Statement by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
New York, 21 June 2017
Thank you for inviting me to join you in this effort towards a well-coordinated and rule-of-law based response to terrorism. This is the type pf UN meeting that can actually make a difference in my view.
The scale and complexity of terrorism has changed considerably in recent years. The burden on law enforcement and judicial institutions to prevent terrorist attacks and hold their authors to account is daunting, and the need for effective international cooperation greater than ever.
Experience over the last 15 years has demonstrated just how important respect for human rights is to these efforts. While utterly abhorring the crimes and cruelty of terrorists, we must also not ignore the major violations that have also been committed by Governments in the fight against terrorism. These include the most egregious practices of the post 9/11 era such as the irregular transfer of suspects; the use of secret detention centers; the rendition of suspects to countries where they are likely to face torture; the use of interrogation techniques, overseen by psychologists, widely viewed as torture, and disturbingly described in a detailed NY Times article just today on CIA interrogations.
We must never forget - though alas too many Governments do – that torture is 100% illegal, it’s 100% immoral, and astoundingly ineffective too. This is because, as study after study has shown, people under such duress will say absolutely anything – true or not – to stop the diabolical pain that is being inflicted on them. So the current glorification of torture in some high-level quarters is profoundly troubling.
These practices have since been repudiated as both unlawful and counter-productive. Yet their exposure and condemnation has not resulted in systematic accountability or justice for victims. This disregard for human rights, coupled with the failure to ensure accountability for violations of the law, has had longer-term implications for the ability of States to claim to uphold the rule of law, and also to hold other countries to account for violations.
We must be vigilant not to repeat the errors of the past and also be mindful of the lasting security – not just ethical – consequences of practices that do not comply with human rights. Indeed, international cooperation in the fight against terrorism must be grounded in human rights if it has any chance of being effective in the long-term.
As stated by UN High Commissioner Zeid in his opening remarks to the Human Rights Council just two weeks ago: “Counter-terrorism must be prosecuted intelligently: that is, while preserving the human rights of all. Please remember this: for every citizen wrongfully detained under a vague anti-terrorism law, and humiliated, abused, or tortured, it is not simply one individual who then nurses a grievance against the authorities, but most of their family too. Send one innocent person to prison, and you may deliver six or seven family members into the hands of those who oppose the government, with a few who may even go further than that.”
There are two other specific benefits to ensuring human rights-compliant international law enforcement cooperation I would like to highlight.
The first is that aligning counter-terrorism legislation and policy with human rights standards helps to promote the prosecution and lawful conviction of individuals engaged in acts of terrorism. This encourages legal consistency between national jurisdictions which, in turn, facilitates international cooperation.
In other words, the baseline for successful international law enforcement cooperation must be counter-terrorism laws and measures that are consistent with human rights standards and compliant with the principle of legality.
The second point relates to the risks to human rights that have arisen as a result of the enhanced collaboration between law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the counter terrorism context.
This increased sharing of information between law enforcement and intelligence agencies in different jurisdictions has raised risks, for example, that such information may have been obtained by illegal means. And it has raised additional implications for accountability.
In addition, new technologies have facilitated invasive and transnational surveillance practices, as well as the collection and storage of personal data arising from digital communication. While digital surveillance can indeed be necessary for legitimate law enforcement and intelligence reasons, it has also been used by some States unlawfully to target political opponents and to monitor and access bulk information on specific individuals and communities. Such practices can impact on a range of human rights.
Equally important should be an explicit provision in international cooperation agreements that the parties’ international legal obligations – including their human rights obligations - take priority. This is particularly important when personal information of vulnerable groups, such as asylum seekers and refugees, is being shared across borders.
Ensuring that every State’s legislation, criminal and administrative procedures, practices and policies are human rights compliant is therefore the cornerstone of effective inter-State collaboration. It is only such approaches – implemented hand-in-hand with the fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights, and respect for equality and non-discrimination – that can tackle the underlying conditions that lead to violent extremism.
In brief, my appeal is that we learn from repeated past experiences, and ensure that international cooperation helps prevent acts of terrorism, bring justice for victims, and facilitate the challenging work of law enforcement through careful adherence to the shared values that are reflected in the international human rights framework.
After all, the fight against terrorism is a struggle to uphold the values of democracy and human rights – not undermine them. All too often, we tend to forget that. And the result is that, time and again, Governments fight the scourge of terrorism in ways that actually lead to the creation of yet more terrorists, not fewer. The cost of the failure to remember this fundamental truth is increasingly going to be paid by all of us.