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.