about the challenges of promoting human rights during a time of heightened terrorist threats, she added, and the United States and other governments have exacerbated some conflicts by framing them as new fronts in the global war on terror.

Activists are confronting a sea change in what had been considered the norm before 9/11-that adherence or the pretense of adherence to international human rights standards was desirable. Massimino pointed to the United Nations' adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998 as evidence of one-time support for international principles. "It codified the right to promote and protect human rights as a normative standard," she said, and countries who voted for it effectively guaranteed that human rights defenders would be sheltered.

However, the importance of respecting such standards and the legitimacy of human rights activists are now "routinely challenged in word and deed by governments of all kinds, democratic and undemocratic.

"When the rights of human rights defenders are under attack, we are all less safe," she said.

Many governments have seized on the War on Terror as an excuse to turn back the clock on human rights norms, she said, and some have increasingly turned their attention to silencing rights defenders. Russia has accused those who reported on human rights violations in Chechnya of disseminating extremist information and prosecuted them for issuing press releases exposing violations by Russian armed forces.

"There's certainly a place for military action in combating terror," Massimino cautioned, "But I don't think we can kill our way out of this problem. In order to isolate them, we need to have those societies respecting basic rights," she said. But instead, "human rights defenders are being increasingly equated with terrorists."

Activists who have spoken out against oppression as a response to the threat of terrorism have been attacked for their criticisms, even in democratic countries. When a former Indian Deputy Prime Minister in 2001 called for the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act that curtailed the rights and freedoms of citizens, he noted that if the opposition resists the Act, "they will be wittingly or unwittingly helping the terrorists." U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has made similar remarks before Congress that those who scare Americans about lost liberties "only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to our friends."

Such remarks "create an environment in which those kinds of threats when carried out by other governments, can be deadly." Massimino said that contrary to Ashcroft's remarks, human rights workers were among the most forceful in seeking action against terrorism, and those in the Middle East have first-hand experience with such threats.

"When counterterrorism measures undermine human rights, they start to be counterproductive, in terms of security," she said. Governments have taken a broad range of steps against human rights defenders in the context of global terrorism, including restricting freedom of expression and silencing, intimidating, and even murdering activists. A provision in the U.S. intelligence reform bill still in conference in Congress makes it more difficult for those seeking protection from oppressive governments to enter the United States if countries have labeled them as terrorists or militants-potentially preventing activists from securing asylum.

"To me that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which our legitimate struggle against terrorism is being co-opted by some governments and broadened to be used as an attack on human rights defenders," she said.

Some governments have turned to the military to resolve pre-existing political conflicts "repackaged as terrorist threats." Violent attacks on human rights defenders working in Chechnya by the Russian government have increased this year. Under the guise of the War on Terror, Russian and Israeli leaders are considering policies once viewed as extreme, such as relocating populations of minority ethnic or religious groups. In Thailand, where the government previously was a regional exemplar of finding peaceful solutions, the government claimed victory against terrorists and Muslim opposition groups when they killed 107 machete-armed Muslims in April.

U.S. actions have weakened the system of state-to-state peer pressure, as the administration has adopted newly permissive attitudes toward departures from international standards, Massimino said. The United States has been hampered in its ability to criticize questionable practices in other countries, such as Malaysia's Internal Security Act, which allows protracted detention without charges or trials; Malaysian officials have held up the Patriot Act and called their actions equally necessary. The United States frequently criticized Russia's brutal tactics against the Chechens before 9/11, but no resolution criticizing Russia's practices in Chechnya has been brought to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights since 2002, as Russians are increasingly trying to link the Chechens to Al Qaeda and global Islamic terrorism.

In response to the War on Terror, nations have invoked broad laws that substantially increase unchecked executive powers, invoking the U.S. example to "mask or justify their violations." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek has said that new U.S. policies prove his government was right from the beginning in using all means to stop terrorism, when at one time the United States was critical of Egyptian methods. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the United States has much to learn from the Egyptians in combating terrorism, and Ashcroft has made similar comments about the Chinese. Both Egypt and China are notorious human rights violators.

"We have to be very attuned to the impact [a U.S. shift in rules] has internationally," she said.

Since 9/11, new U.S. norms have been characterized by loss of some freedoms and "worse than that, a detachment from the rule of law"-most apparent in the treatment of detainees and the Bush administration's memos on the matter.

Partner governments now feel a new liberty to violate human rights, while many activists believe the United States is setting a negative global pattern. Massimino said she was not saying the United States was responsible for human rights violations committed by other governments, but that the fight for human rights "just does not function well without U.S. leadership."

Human rights defenders with perceived or actual ties to the United States face increased pressures and threats abroad in Mideast regions targeted by Bush's "forward strategy of freedom." The strategy is a "great policy," Massimino said, but those regional governments find it easier to brand human rights defenders as tools of U.S. policies "aimed at reinforcing U.S. political dominion throughout the world.

"That is going to stop us dead in our tracks in trying to make progress, if that view persists," she said. Some critics have claimed that U.S. actions after 9 /11 show that Western championing of human rights was just "thinly disguised self-interest," and that the U.S. has given up credibility as a critic of human rights violations. There is some evidence to support those views, she said; after 9/11 a new instruction went out to embassies drafting the annual country reports on human rights ordering posts not to report on actions taken by foreign governments on behalf of the United States. The rule has since been dropped, but it "sends a real message to the governments of these countries."

U.S. credibility has also been undermined by our embrace of governments notorious for human rights violations, such as Pakistan. Similar partnerships during the Cold War showed us that we have to be mindful of the bad practices of government partners in the War on Terror as well, she said. The United States can't ask Egypt to interrogate our prisoners, then criticize them for how they treat their own prisoners.

"This is a fundamental contradiction that is going to undermine our long-term efforts to solve the terrorism challenge," she said.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan recently has been more vocal in setting forth the concept that human rights must be central to security efforts, Massimino said. Furthermore, the United States is starting to understand that weakening the international consensus on human rights will not help the War on Terror. The United States in the past year has begun shifting its policies toward greater support of human rights in times of crisis. "Respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law is an essential antidote to the conditions which give rise to terrorism, and that has to be foremost in our mind when we're in the weeds trying to figure out what our policies are on interrogating and detaining prisoners," she said.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights