Global Policy Forum

UN Terror Resolution Overly Vague, HRW Says


By Mithre J. Sandrasagra

Inter Press Service
September 14, 2005

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a counter-terrorism resolution that echoes measures enacted in Britain since the bombings of Jul. 7, 2005, and in the United States after Sep. 11, 2001.

"Terrorism won't be defeated until our determination is as complete as theirs, our defence of freedom is as absolute as theirs is of fanaticism," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Council. "They play on our divisions, exploit our hesitations. This is our weakness and they know it."

The resolution, sponsored by Britain, calls on all governments to adopt laws that prohibit people from "inciting" others to commit terrorist acts, and to deny safe haven to anyone seriously considered guilty of such conduct. It also calls on all countries "to counter violent extremist ideologies, including steps to prevent the subversion of educational, cultural, and religious institutions by terrorists and their supporters". Blair received strong support from U.S. President George W. Bush, who stressed that, "It is our solemn obligation to stop terrorism in its early stages. We must do all we can to disrupt each stage of planning and support for terrorist tactics." Bush had pressed U.S. lawmakers to pass the USA Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The measure gave federal law enforcement agencies sweeping new surveillance and detention powers, earning the enmity of numerous civil liberties groups.

Britain passed similar legislation, known as the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, which has been challenged by human rights campaigners who charged that the powers granted by the act were discriminatory and "a disproportionate response". Following the London bombings, Britain's Home Secretary Charles Clarke unveiled a series of new anti-terror measures that include a number of grounds to exclude or deport foreign nationals from the country.

After deploring the U.N.'s inability to agree on a definition of terrorism, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark told the Security Council, "Freedom of speech and expression is the very foundation of any modern, democratic society. But it must never be an excuse for inciting terrorism and fostering hatred." The resolution was unanimously passed by the Council's 15 members -- Algeria, Argentina, Benin, Brazil, Britain, China, Denmark, France, Greece, Japan, Philippines, Romania, Russia, Tanzania and the United States -- although it contains no precise definition of what constitutes "incitement".

Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world's largest human rights advocacy groups, warns that the new resolution will give governments a pretext to suppress peaceful expression. "Those who incite others to commit terrorism must be prosecuted," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, "But the resolution's sponsors have made it easy for abusive governments to invoke the resolution to target peaceful political opponents, impose censorship and close mosques, churches and schools."

"By encouraging the prevention of incitement, the resolution opens a loophole in free speech guarantees that an army of censors could drive through," Roth stressed. Pres. Kostas Karamanlis of Greece, who voted in favour of the resolution, also cautioned that it "should not affect established principles relating to freedom of expression".

HRW supports international efforts to encourage countries, in accordance with international fair-trial standards, to prosecute individuals who deliberately incite others to commit terrorist acts. However, the group says the resolution fails to define "incitement to terrorist acts", and urges governments not only to criminalise but also to "prevent" such conduct, opening the door to suppression of unpopular political or religious views.

The resolution should have required that laws only prohibit expression intended to incite an imminent terrorist act; if it is likely to incite such an act; and if it is directly and immediately connected to the likely occurrence of the terrorist act, HRW says. Instead, according to Roth, the resolution uses vague and over-broad language in calling on states to "prevent" incitement and to "counter" incitement that is "motivated by extremism and intolerance" or that is "subvert[ing] educational, cultural, and religious institutions". The resolution encourages states to "deny safe haven to any persons with respect to whom there is credible and relevant information giving serious reasons for considering that they have been guilty of such conduct". v HRW notes that the resolution makes no mention of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which specifically prohibits sending anyone to a state where they would be at risk of torture, and prohibits state complicity in the return of such persons. "We welcome language in the resolution that encourages compliance with international human rights law," said Roth, "But the open-ended language of the resolution means that it will be of greater help to abusive regimes than to the fight against terrorism."

Following the Security Council vote, Pres. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil noted that, "Hunger and poverty fuel a vicious cycle of frustration and humiliation that sets the stage for violence, crises and conflicts of all sorts." The resolution was adopted at the head-of-state level on the sidelines of the ongoing U.N. World Summit, billed as the largest-ever gathering of world leaders. "Originally intended to assess governments' progress on pledges to reduce poverty and promote development by 2015, (the Summit) is in danger of being derailed," said Yifat Susskind, associate director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organisation.

"Five years ago, world leaders had committed to overcome hunger, poverty and illiteracy by 2015. Since then, the world has focused not on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but on the so-called war on terror," said Wahu Kaara, ecumenical coordinator for the MDGs at the All Africa Conference of Churches. The eight MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; environmental sustainability; reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and a global partnership for development between the rich and poor.

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