Global Policy Forum

Human Rights Are As Important As Ever

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By Mary Robinson *

International Herald Tribune
June 21, 2002

There is an enormous responsibility to rigorously uphold international human rights standards, recognizing that they, too, are the object of terrorists. Language is vital in shaping our reaction to a critical event. The words we use to characterize the event may determine the nature of the response.


The Sept. 11 attacks were mainly aimed at civilians. They were ruthlessly planned, and their execution timed to achieve the greatest loss of life. Their scale and systematic nature qualify them as crimes against humanity within existing international jurisprudence. There is a duty on all states to find and punish those who plan and facilitate such crimes.

The coming into force of the statute of the International Criminal Court, the first instrument to codify the elements of a crime against humanity, establishes individual responsibility for such crimes, whether these are state-sanctioned or the acts of groups. The universal ratification of the statute is an important goal for the world community. We must equip ourselves with the means to deal with crimes such as those of Sept. 11 in the future.

International cooperation and resolve are vital in combating those who plan acts of terrorism. The UN Security Council has taken important steps in this direction. In Resolution 1373 of Sept. 28, it imposed a new international legal obligation on states to cooperate against terrorism, taking language from existing international conventions.

Despite efforts to frame the response to terrorism within the framework of crimes under national and international law, an alternative language has emerged post-Sept. 11. That language - which has shaped to a much larger extent the response at all levels - has spoken of a "war on terrorism." As such, it has brought a subtle change in emphasis in many parts of the world. Order and security have become the overriding priorities. In the past, the world has learned that emphasis on national order and security often involved curtailment of democracy and human rights. As a result, a shadow has been cast.

This shadow can be seen in official reactions that at times have seemed to subordinate the principles of human rights to other more "robust" action in the war against terrorism. There has been a tendency to ride roughshod over, or at least to set on one side, established principles of international human rights and humanitarian law.

There has been confusion on what is and what is not subject to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. There have been suggestions that the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 and their aftermath in the conflict in Afghanistan demonstrated that the conventions were out of date.

It is essential that the actions taken by states to combat terrorism be in conformity with international human rights standards. This duty was powerfully expressed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his statement to the Security Council this past Jan. 18:

"We should all be clear that there is no trade-off between effective action against terrorism and the protection of human rights. On the contrary, I believe that in the long term we shall find that human rights, along with democracy and social justice, are one of the best prophylactics against terrorism. "While we certainly need vigilance to prevent acts of terrorism, and firmness in condemning and punishing them, it will be self-defeating if we sacrifice other key priorities, such as human rights, in the process."

The great concern now is that where mature democracies blur the lines or set a bad example, undemocratic regimes consider that they are given a green light to pursue repressive policies, secure in the belief that any excesses will be ignored. It thus becomes more difficult to secure conformity with basic standards and safeguards against abuse of power. It is of particular concern that the post-Sept. 11 environment is reinforcing a fortress mentality within Europe. As controls are tightened, there is a coarsening of debate and of language used in speaking of asylum seekers and immigrants. This, together with the resurgence of anti-Semitism and the rise in Islamaphobia, are challenges that must be faced by European leaders and citizens alike.

If the immediate challenge for the human rights movement is to maintain the integrity of international human rights and humanitarian law norms in the light of heightened security tensions, there is also a long-term agenda. That is to build a world of true human security. It is important that there be more recognition of the links between development, human rights and democracy, and their necessary connection to security.

The very real security fears of New Yorkers and others in the developed world are matched by the different but equally immediate insecurity of persons in the developing world. We now understand in a more profound way that no nation can isolate or exclude itself from the effects of global problems of endemic poverty and conflict. In essence, the tragedy of Sept. 11 must spur renewed action on all these fronts.

. Deprivation and denial of rights in the world can no longer be viewed simply as holding a moral claim on us all - they must now be seen as crucial battlefields for the security of all. If it is to succeed in its goal of ensuring greater human security, combating terrorism must also be a war on disadvantage, discrimination and despair.


* The writer is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C ß 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.