Counter-terrorism and human rights: Insights from 6 experts

UN blog

We’re delighted to be welcoming the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres on the 16 November, from 5-6pm, to speak on counter-terrorism and human rights.

The talk will be hosted by SOAS’s Director Baroness Valerie Amos. The Secretary-General’s speech will then be followed by a conversation with the audience. The event is fully booked but you will be able to pre-submit questions using the hashtag #UNatSOAS and watch it live on Facebook. As well as in the Student Union Junior Common Room! (Cut off time for questions is midday GMT on 16 Nov)

António Guterres took office on 1 January 2017. Guterres has had an incredible career including: serving as UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015. While he has also served as prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002.

This is a great opportunity for students to hear from one of the world leaders in global peace, while gaining a deeper insight into issues such as terrorism, human rights and sustainability.

In order to get students warmed up prior to the event we’ve reached out to a handful of experts to get their thoughts on the topic.

Q1. What would you identify as being the greatest cause of the terror attacks we’re seeing around the world?

Q2.What would you suggest is the most effective way of countering terrorism?

Here are their responses below…

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri, Director of Conflict, Rights and Justice, SOAS

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri is Director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice, Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in International Relations, and Chair of the International Relations Speaker Series at SOAS. She recently has written a piece for The World Today: Life with the great disruptor. Follow her on Twitter @londonvinjamuri

Q1. Cause of terrorism: This is one area where universities can make a vital contribution. Experts have been studying terrorism and its causes for many decades. Governments tend to be highly reactive and it is absolutely essential that we cement the link between careful empirical analysis of the long term and also proximate causes of terrorism undertaken by experts, and those in government who are formulating and implementing policy. One thing we do know is that many of the practices embraced by governments in the United States and the United Kingdom, especially those that unintentionally harm innocent civilians, have had the unintended consequence of mobilising a hatred of the West, making it easier for terrorist groups to recruit individuals to the cause. The link between radicalisation and the use of violence is complex and we would do well to avoid making empty and unsupported assertions.

Q2. Countering terrorism: Democracies face multiple constraints in their search to develop effective strategies for countering terrorism.  International cooperation is vital and the contemporary political climate in Europe and the United States risks disrupting rather than facilitating this.  Democracies also face a very difficult set of calculations when evaluating the optimal balance between security and liberty. Most of the research I have reviewed on this subject suggests that there is little benefit to grave restrictions on liberties and human rights, either of citizens or noncitizens, in countering terror.  There is ample evidence, though, that restricting the liberties of entire categories of people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, or nationality has generated a backlash against those governments and elites who embrace these strategies. 

Dan Plesch, Director of International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS

Dr Plesch is the author of Human Rights After Hitler which was reported on All Things Considered and in the Guardian, Independent, Chicago Tribune amongst others. He leads research on the UN and on Disarmament.

Q1. Cause of terrorism: The glorification of male violence and the lack of equality in society. Whether terrorism is an act of individuals carrying out suicide missions or of western drones attacking villages a key dynamic that is not sufficiently addressed is the social status given to and expected by the mostly male perpetrators.

The issue of equality: of opportunity and income is another key driver in terror whether from those defending privilege or those attacking it. Indeed within Islam medieval historians noted some 500 years ago the cycle of aesthetic purists attacked the bloated corruption of the cities, a theme familiar in Western socialism. Where educated middle class people turn to political violence it is often on behalf of the oppressed.

At the founding of the UN the connection between poverty and oppression as drivers of extremism was well understood and at least within the West produced a consensus for the Welfare State. It’s lack of application in the neo-liberal era has produced consequences that would be no surprise to the generation of 1945.

Q2. Countering terrorism: Mass unemployment is a key driver of some ciao violence and its prevention through full employment was in the forties a founding purpose of the international system. At this time what we now call ‘ human security’ was regarded even by the great powers as central to international security.

It is a tragedy worthy of a Greek play that we are stumbling into growing conflict in the twenty first century having forgotten and discarded lessons learnt and such great cost in the world wars of the twentieth. Re-assessing the documents and ideas of the founders of the international system-many of whom where not Western-is a good place to start in changing course.

Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director, United Nations Association 

Natalie Samarasinghe is Executive Director of the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK), where she has worked since 2006. She is the first woman to hold this role. She speaks and writes regularly on UN issues, and serves as a trustee or advisor to a number of NGOs, including Doc Society, the Sri Lanka Campaign and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect. @UNAUK @Natalie_UNA

Q1. Cause of terrorism: That’s a tough question. Whether you’re talking about a sustained campaign by a group or state, or a single attack carried out by a lone actor, the causes of terrorism are complex, rooted in the causes of conflict and political strife, as well as criminality and other social ills. But all are connected, in some way, to the harsh inequalities that exist between and within countries. The impacts of terrorism provide a sobering example: despite the horrific attacks in Europe last year, the continent accounted for less than 1% of terrorism-related deaths. Just five countries – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria and Somalia – accounted for more than 70%.

Q2. Countering terrorism: Terrorism is a global threat. It requires a global response. The United Nations is the only organisation that works across the spectrum of challenges presented by terrorism, from tackling its root causes and coordinating state action, to ensuring we don’t sacrifice our fundamental freedoms on the altar of security. Over 90% of terrorism-related deaths occur in countries experiencing conflict; more than 90% of attacks take place in countries with poor human rights records. The UN’s role in preventing conflict and protecting human rights is crucial to countering terrorism. Our governments must do more – politically and financially – to ensure the UN works better for all of the world’s people.

Stephen Hopgood, Professor of International Relations, SOAS

Stephen Hopgood is Professor of International Relations and co-Director of the Centre for the International Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice (CCRJ) at SOAS. He is also the Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences.

Q1. Cause of terrorism: Terrorism is indiscriminate violence against civilian populations designed to spread panic and fear. There is no single cause of terrorist attacks. Some are driven by militant ideologies, some by concerns about alleged injustice, some as part of military strategies, and some, as in the case of mass shootings in the United States (which should be ranked, in my view, as nihilistic terrorism), by emotionally and psychologically damaged individuals with access to military-grade weaponry. Every attack has to be contextualised.

Q2. Countering terrorism: It depends entirely on the cause of a specific act of terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic designed, as I say, to spread fear and panic in the general population by making everyone feel unsafe. Tackling its root causes might mean tougher policies on security and gun ownership alongside policies to rectify social inequalities and remedy ongoing injustices. Each case is specific.

Zoë Marriage, Reader in Development Studies, SOAS

Zoë Marriage has degrees from Oxford University (BA) and the London School of Economics (MSc and PhD). She has researched extensively in countries affected by conflict in Africa and is the author of Not Breaking the Rules, Not playing the game.

Q1. Cause of terrorism: The notion of ‘terrorism’ as presented in the mainstream media and by northern governments is dominated by forms of spectacular violence committed by people who align themselves to Islamic groups. Accepting this as a definition is problematic because of the many other forms of violence that occur that do not arouse the same level of securitised response. If such a definition is accepted, it needs to be accepted also that people committing spectacular violence do so within a political context of their background and the media theatre, which provides a stage for their atrocities.

So the question is probing both why people carry out these acts of violence, and how it is politically possible for them to do so. Examining the communications from violent groups, currently dominant amongst which is Islamic State, it is evident that messages are relayed that involve people imaginatively and emotionally in historical struggles of Jihad, and offer them a role. In the case of the significant minority who are recruited from relatively comfortable conditions in Europe, the struggle presented confronts the privilege that they enjoy, connecting the imaginative engagement with the material reality of people’s lives. The recruitment message is convincing to recruits because of the critique it makes of liberal values, inequality and the forms of violence that maintain it; mainstream media amplify these tropes by drawing extraordinary attention to the barbarity and cowardice of the perpetrators, and the peace that is disturbed.

Q2. Countering terrorism: The implication of this perspective is that countering acts of terrorism involves unpicking the interface between the violence incited by groups and the lived reality of potential recruits. This includes disrupting the imaginative and emotional appeal of coupling Islam with violence, both in the minds of potential recruits and of the public who observe the attacks. It also involves emotional and imaginative work to dismantle the gendered association of young men with war and women as their carers. At the other side of the interface, reducing the violence of political and economic inequality would diminish the appeal of recruitment messages. In Europe, confronting the rise of the populist right wing and violent border control and foreign policy would undermine the narrative of on-going struggle conveyed by Islamic State.

Riccardo Labianco, PhD Researcher, SOAS Law

Riccardo Labianco is PhD researcher and tutor of Criminal Law at SOAS School of Law. He is currently researching the legal issues behind state-to-state arms trade in time of conflict. His interests cover the Law of Armed Conflicts, Public International Law and the Middle East. Twitter: @RLabianco 

Q1. Cause of terrorism: Often, people who commit terrorist  attacks are willing to give up their lives for a cause that is bigger than them. Several factors fuelling acts of terrorism stem from an international society that is perceived as empty and hopeless. In such a situation, those people may view extreme violence as the only way to stand up for their beliefs or as a tool to completely destroy the international society.

Q2. Countering terrorism: To prevent and repress acts of terrorism, the international community needs to stick to its principles. Our actions should abide by, reflect and respect human rights norms, both in times of peace and in times of instability. For example, fair legislation must safeguard the vulnerable and prevent abuses of power, while the right to a fair trial must never be denied, despite the nature of the crime.

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