Terrorism and Human Rights

TitleTerrorism and Human Rights
Publication TypeFolyóirat cikk / Journal Article
AuthorsRussell-Johnston, Lord
Full Text

The events of September 11 have produced shock waves all over the world. The sheer blind merciless fanaticism of the action filled us with horror: the sudden violent and seemingly easy way in which our settled relatively ordered existence could be disrupted filled us with fear.

People who are horrified and afraid call for certitude and safety and action—so we have a war against terrorism.

The target is Osama bin Laden protected by the Taliban in Afghanistan but the language has been taken by many to be much more inclusive, taking in Chechens, Palestinians, Kashmiris, Armenians, Kurds and others, over and above obvious examples like ETA, the IRA or the thought-to-be defunct Red Brigade. Turkish Cypriots talked of terrorism, meaning Greek Cypriots; Greek Cypriots talked to terrorism, meaning Turks.

I am told that the world-respected news agency Reuters does not use the word terrorist in its reportage because it has no sufficiently precise definition.

I think most people would accept that if you kill or indeed harm innocent people in pursuit of some political or religious objective within a democratic society, you are a terrorist. Even in a totalitarian society, indiscriminate killing can in no way be justified but targeting military objectives or persons at once brings one into a hazardous moral swamp where some justify a certain violence to achieve the overthrow of the greater violence of sustained repression and the "terrorist" in one person's vocabulary becomes the "freedom fighter" in the language of another.

We saw this pattern in Kosovo where for nearly a decade Rugova sought support in Western Europe and the States for his peaceful struggle against the repression which Milosevic orchestrated but until the KLA arrived and committed violence—terrorism or freedom fighting—no one paid attention. The vicious circle here is not yet complete though we can see daylight.

The problem is how to contain terrorism and to do it without placing human rights at risk from the actions of the very people who defend them.

For a week now, the United States and my country, the United Kingdom, have been engaged in a military operation against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. I support this operation. Terrorist networks have operated in Afghanistan with the knowledge and consent of the Taliban authorities, who allowed them to plan and carry out terrorist attacks all around the world with full impunity.

One could not allow this to continue.

But my support is not unconditional. We do not have to look very far to see how a legitimate response to a security threat can turn into a self-perpetuating, destructive and seemingly endless circle of violence and abuse.

In August 1999, a group of armed Chechen combatants, led by Shamil Bassaev, who had previously fought in the Russian side in Abkhazia, stormed into several villages high in the mountains of Dagestan. I have been there.

They pillaged, plundered and killed. In September, two apartment houses, in Moscow and Volgodonsk, were blown apart, killing several hundred people. Russia was under attack. It had not only a right, but also a duty to fight against the terrorist threat.

The second Chechen war began.

Two years later, Shamil Bassaev has lost a leg, but he's still around. The perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Moscow and Volgodonsk have never been identified. Grozny, a city of 400,000 people, the size of Edinburgh, where I went to university, was bombed to ruins. The list of Russian casualties is steadily growing, as is the length of the list of human rights abuses committed by the Russian security forces for which, very few, if any, of the perpetrators have so far been brought to justice. After all the destruction and loss of lives, on both sides, terrorism, if you wish to define it so, persists.

This is a lesson that those carrying out the riposte to the attacks in the United States should bear in mind. It certainly was a lesson that dominated the recent Assembly debate on democracies facing terrorism. The final text of the resolution accepted the possibility of military action against the perpetrators and organisers of the attacks in the United States, provided that any such action was approved by the UN Security Council, that it clearly defined its objectives, that it avoided targeting civilians, and was generally conducted in conformity with international law.

The message of the Assembly was simple and straightforward.Yes, we must act against terrorists, as swiftly and decisively.

Yes, we are entitled to use force, if necessary. But using force In a disproportionate and indiscriminate manner, as has been done in Chechnya, will only make things worse.

You may say this is typically vague and well-meaning of an international body but it really is the only approach which will produce any stable solution.

The second potentially fatal threat to the success of the international fight against terrorism comes from the exaggeratedly pragmatic attitude of some western leaders who, in their eagerness to win a military campaign, are ready to turn a blind eye to the human rights record of their newly-found allies.

In my opinion, there is a danger of the United States repeating the errors it made during its ideological battle against communism, when, particularly in Central and South America, it financed and supported right-wing dictatorships simply because they weren't communist.

Again, let me use the example of Russia, although this is far from being the only example, and is perhaps not even the best one. For all its faults, the human rights and democratic record of the new Russia is considerably better than that of several other members of the anti-terrorist alliance. But Russia is big, it is important, and it is a member of the Council of Europe.

Moscow's support of the international campaign against terrorism is crucial, but in obtaining it, we should not trade our values and principles. We cannot accept the notion that the fight against terrorism is incompatible with respect for human rights. If, after September 11, there is anything that requires "a differentiated evaluation" to repeat a phrase Schroeder used, in world opinion on Chechnya, it is the world leaders' half-hearted, soft-pedalling attitude with regard to the Russian conduct so far in that war.

I have to say I was extremely impressed by President Putin's performance during his recent tour of European capitals. He showed great diplomatic skill. His decision to associate Russia with the international campaign in such a resolute and unequivocal manner is certainly historic.

But it is time to ask the Russian President to match his words with action. Russia can make a decisive contribution to a lasting victory against terrorism, not so much by offering its military resources, but by cleaning up its act in the Caucasus, by ending human rights abuses and prosecuting those who committed them in the past, and by pressing for a peaceful political solution with the moderate Chechen leadership. That would make a huge difference! And set a huge example.

Millions of moderate and peaceful Muslims around the world will consider our attitude with regard to Chechnya, the Middle East, and other conflicts where their fellow Muslims are involved, as a test of whether the West is sincere in its message of justice, equality and human rights, or whether it is all merely a charade, and we are ready to condone injustice in the name of our own interests. The stakes are enormous. We shall either win their trust, and with it the battle against the extremists, or fail, and sow the seeds of a new circle of despair, hatred, and violence.

Sometimes terrorism emerges in circumstances which no enlightened social or political action could prevent: as the Baader Meinhof in Germany, but, in the main, throughout the world, it is the end-product of political or religious fanaticism, blending together, and always strengthened by grievance. The removal of grievance does not guarantee the disappearance of religious fanaticism which can and does appear and operate in advanced societies, but it seems to diminish its incidence. The removal of grievance normally has some direct political response and a relatively quick calming of extremes.

In this regard and here I speak personally and not as a representative of the Parliamentary Assembly, I believe that, in all the world, Palestine is a suppurating wound, feeding poison into international relations, as was most recently and sadly illustrated in Durban and, somehow, it must be cauterised. I use the word cauterised intentionally because I do not think the wound can be healed without some previous hurtful burning.

I take only a short instant of your time to say what I would do if I had the power.

I would say to the Israelis that international force would guarantee their existence. But within internationally recognised borders.

I would say to the Palestinians that international force would guarantee a free Palestinian state. I would say to both that a permanent UN police force would police the border between them.

Perhaps this would not exclude cross-border violence entirely and it might also require facing up to the removal of settlements but it would give each a space of their own and time peacefully to develop and slowly to reach for a civilised relationship.

I do not see it as being possible to establish the level of international agreement needed to tackle terrorism without concerned action to remove the grievances upon which it feeds and without strengthening the international community's ability collectively to confront and deal with it.

However, in the pursuit of justice and in guaranteeing the security of ordinary citizens, we must not forget—as difficult as this may be for some to accept—that terrorists also have human rights. Our belief in that is what separates us from them. Against the background of the considerable differences that exist between the United States and Europe on some aspects of human rights, such as the death penalty, this consideration is important and risks having an impact on the efficiency of trans-Atlantic co-operation in the prosecution of terrorists.

The Council of Europe's response to the attacks in the United States was one of solidarity with the American people and support for its efforts to deal with the consequences of these awful attacks and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The significance of this support is far from just symbolic: the Council has 43 member states—including all fifteen members of the European Union—and has over 50 years of experience in international legal co-operation, including in the field of law enforcement.

During its last part-session at the end of September, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on its member states governments to review its 1978 European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, the main purpose of which is to make extradition easier. This should include the opening of the convention to Council of Europe observer states—of which the US is one—and non-member countries, and the removal of the right to make reservations, which can defeat the purpose of the Convention. The Assembly also recommended that the European Union arrest warrant, agreed last week in Brussels, be extended to all 43 Council of Europe member states.

In offering Council of Europe assistance and support, the Assembly firmly insisted on full respect for human rights, which includes its unconditional opposition to the death penalty.

While the controversy between the United States and Europe on the issue of capital punishment has not created any difficulties so 

In the pursuit of justice and in guaranteeing the security of ordinary citizens, we must not forget that terrorists also have human rights. Our belief in that is what separates us from them.

far; suspects with alleged links to the attacks of September 11 are being arrested on a daily basis across Europe. This may change if the US requests their extradition.

In the aftermath of the horror they have had to live through, it might seem in rather poor taste to speak to Americans in a high moral tone on the death penalty. Yet today we have perhaps a better opportunity than ever before to reflect on this, together.

In many countries, not only in the United States, the threat of terrorism is one of the strongest arguments for retaining capital punishment.

The three of the 43 Council of Europe member states that have not yet formally abolished the death penalty: Armenia, Russia and Turkey, have all suffered from terrorism in the past. Recently, Turkey has adopted a broad constitutional reform which includes the abolition of the death penalty for all offences, except terrorism.

One can understand, even justify, such an attitude on an emotional level. But even if we leave aside the ethical objection, that killing people is simply wrong, the two main arguments in favour of the death penalty—that it acts as a punishment and a deterrence—do not survive rational scrutiny when it comes to fanatics ready to die for their cause.

Fanatical terrorists, be they driven by religion or ideology, are not concerned about their physical well-being. They are ready to put their lives at risk, and indeed to sacrifice them, in order to carry out their abominable deeds. What they do fear is political death, anonymity, and public oblivion.

Does anybody remember Ilich Ramírez Sánchez? Since his incarceration in the Santé prison in Paris, the main preoccupation of Carlos "the Jackal" has become not how to change the world order through violent means, but rather how to recover his socks from the prison laundry. He is hardly the image of a world-class terrorist, or an inspiration to would-be revolutionaries of this world.

For fanatical terrorists, physical death is not a punishment. On the contrary, the prospect of being put to death by the very government they fight against is an added bonus, guaranteeing instant martyrdom and a place of honour in the collective memory of those who share their fanatical views.

Executing fanatics not only gratifies them personally. I shall never forget that sneer on Timothy McVeigh's face; it also risks inciting others to follow their example.

What Osama Ben Laden fears most is being locked away and forgotten. And this is what should happen to him and his like. They should spend the rest of their lives in prison. They should wake up and go to bed with the thought that they have lost their cause.

That they are nobodies. But Europe's reluctance to extradite persons accused of terrorist activities not only has an ethical and philosophic nature, there is also a legal obstacle.

In the 1989 case Soering vs United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the conditions in the US death rows went beyond the threshold of ill-treatment set by ArtIcle 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which says that nobody shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The Court therefore requested from the United Kingdom not to extradite Mr. Soering without first receiving assurances from US prosecutors that he would not face the death penalty. This is a decision no European court or government can ignore.

Before concluding, just a short reflection on the impact of what has taken place on the ordinary life we lead. I don't mean the air traveller who, though there are many, is a minority person and since the Munich exercise of Al Fatah has had, and I suppose forever will have, to be subjected to search. I mean the man and woman in the street, going to the supermarket, walking about, dropping into a restaurant. The reality is that we can't spend our lives looking over our shoulders.

So, unless we want our lives to be distorted and made miserable by the activities of what are, in the end, the activities of a few crazy people, we will go on and act normally. I remember the bombs in the Paris metro. Suddenly all the poubelles, rubbish bins, not just in Paris but throughout France, were closed.

It lasted about a fortnight. People said where can I put things? And common sense triumphed. And the poubelles were opened. And have so remained.

We must not exaggerate the extent and level of threat and thereby give to "security" the right to push us about without reason, which many would happily do. I am in Budapest. It was the case here before. We don't want it back again! In conclusion, I wish to offer an apology. If this speech came across as fragmented and incoherent, I have an excuse. In preparing for this conference, I lost precious time because of a bomb alert in the Palais de l'Europe in Strasbourg.

There was nothing extremely dramatic in the incident, and the 1700 members of the Secretariat calmly evacuated the building and gathered in the park opposite to it, waiting for the bomb experts of the French police to blow to pieces a piece of luggage left behind by a distracted visitor.

As President, I have some privileges, however dubious they may seem in this case. I did not evacuate, I was evacuated.

My secretary came in and said "the police have come to take you away." I have a clear conscience and I remained calm ... but they did! I was removed in a small car, at high speed, to a building some distance away.

Sitting there and waiting for the bomb experts, I had time to reflect on the sad change that has happened to the world we knew.

In retrospect, I try to look at this episode with humour, but it is a bitter kind of humour, because it is mixed with fear. It is not so much fear for my personal safety; I am, after all, reaching an age at which one can afford to have a "differentiated evaluation"—I can't escape the phrase! I'm sorry!—of physical risks. My fear is for the values I so strongly believe in and to which I have devoted my entire political life—the values of freedom and humanity.

The world has changed after September 11. And, so far, it has not changed for the better. My values, our values, are under threat and we must defend them.

If, in facing terror, we give up on freedom and humanity, the terrorists have won.