September 11, 2001. We all remember exactly where we were on that day 20 years ago. I was in an asylum seekers hostel in the small Swiss town of Fribourg, recording a story about the prospects for people who had had their applications for asylum rejected.This content was published on September 7, 2021 - 10:00
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When I arrived, no one was at the reception. I found them all, staff and residents alike, huddled in front of a television, watching the events in New York. As I walked in, the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
No one will forget the shock of that day. It’s hard even now, two decades later, to describe how it felt to watch something so unimaginable, so horrific. When I returned to my newsroom that evening, a colleague said to me “well, Imogen, that’s it, our world has changed forever”. I was still so focused on the immediate event that I didn’t quite understand him, and it took me a while to realise how right he was.
Our world did change forever that day; from smaller inconveniences around how we travel, to fears over how safe we are, to prejudices and intolerance towards groups perceived as a threat, to sweeping changes in security laws.
An attack on human rights
In the latest episode of our Inside Geneva podcast, we look at those changes, and the consequences, in particular for human rights. Gerald Staberock, secretary general of the World Organisation Against Torture, tells me: “I want my government to fight terrorism. I want those who did 9/11 or whatever terrorist attacks to be brought to justice.”
But he also regrets the fact that the 9/11 attacks, which he describes as “a denial of the very values of human rights”, led to - in his view - “another attack on human rights, through counterterrorism”.
Looking back now, with all the knowledge we have of extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding and so on, it is quite hard to remember that in the first months and even years after 9/11, none of us, not even human rights defenders, were quite aware of how the “war on terror” was being fought.
Once that war was being conducted in earnest in Afghanistan, I remember getting a hint, off the record, from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who told me that they were aware of detainees being transferred from Bagram airbase, but had no idea where they were being taken. It is the ICRC’s role, under the Geneva Conventions, to visit those detained during conflict, a role which was, for a while at least, impossible to fulfil.
Fionnuala ní Aoláin, currently UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, also joins us on the podcast. Her position, she points out, was not created until five years after 9/11, and, she says “in that absence lies the story of a human rights free zone”, during which “the United States moved to engage in practices of torture, of rendition, or the establishment of a black hole where people were held arbitrarily”.
Acceptance of torture
Governments have argued that extraordinary measures are necessary to counter extraordinary threats. Certainly no political leader wants a 9/11 type attack on his or her watch. And, many opinion polls show, the public are prepared to compromise some fundamental human rights standards in the name of defeating terrorism.
A 2016 study by the ICRC found that, among millennials in industrialised countries, many agreed that torture was justified if it led to information that could save lives. Strikingly, among young people living in conflict zones, or under repressive regimes, a large majority remained opposed to torture.
This shift in opinion is a concern for ní Aoláin, who points out that some governments have taken to justifying increasingly repressive laws in the name of the war on terror. “Right now, in…Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, we see governments saying that human rights defenders are terrorists, that eco warriors are terrorists, that women’s rights defenders are terrorists.”
Is counterterrorism counterproductive?
Interestingly, ní Aoláin comes from Belfast. She grew up with terror attacks, and counterterrorism measures. She believes that “actually it is counterproductive to security to violate human rights”, a point of view Staberock agrees with. He remembers research done in Northern Ireland in which senior security officers admitted that preventive detention had been a disaster, not just from a human rights perspective, but from a security perspective because “it made the cause much broader, it made the problem much bigger…by victimising people, you weaken the cause”.
Both ní Aoláin and Staberock believe the term “terrorist” is too widely used, and that it can become a convenient slogan for governments to introduce all sorts of legislation which would otherwise not easily be justifiable.
Staberock argues that “the best answer to terrorism is to demask it as killings. Not allow it to hide behind ideology. Demask it in an ordinary criminal process, bring people to justice, punish them, stick to your rules”.
The first shots in the war on terror were fired, 20 years ago, in Afghanistan. Today, in that same country, we are watching a humanitarian and foreign policy disaster unfold. As western diplomats made a panicked dash for the airport, they left millions of Afghans to live, again, under the Taliban, the very “terrorist” group the US and its allies entered Afghanistan to defeat.
So have we learned anything from the last 20 years? Do listen to Inside Geneva to find out more, but I’ll leave you with these final thoughts from ní Aoláin.
“We appear not to have learnt any lessons," she says. “What we appear to be doing is betraying civil society, leaving women, human rights defenders and girls…when we conveniently decide that we’ve had enough and it’s time for us to leave.”
But, as a human rights defender herself, she is not deterred: “If you fight for human rights you’re always pushing big rocks up mountains, and you watch them fall down, and you push the same rocks up the mountain again. I think those of who work on human rights in the context of counterterrorism are looking at an enormous big rock.”