HRW: Counterterrorism and Human Rights Abuses

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July 11, 2012

A June 2012 report from Human Rights Watch finds many counterterrorism laws passed in the last decade are overly broad in scope and have been employed against activists, journalists, and political opposition in many countries. In the Name of Security: Counterterrorism Laws Worldwide since September 11 calls on donor countries and the United Nations to revise their counterterrorism sanctions to ensure that the definitions of terrorist acts are narrowly crafted, covering only conduct that is “genuinely of a terrorist nature.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed 130 counterterrorism laws from around the world and found that all contained one or more provisions that opened the door to abuse. “Terrorist acts are a repudiation of human rights, but overbroad laws that ignore basic rights only compound the harm,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Besides overbroad definitions of terrorism and terrorist acts, the Human Rights Watch report identifies other key areas in which counterterrorism laws tend to raise human rights concerns, including:
  • designating terrorist organizations and banning membership in them
  • barring funding to terrorism and terrorist organizations
  • limiting speech that ostensibly encourages, incites, justifies, or lends support to terrorism
  • modifying trial procedures (including evidentiary rules) to favor the prosecution by limiting defendants’ due process rights
Nearly 100 counterterrorism provisions reviewed by Human Rights Watch define “material support” for terrorism as a crime. Of those, “32 required neither knowledge nor intent that the support could result in a terrorism-related offense—recklessness was sufficient.” These measures are ostensibly intended to deter and punish those who would support terrorist organizations, but are “written so that they apply abroad, possibly even to non-US staff working in foreign organizations” and make humanitarian groups reluctant to work in areas where a listed group operates.
Joanne Mariner, director of Hunter College’s Human Rights Program and co-author of the report, wrote in a CounterPunch blog post, that some countries have resisted efforts to enact counterterrorism laws that would violate basic human rights. For example, rather than respond with repressive legislation in the wake of the 2011 attack, Norway’s prime minister promised “more openness, more democracy and more humanity.” Others, such as the United Kingdom, have reviewed and amended counterterrorism laws to mitigate problematic provisions.
Human Rights Watch called on more governments to revise abusive laws and provide redress to those whose rights they have violated. It also calls on the UN to lead the way. “The UN has increasingly recognized that counterterrorism laws that trample free speech and peaceful protest are counter-productive,” Tayler said. “Human rights violations don’t uproot terrorism—they help it grow.”