The Protection of human rights in the face of terrorism
The European Parliament has discussed human rights in contexts where governments are tempted to set them aside – in the struggle against terrorism.
In recent years there have been endless reports on TV and in the press about terrorism in the world: since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the whole world fears terrorism. But how are legislators to confront this challenge whilst respecting human rights? This discussion was the theme of a conference of the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, which took place in Brussels on April 13th.
To understand the concept of terrorism is crucial. The word 'terrorism' derives from the Latin word for extreme fright or fear. The Committee understood the term to comprise two elements: first, the objective reality of such criminal acts as murder or physical assault: second, the subjective intention behind such acts, to intimidate a population or to undermine the basic structure of a society.
After '9/11', the UN Security Council passed three resolutions which require the member states to work cooperatively against terrorism. One legal measure response to 9/11 on the part of the presidency of George W. Bush, however, was to establish an 'extraordinary rendition' system whereby terrorism suspects were transferred, secretly detained and interrogated outside the USA. However to be thus secretly detained contravenes internationally accepted human rights. As Article 9, paragraph 1, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights affirms, 'Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law'.
The principal focus of the conference was that of ensuring human rights while still countering terrorism. The topic touches the EU itself especially because Member States have collaborated with the US's alleged procedure of illegally abducting or arresting people, without either due process or legal safeguard against subsequent torture. In the secret transfers by airplane, there have been stopovers by US aircraft at European airports. The report of the Subcommittee, “Secret Rendition and Detention practices” claims that between the end of 2001 and the end of 2005, at least 1245 such flights operated by the CIA entered European airspace. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe investigated the collaboration, but its work was hindered on grounds of “state secrecy”.
One victim invited to the conference had been mistaken for a terrorist, and spoke about the torture inflicted on him. According to a report of the UN General Assembly, a related problem was that, in many cases, secrecy covered both the identity of the people arrested and the grounds of their detention.
The subject of terrorism is complex. What was emphasised in this conference was the urgent need for democratic states to protect human rights even – or especially – when confronting terrorism. One might add that churches too, committed to respect and witness to human dignity, have a serious responsibility to confront this grave contemporary threat to human rights.