Rampant abuse of counter-terrorism laws threaten human rights globally, warns UN expert


Over two decades of prolific global efforts to counter terrorism have not been matched by an equally robust commitment to human rights, warned the recently appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, Ben Saul.

In his first report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur painted a counter-terrorism landscape strewn with human rights violations, including unlawful killings, arbitrary detention, torture, unfair trials, privacy infringements from mass surveillance, and the criminalisation of freedoms of expression, assembly, association and political participation.

“The misuse of counter-terrorism measures not only violates the rights of suspected criminals but can also jeopardise the freedoms of the innocent,” Saul said.

He condemned the rampant weaponisation of overly-broad terrorism offences against civil society, including political opponents, activists, human rights defenders, journalists, minorities, and students. Unjustified and protracted states of emergency continue to undermine human rights, the expert warned.

“Excessive military violence in response to terrorism also destroys fundamental rights, including through violations of international humanitarian law and international criminal law,” Saul said. “Cross-border military violence is increasingly used by states even when it is not justified under the international law of self-defence.”

“Many states have also failed to address the root causes of terrorism, including state violations of human rights – while impunity for those violations is endemic,” he said.

Saul said regrettably, the UN has been part of the problem, by encouraging authoritarian regimes to strengthen counter-terrorism laws in the absence of a rule of law culture or human rights safeguards. “The UN must also do better to meaningfully consult civil society on counter-terrorism,” he said.

Announcing his priorities for his three-year term, the Special Rapporteur said his focus would include ensuring regional organisations respect human rights when countering terrorism; all coercive administrative measures used to prevent terrorism comply with human rights; and States are held accountable for large-scale violations of human rights resulting from counter terrorism – and victims receive full and effective remedies.

Saul will also continue the efforts of his predecessor on preventing the abuse of counter-terrorism measures against civil society; protecting the 70,000 people arbitrarily detained in north-east Syria in the conflict against ISIL; protecting detainees and transferees from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; ensuring that the UN safeguards human rights in its counter-terrorism work, regulating new technologies used in counter-terrorism; and protecting the victims of terrorism.

“Human rights in counter-terrorism are at increased risk because of rising authoritarianism, surging domestic polarisation and extremism, geopolitical competition, dysfunction in the Security Council and new tools, including social media, for fuelling dehumanisation, vilification, incitement and misinformation,” the Special Rapporteur warned.

“Double standards and selectivity by major powers in the enforcement of human rights is also eroding public confidence in the credibility of the international human rights system,” he said. “States must move beyond rhetorical commitment to human rights and instead place human rights at the heart of all counter-terrorism measures.”

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