Reconciling Human Rights and Human Security in Countering Terrorism

January 4, 2017
Reconciling Human Rights and Human Security in Countering Terrorism
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism
Richard Burchill
Richard Burchill Director of Research & Engagement at TRENDS Research & Advisory

When countering extremism and terrorism, states face a number of difficult choices and dilemmas.  There is a clear need for action by the state to provide security to society and state institutions.  However, some actions to provide security can create more insecurity in a society and work to drive individuals to accepting extremist ideas.  How does the state ensure security of territory, institutions and individuals from the threat of terrorist violence while simultaneously preserving the ideals, customs, and freedoms typically found in a modern society?  This is a question facing all states today and one that is becoming more and more poignant as we appear to be experiencing more and more threats from extremism and terrorist acts.  To address the difficulties being faced by states in the pursuit of security for all in society, TRENDS Research and Advisory organized a conference with its partners the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalism and Political Violence (ISCR).   Over two days at King’s College, London researchers and practitioners gathered to confront this challenging question.

Professor Sir David Omand of King’s College, London, former Director of the Government Communications Headquarters, and Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, set the conference theme poignantly by relating his own experiences in the British Home Office during the period of terrorism in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s.  Sir David laid out several hard learned lessons of counter-terrorism and frequently returned to the theme that while the state has the paramount responsibility to protect its people, those charged with securing the state must be ever mindful of all the potential costs of a particular strategy.  He emphasized the need for governments to act in a more integrated fashion rather than departments protecting their own information and position and not working together.  He went on to discuss the importance of information and intelligence for establishing the grounds for action and for ensuring the action taken matches the challenges faced.  This is the more difficult area for governments and too often the action taken is not based on effective analysis of the available information and is inappropriate for addressing the challenges faced.  This then brings a costs for security in the state.  Apart from the obvious, tangible, material costs, governments must also consider the damage it might do to its own legitimacy and the values the state is also meant to preserve.  This “other” cost calculation was an oft-repeated theme throughout the conference, which focused on the intersection of human rights, human security and state security and how too often security at the state level led to insecurity at the individual human level for a variety of reasons.

In the first panel, Harmonie Toros argued that distinguishing “terrorism” from other forms of human conflict isolated counter-terrorism efforts from the logics that are typically applied to resolving conflict.  This has had the effect of forcing a hierarchy of conflict and conflict resolution in which counter-terrorism efforts do not intersect with human rights.  She suggests that shifting research and policy focus away from “terrorism” specific logics, toward understanding the matter as one of conflict—which includes direct violence, and indirect structural violence and human insecurity—then human rights considerations will be more naturally applied to counter-terrorism research and policy.  Answering this suggestion with a catalogue of international human rights law and terrorism conventions, Arturo Laurent from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Terrorism Prevention Branch and TRENDS Non-Resident Fellow, reminded the conference that “effective counter-terrorism measures and the protection of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing.”  Indeed, the obligation states have to protect people from terrorist violence necessarily includes the observation of human rights law.

Naturally determining who is, and who is not, a terrorist is a critical first step in evaluating how well human rights can be applied in the process of keeping people secure.  Lee Jarvis from the University of East Anglia and Richard Burchill, TRENDS Director of Research and Engagement, tackled this important question.  Jarvis addressed the common national process of “proscription,” especially focused on the practice in Great Britain.  He focused on the almost pro-forma debates that occur in the British Parliament, where the serious question of outlawing an organization is evidently a settled issue, not given serious scrutiny, and almost without fail, government proposals are approved by the parliament.  Similarly, Burchill asked whether proscription has in practice focused on an organization’s means over the ends to which these organizations are seeking.  The panel discussed at length the difficulties in this area as states are currently proscribing a wide range of terrorist organizations based on their domestic security concerns often in the absence of sufficient known evidence and a clear lack of international cooperation in the matter.  The need to identify groups as “terrorist organizations” was not questioned as this allows for a wide range of security measures to be undertaken.  But the application of security measures and the lack of consistent practice in this area was creating conflict between states and potentially pushing groups and individuals into more extremist positions.

Shifting focus from how a state works domestically to protect its people from terrorism, how states reach beyond their borders was taken up by Leah Sherwood, TRENDS Deputy Director of Research, and Scott Englund, a TRENDS Non-Resident Fellow, and Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Orfalea Center in Santa Barbara.  Sherwood investigated how different political realities allowed foreign humanitarian intervention in the civil war in Libya, while a similar intervention was not possible in Syria.  She noted research that identified a rebound pattern that humanitarian intervention successes follow failures, which in turn follow successes.  She argued that the moment of legitimate liberal humanitarian intervention has effectively passed.  Syrian inaction, in the face of an intensely complex political landscape, has delegitimized the “responsibility to protect” concept which was previously applied with confidence.  In turn this is contributing to massive levels of insecurity in Syria and across Europe; a direct consequence of a failure to effectively intervene.  Englund presented a view of the United States’ targeted killing operation, especially the use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs, or “drones”), as an element of its counter-terrorism campaign.  He argued that the application existing International Humanitarian Law, or the Law of Armed Conflict, to targeted killing operations is problematic.  “Terrorists” evade strict combatant categorization and the lack of a clearly defined strategic military objective on the part of the United States makes it difficult to appropriately apply the legal principles of distinction and proportionality.  Even when one attempts to evaluate the efficacy of “decapitation” or “high value target” campaigns, such a calculation can only be made in light of a larger strategic objective.  Hence, absent such a clearly defined military objective the U.S. drone campaign will lack widespread legitimacy, which, as Sir David opened with, may rightly be considered a cost when evaluating the policy itself.

The second day opened by focusing on how terrorists (especially Daesh or ISIS/ISIL) use propaganda, and how these efforts can be more efficiently thwarted.  Anne Speckhard, Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism in Washington, D.C., applied her vast experience of interviewing former jihadists to further our understanding of why people are drawn to extremists views and what can be done to counter this activity.  As a psychologist, Speckhard approached the subject from a mental health perspective, interviewing and videoing former Daesh volunteers freshly returned from the so-called Islamic State.  She shared two shocking videos of former fighters explaining the depredations they witnessed while with Daesh, and explained how these videos could be effectively used as a means of “de-radicalizing” individuals who have made a decision to join organizations like Daesh.  Charlie Winter, of ISCR, described “off-line” propaganda efforts of Daesh, and how similar “off-line” print and word-of-mouth counter-propaganda efforts could be helpful in the fight against Daesh.  Speckhard’s approach was to induce revulsion at the reality of Daesh through stories from credible sources.  Winter suggested that presenting a coherent alternative political message is vital to effectively shutting down the attraction of Daesh, and more generally organizations like it in the future.  Both agreed that strategic communication is crucially important in confronting Daesh, which will be able to exist after it is militarily defeated.

The second panel of the day turned to how societies construct terrorism and respond to it both through government and non-governmental action.  Geoffrey Harris, former European Parliament official and TRENDS Non-Resident Fellow, reminded the conference that terrorism was sadly not new to the continent, but it did not pose an “existential threat” to Europe or the European Union.  However, contemporary responses to potential threats in which European states more steadfastly turn inward may exacerbate an already troubling trend away from unity.  Benjamin Smith, of the Orfalea Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara presented a technically sophisticated statistical model of media reporting on terrorism as a security issue.  He and his co-researchers found that when terrorism coverage is more frequently presented in a security frame, worry about terrorism generally rises.  When and under what conditions media reporting tends to favor a security frame follows predicable patterns.  Finally, Detective Inspector Andrew Staniforth of the West Yorkshire Police and a TRENDS Non-Resident Fellow presented his community-based policing approach to counter-terrorism which relies on finding the locally credible voices in a community to assist the police services.  Additionally, countering violent extremism needs to be addressed in the context of the wide array of potential risks faced by young people.  The panel made clear that we are seeing how actions by governments and elites that “over emphasize” the threat from terrorism is leading to heightened levels of insecurity in society.  This leads to a sort of casual loop where the threat from terrorism is perceived to be high, action is taken to address the threat, the action taken increases perceptions of insecurity and threat, leading to demands for more action and security, and on and on it goes.  Whereas, if we take a more grounded approach we maybe better able to understand the realities being faced and adjust response accordingly.

The final panel of the conference presented a widely diverse view of national case-studies taking up a wide range of the conference themes.  George Kassimeris from the University of Wolverhampton brought the conference to focus on the Greek case, which has dealt with terrorist violence for decades.  He criticized the Greek government’s response as overly repressive and inhumane, which exacerbated the terror problem it faced and will continue to face in the future.  Thomas Renard from the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels explained that though Belgium has the highest number of foreign terrorist fighters sent abroad per-capita than anywhere else in Europe, it also spends the least per-capita on its domestic security services.  The Belgian institutional design complicates the development and implementation of a coherent national counter-terror strategy, namely that among the various levels of the federal system in Belgium, no level of government has supremacy.  In spite of these challenges, Belgium is prepared to address radicalism with the help of close relationships with its neighbors.  Finally, Simon Cottee from the University of Kent, presented information on the not well known problem of radicalism on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean.

The conference wrapped up with a keynote from Shiraz Maher, Deputy Director of ISCR on the future of terrorism.  His presentation was, in his own estimation, pessimistic.  He focused on a few key points which, he believes, will lead to increased pressure driving individuals and groups to choose violence and extremism which will create substantial challenges to the state’s efforts for providing effective security.  First, the number of ungoverned spaces and failed states have proliferated around the world.  This provides space for terrorist groups to operate and train beyond the reach of any on state which in turn further exacerbate the conditions of violence, have been exacerbated.  Along with this, the number of individuals mobilized to take part in the global jihad is unprecedented, and these individuals are gaining valuable combat experience in a variety of settings.  Within societies, cohesion is eroding and people are beginning to identify not with the place where they and their families live, but with far away places, groups or ideas.  Technology will continue to displace workers, creating resentment among communities that are already less cohesive, and will disproportionately affect those on the margins of society.  Finally, with respect to human rights, the rise of populism in Europe and the United States will press governments to seek quick, superficial solutions to endemic, long-term problems, which require patient, careful policy-making.  The result will be poorly formulated policies that contribute to feelings of marginalization and grievance.  Maher made clear that there are practical and effective solutions to these ongoing trends but solutions need to effectively engage with human security and human rights from the position of individuals and society, and not just from the perspective of the state.

Securing the state, securing society and securing individuals requires multifaceted approaches with cooperation at all levels of society, the state, and the globe.  The state is obliged to provide security for society and its people while also securing the institutions and mechanisms of government.  In this pursuit, human security and state security require securing human rights.  States that fail to account for the impact security measures have on the effective exercise of human rights risk losing legitimacy for their actions.  Current events show us that there is no easy solution to the dilemmas faced in achieving human security.  We need strong state security to ensure extremists and terrorists cannot bring havoc, death and destruction to our societies.  At the same time, over emphasis on security for countering terrorism can increase the insecurity societies and individuals experience and contribute to further extremism.