New Internationalist

World of counterterror

Issue 427

A snapshot of the human rights abuses and the erosion of civil liberties ongoing in the name of counterterrorism.

War on terror

After the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, the Bush Administration declared a ‘war on terror’ unlike any previous war. The suspected terrorists under attack were termed ‘illegal or unlawful enemy combatants’, a formulation designed by the US authorities to mean they were not covered by the 1949 Geneva Conventions applicable to prisoners of war. The war could be conducted anywhere, with the US claiming all the rights of a belligerent party under the laws of war, while denying those same rights to their adversaries.

By placing captives of this ‘war on terror’ in locations outside the US, such as Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the aim was to create legal black holes beyond the reach of US and international human rights law. This is not permissible under international law.1

The US has since detained thousands as ‘enemy combatants’ without proper legal recourse and subject to abuse. 

Guantánamo Bay detention camp has housed 775 in inhumane conditions, of whom around 420 were released without charge – many to receiving countries where they faced further torture; 240 prisoners remain, awaiting the closure of the camp.2


Extraordinary rendition

This is the term used to describe the abduction and illegal transfer of terrorist suspects by the US from one country to another, often to face torture. The alleged number of people so kidnapped by the CIA for ‘torture by proxy’ around the world is 3,000 and the number of secret flights is 1,245.3

Some of the states that have facilitated extraordinary rendition are:

Australia, Belgium, Bosnia, Britain, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Macedonia, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain & Sweden.

Recipient countries where suspects have often been tortured include: Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Thailand and Uzbekistan.3, 1

Many European states have resisted disclosure of evidence which would reveal their complicity.

Recently, Kenya has carried out rendition of its own by transferring 40 people to Somalia and Ethiopia.


The law’s an ass

Inspired by the US example (and the notorious Patriot Act), states worldwide have brought in wide-ranging (and often vaguely defined) anti-terrorist legislation since 2001.

A few recent examples:

  • Swaziland – Suppression of Terrorism Act (2008) which has led to a crackdown on government critics
  • Bangladesh – Anti-Terrorism Ordinance (2008) gives even more clout to security forces who are notorious for extrajudicial executions.
  • India – security legislation amended following Mumbai attacks; legal detention periods extended.
  • Sri Lanka – August 2008 legislation allows for detention up to 18 months without being brought before a court.
  • France – those convicted of certain terrorist crimes can be detained after completing their sentences for indefinitely renewable periods of a year.
  • Britain – six different Acts concerning terrorism since 2001; strong campaigning defeats a measure to increase the time terrorism suspects can be held without charge.4
  • Bahrain – ‘Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts’ law (2006) allows for the death penalty for acts which ‘prevent state enterprises or public authorities from exercising their duties’.
  • Egypt – a 2008 law gives authorities permanent emergency-style powers; the country has been in a state of emergency since 1981.
  • Australia – 30 items of anti-terrorist legislation passed since 2001, despite extant wide-ranging security laws.5

Globally legislation increasing state surveillance and data gathering has proliferated.


Newly minted terrorists

Many countries have rebranded long-running conflicts as ‘terrorist’ to deflect criticism of ruthless measures – examples include Russia’s Chechen conflict, insurgency in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and parts of India, the bloody Maoist rebellion in Nepal. Nepal’s authorities passed legislation in November 2001 formally designating the Maoists as terrorists. In elections in 2008, the Maoists won the largest share of the vote.
Other recently defined ‘terrorists’ are:

  • Indigenous Mapuche people protesting for land rights in Chile;
  • Uighur and Tibetan demonstrators by China;
  • Protesters demanding clean water in El Salvador;
  • Human rights defenders and NGO workers in Peru and the Philippines;
  • Asylum seekers and members of banned Islamic groups in Kazakhstan;
  • Political opponents in Malaysia (who can face indefinite detention);
  • People exercising peaceful free speech in numerous countries, particularly in the Middle East.


Photo by Alex Lilly
Photo by Alex Lilly

Arbitrary detention, torture and worse

While many state agencies torture and kill people standing in their way, counterterrorism is increasingly being used as a justification. With the US, the world’s remaining superpower, rebranding torture (which is absolutely prohibited under international law) as a form of interrogation, and holding suspects without trial for years or hauling them before unfair military commissions, human rights have taken a beating.

Hotspots include:

  • Afghanistan – arbitrary arrests, detentions and torture by intelligence agents; NATO and US forces have handed over detainees to them. Confessions made under torture are permissible in court. Prisoners held in US-run Bagram facility have no legal representation whatsoever.
  • Pakistan – Inter-Services Intelligence agency responsible for numerous ‘disappearances’ with the Government admitting to 1,102 people disappeared in Baluchistan province alone. The problem was exacerbated by bounty offered by the CIA for terror suspects. CIA-sanctioned drones targeted to blow up terrorists have caused many civilian casualties both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • Algeria – torture, prolonged secret detention without trial, prison beatings and unfair trials with courts accepting ‘confessions’ as evidence are the norm for terrorist suspects. Hundreds on death row on terror charges. Security forces given legal immunity against charges of human rights abuses.
  • Egypt – widespread torture by State Security Investigation officials and police, and trials by military courts. 1,500 people detained without charge according to official figures; 10,000 according to other sources. Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid.
  • Iraq – in 2008, US forces held 15,500 people (despite the release of 13,000 earlier that year) without charge or trial for security purposes, and the Iraqi authorities held at least 26,000.
  • Israel – hundreds of Palestinians (including children) detained in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, many held incommunicado for long periods. Most released without charge but trials are held before military courts. Also uses aerial drones which have killed civilians.
  • Jordan – thousands held under suspicion of being ‘a danger to society’.
  • Morocco/Western Sahara – over 1,000 Islamist suspects held since 2006; torture is routine. Legacy of enforced disappearances.
  • Saudi Arabia – barbaric punishments for vague ‘offences’; 2,000 detained in secrecy on security grounds. The US and Britain praise and promise to learn from a Saudi ‘re-education’ programme that keeps suspects detained without charge or trial.
  • Syria – arbitrary and incommunicado detention widespread for people suspected of the slightest involvement in terrorist activity. Some 17,000 disappeared people, mainly Islamists, remain untraced.

All information unless otherwise noted is from Amnesty International Report 2009: The State of the World’s Human Rights; and Human Rights Watch World Report 2009.
1 International Commission of Jurists, Assessing Damage, Urging Action: Report of the Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights, ICJ, 2009.
2 Wikipedia entry ‘Guantánamo Bay detention camp’ and Reprieve
3 Wikipedia entry ‘Extraordinary rendition by the United States’ 
4 AC Grayling, Liberty in the Age of Terror, Bloomsbury, 2009 
5 Law Council of Australia, Anti-terrorism reform project, August 2009,

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This article was originally published in issue 427

New Internationalist Magazine issue 427
Issue 427

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