Terrorism in the name of “Counter-Terrorism”

Immediately after 9/11, international institutions responded in a quick and extraordinary manner. The UN Security Council determined that the attacks were a “threat to international peace and security” and allowed the United States to exercise the individual right of self defense in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter. The United Nation’s actions reflected the shock and anger much of the world felt after the atrocities, and authorized what were deemed to be appropriate counter-measures against the terrorists. There was a lot of support for a global “war on terror,” a war that is still going on today. Unfortunately, however, this global war that has run on the fumes of the post 9/11 anger for the past ten years has focused so strongly on fighting “terror”, that it has often times neglected humanitarian concerns, and led to many human rights abuses across the world.

Ben Saul classified 9/11/01 as a turning point in international law in his 2005 article entitled, “Definition of Terrorism.” In this article, he observed that after 9/11, many nations have used the guise of counter-terrorism to repress their political opponents, and “align” them with Al-Qaeda. He pointed out that the Chinese characterized their Uigher population as terrorists as did the Russians with the Chechen Rebels, and both nations committed inexcusable human rights abuses against their respective minority groups. Unfortunately, these are just two of many nations who have committed human rights abuses under the name of “counter-terrorism.”

Unfortunately, the United States has also been accused to be a human rights abuser. Ten years after the crisis, the United States has a significant military presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq, two nations which were infiltrated by the United States military since 9/11. During both armed conflicts, the United States was accused of violating international human rights law. There were claims of Iraqi prisoners being abused and mistreated in Iraq, and claims of torture and water-boarding techniques being carried out against prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Prison. While some may argue for the use of torture in fighting alleged terrorists, the fact is that by the United States failing to comply with international standards of law, they set a dangerous precedent for International Law in general. If superpowers such as the United States can routinely ignore International Law as binding on them, then the law loses all its legitimacy. We cannot hope to enforce the rules of international human rights law on other nations if we cannot abide by them ourselves.

Al- Qaeda’s attacks against the United States on 9/11 united the world in a war against terrorism. It is important, however, that we don’t fight terror with terror itself. By adhering to the restrictions of respected International Law such as the Geneva Conventions, among others, we further legitimize the international laws we seek to enforce.


  1. Under the guise of national security, the PATRIOT ACT and its progeny have turned back the clock on international human rights fifty years. In conversation with Gustave Gilbert, Hermann Wilhelm Göring spoke these words: “Naturally, the common people don’t want war…That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a Parliament, or a Communist dictatorship…Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country” (Nuremberg Diaries). I have always found this quite illuminating, particularly in the context of the U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. The American people have been force fed a choice between alternatives that do not completely express the valid options. It’s time we put an end to the fear-mongering.

  2. This post points out the immense impact the response to terrorist activity has proven to have on adherence to International Law and the illusion of shared humanitarian concerns. One tragedy should not lead to an escalation of other tragedies, but in the aftermath of 9/11 that is precisely what the world witnessed. As stated in the post, Nations not even directly impacted by the 9/11 attacks were able to abuse the negative perception of terrorism shared across the world leading to even more tragic consequences. One of the most alarming issues is the miscalculated and aggressive approach taken by Nations towards the prevention of terrorism. Fueled by sentiments of fear and anger, countries were able to gain support from their people for actions that led to the violation of International laws. The impropriety of these actions was in large part caused by the demand for action against terrorism, particularly in the United States. That demand for action has created a misguided missile, aimed at innocent populations it was initially designed to protect, destined to cause even greater devastation.

    In no way would I suggest inaction against terrorism, but the consequences of actions taken should be seriously considered and evaluated before being put into effect. Perhaps the 9/11 attacks have united the world not only against terrorism, but also against the International Laws limiting the methods implemented by the war on terrorism.

  3. Fear makes people do terrible things. At one point in the not so distant past, the United States ran the equivalent of concentration camps, though admittedly watered down, to house Japanese Americans in World War Two. Looking back years later, this time period and this abuse of civil rights is considered by many to be a dark stain on American history. America claimed that it learned its lesson, but did it really?
    Granted, things today have not gone that far, but one would be hard pressed to say that the discrimination against Arab Americans has lead to a startling degradation of the civil rights that some people may forget we hold so dear. While many lives have been claimed in the name of terrorism; we must not forget all those lives that have been claimed in the gaining of society’s freedoms and civil liberties. While I am not saying that some restrictions are not necessary and certainly not saying that the lives lost in the name of terrorism were not precious and sacred, but there comes a point when we must balance those loses along with the ideals of liberty and equal protection for all.

  4. To reiterate what Amanjit mentioned in his above comment, to be an advocate of International Human Rights Law is not to advocate inaction against Terrorism. I think that this touches the center of the issue many Americans are confronted with. There seems to be a public sentiment that to disagree with the United States international policy is unpatriotic. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is, however, a right way and a wrong way to fight terror. Forgetting international human rights law and disregarding international custom is the wrong way, and further damages any ability for the international community to enforce international law against future abusers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *