To what extent have the policies and practices of counterterrorism undermined human rights in the 'War on Terror'?

Essay, 2015

11 Pages


To what extent have the policies and practices of counterterrorism undermined human rights in the ‘War on Terror’?

This essay will discuss the impact that counterterrorism has had on human rights throughout the ‘war on terror’, focusing on the policies and practices of the U.S. after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and using case studies such as Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. This essay will compare the use policies and practices of counterterrorism utilised by the Bush administration to that of the Obama administration, and how human rights have been undermined during both presidencies, as well as analysing how the U.S.’s methods of counterterrorism has led to other countries following suit in the disregard of human rights when fighting terrorism.

Counterterrorism can be defined as action against known and suspected terrorist organisations in reaction to, or as a defence against terrorist attacks, and, according to Poynting and Whyte, “seeks only to control the threat of terrorism and is devoid of any content other than security and protection.” (Poynting and Whyte, 2012: 6). After the tragic attack on 11th September 2001, when four planes were hijacked by Al-Qaida terrorists, the Bush administration declared a ‘war on terror’, determined to track down and punish those responsible for the attacks. In late January 2002, President Bush extended the war on terror to a wider ‘axis of evil’, those targeted composed of regimes that supported terrorism and pursued development of weapons of mass destruction (Rogers, 2013: 6). Most notably among the targets were Iran, North Korea, and, of course, Iraq.

In basic terms, human rights are put in place to protect citizens from the state. And according to contemporary international human rights law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, the state has an obligation to implement internationally recognised human rights (Donnelly, 2004). However, sometimes a state will undermine these internationally recognised human rights; generally, trends show violations occurring after a security crisis, when human rights policies tend to be viewed as a lower priority to affected governments (Forsythe, 2004).

As Donnelly describes, since 11th September 2001 there has been an eclipse of human rights (Donnelly, 2004: 101). Democracy and human rights have been pushed back from the forefront of U.S. foreign policy as counterterrorism and the war on terror take centre stage. In September, 2002, Cofer Black, then Director of the CIA’s counterterrorism unit, said, “There was ‘before’ 9/11 and ‘after’ 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off.” (Congress, 2002: 2). The decision of the U.S. to not keep human rights as a priority had major repercussions for the human rights policies of other countries. The U.S. is one of the key leaders in promoting human rights, and when its voice of support weakens, the consequences are felt throughout other countries, specifically in some of the countries on the frontline in the war against terrorism, where there is the greatest need for a strong defence of human rights (Roth, 2004: 113). Even when countries such as Russia and Israel used the fight against terrorism as an alibi for intensifying repression, the Bush administration showed almost no inclination to confront the governments (Roth, 2004: 115).

Russia and Israel are particularly tragic examples of how the war on terror undermines human rights. In Russia, the idea of counterterrorism and the war on terror meant partial protection from international criticism concerning military action that would not be considered humanitarian. And in Israel, assassination and collective punishment have come to be thought of as regular operating procedures. Military occupation has increased human rights violations, which themselves have intensified in quantity and severity. The war on terrorism, coupled with Washington’s tolerance for brutal counterterrorism, has given Israel opportunity to implement policies that specifically target the Palestinian economy, and to increase the suffering of individual Palestinians (Donnelly, 2004: 102). Former Yugoslav President Milosevic used the pretence of acting on behalf of counterterrorism to defend himself against the charge of war crimes, claiming that his abusive troops were combating terrorism, and countries such as Uzbekistan persecuted religious dissenters on the same pretence (Roth, 2004: 124). Associating dissidents to the global war on terror loosens restrictions on governments, enabling them to punish rebels without the disapproval of the international community (Jackson, 2005: 12-13).

The Bush administration’s practices of counterterrorism operated as though human rights were not a constraint. The administration continued to undermined human rights; it rejected the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of prisoners of war from Afghanistan, it threatened using substandard military commissions, as well as the reported strategy of ‘stress and duress’ interrogation techniques, it abused immigration laws in order to deny suspected criminals their rights. The U.S. seemed to be trying to tell that world that human rights were dispensable in the name of counterterrorism; they took the view that the dignity and the life of the individual was subject to degradation if the end justifies the means (Roth, 2004: 115, 121-122).

One of the most recognised examples of the practices of counterterrorism undermining human rights is that of Guantanamo Bay detention centre. From when the centre began in January 2002, to two years later in 2004, Guantanamo Bay had roughly 660 prisoners transferred there, and it was reported that out of the 660 prisoners transferred, there were no prisoners of status, only foot soldiers (Steyn, 2004:13). As of November 2015 there are 107 detainees currently being held there (Guantánamo by the Numbers, 2015). All of these men, with the exception of a small number of detainees, have been held in Guantanamo for over ten years without having been charged with a crime, nor have they ever been tried in court (Roth, 2015).

The Bush administration had a very narrow interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, most especially the Third Geneva Convention, which states that captures militias are to be given POW (prisoner of war) status until they can be tried by a competent court of law and charged. The Bush administration continued to refuse to allow any detainee to be tried by a tribunal, and reiterated many times it’s assertion that none of the detainees, whether foot soldiers of the Taliban or members of Al-Qaida, qualified as a POW (Roth, 2004: 116-117). This effectively meant that the detainees were in a legal black hole; the U.S. was able to hold them in long-term detention without them actually being charged with any crimes.

The blatant disregard of the Geneva Conventions indicates how the use of Guantanamo Bay as a form of counterterrorism undermined human rights and violated international law. The Geneva Conventions discuss a wide range of protections bestowed upon prisoners detained throughout an international conflict; one of the basic themes of the Geneva Conventions is that imprisoned soldiers must be humanely treated at all times (ICRC, 2015). The prisoners are also entitled to protection from interrogation, and prosecution (Chlopak, 2002: 8), however footage emerged showing the incarcerated detainees bearing shackles and imprisoned in metal cages, wearing blacked out goggles, surgical face masks and sound-blocking earmuffs so as to distort their senses, generating criticism from other governments and human rights organisations (Chlopak, 2002: 6).

When Obama became president, it was made clear that the policies and practices of the Bush administration’s approach to the war on terror would not be upheld during the new presidency. On Obama’s second day in office, he announced that his government would close Guantanamo detention facility within a year, ending Bush’s use of torture to gain information. And by all the evidence available, the torture, otherwise known as enhanced interrogation techniques, has stopped. However, despite Obama’s good intentions, Guantanamo Bay is remains open. He has stopped any new terrorist suspects from being kept in detention there, instead the suspects are delivered to federal courts for trial (Roth, 2015), yet the centre is still a hotspot for human rights violations, and the fact that is remains open undermines the rights of the detainees. The new administration agreed that out of the detainees at the centre, 47 of them cannot be released as they are too great a security risk; they pose a threat to the security of the U.S. so must be detained. However, they cannot be tried for their crimes, as the evidence that would be held against them was obtained via improper (and illegal) methods such as torture (McCrisken, 2011: 9).

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (UN General Assembly, 1948: 2). Yet torture is one of the most significant ways that the policies and practices of counterterrorism undermine human rights in the war on terror. It is an illegal method of interrogation, yet many countries around the world use it as a means of obtaining information. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits states to suspend or detract specific rights, such as; political participation; free assembly; habeas corpus (legal action that abets detainees when pursuing relief from unlawful incarceration); and freedom from detention prior to a trial. However, some rights are non-negotiable, and these include immunity from torture, unusual and cruel punishment, free belief, or the perpetration of death (Ignatieff, 2002: 1139). The Geneva conventions forbid torture even during war, however, when faced with a critical security threat, one of the most notable for the U.S. being after the 11th September 2001, attacks, governments may find it tempting to try and justify immoral and illegal acts, such as torture, as a necessary evil needed in order to maintain security (Roth, 2015), however much it may undermine human rights.

It can be argued that torture has become accepted by many as an expected form of order concerning interrogation techniques; populations have become desensitised to reports of the use of torture as an enhanced interrogation technique, and what is even more troubling is the amount of public support that torture, as a form of counterterrorism, has garnered, especially if the result is information about terrorism (Welch, 2004: 14). This form of counterterrorism has become ingrained in the dialogue of the war on terror, with one U.S. official who supervised the capture and transfer of prisoners accused of terrorism boasting, “If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job” (Welch, 2004: 12). Even in times of decreased public support, the use of torture did not terminate, in times when U.S. interrogators wished to utilise more vigorous methods, they merely transferred prisoners to the custody of countries in which torture was more openly used, and would not be as criticised as a violation of human rights (Jackson, 2005: 89-91).

When discussing torture during his initial campaign, Obama told MSNBC that “we have to understand that torture is not going to either provide us with information, and it’s also going to create more enemies. And so as a strategy for creating a safer and secure America, I think it is wrongheaded, as well as immoral.” (Scahill, 2013: 245). As noted above, in more recent years Obama has been the champion of ending torture as a method of interrogation. However, Obama’s refusal to investigate the era of torture during Bush’s government sends the message, Roth believes, that torture can be considered an option for policymakers instead of a criminal offence (Roth, 2015). Is this a message to future presidents of the U.S. that when confronted with a serious threat to security, the sanctions of torture can be ignored without negative repercussions? John Brennan, the CIA director, has adamantly refused to rule out enhanced interrogation techniques (meaning torture) being used under a future administration after Obama. This could lead to abusive security forces, such as Russia and Israel, taking cue from the U.S. and abiding by the same principles (Roth, 2015).

Perhaps one of the most renowned detention centres that utilised torture during Bush’s war on terror is Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The photos of the hooded man; a figure in a dark cape balancing on a box while he has wires attached to his body, and the leashed man; bound in a leather collar and naked at the feet of a female American soldier (Danner, 2004: 26-27), these images portray some of the most sadistic forms of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. As evident from photos and reports found in the media, the prison not only incarcerates the prisoners, it dehumanises and demoralises them. President Truman preached that ‘when you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him like a beast’ (Jackson, 2005: 75), this is evident in the mannerisms with which the guards at Abu Ghraib treated their prisoners. Ivan Frederick, who was one of the first guards from the prison to be found guilty of abusing Iraqi prisoners, states that he preferred to refer to the prisoners as ‘animals’ (Jackson, 2005: 75).

Not only were the prisoners at Abu Ghraib subject to dehumanising abuse, they suffered from sexual abuse including rape, beatings (including with a broomstick and pistol whipping), sleep deprivation, exposure to bright lights and loud music, being kept bound and naked for days, extended periods of hooding, extended periods of being restrained in painful positions, denial of medical treatment (one prisoner had been shot but received no medical aid), the use of dogs on naked prisoners, the pouring of acid over one’s genitals, and there were even investigations into murder (Jackson, 2005: 89-91). These were just some of the ways that the prisoners’ human rights were undermined and violated.

There are many contesting views on the differences between President George W Bush’s approach to counterterrorism and the war on terror and that of President Barack Obama’s approach. While Bush opted for a more militant style without overall regard for human rights, Obama’s tactics seem to be more favourable towards a humanitarian approach, concerning torture. The debate over the efficiency of torture techniques resurfaced when the U.S managed to track down and kill Osama bin Laden. Those who were in support of the Bush administration asserted that it was via extreme measures such as enhanced interrogation techniques employed during the early stages of the war on terrorism that the vital information on finding bin Laden was obtained (McCrisken, 2011: 12). This debate effectively argues whether torture can be justified as a means to an end, even at the risk of undermining human rights, and Obama’s stance is that torture cannot be used as counterterrorism, because of the fact that it undermines human rights.


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To what extent have the policies and practices of counterterrorism undermined human rights in the 'War on Terror'?
University of Kent
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Politics, Human Rights, War on Terror, Counterterrorism
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Poppy Stanbury (Author), 2015, To what extent have the policies and practices of counterterrorism undermined human rights in the 'War on Terror'?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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