Opinion: Was Human Rights Day overshadowed by global acts of terrorism?

Posted on April 06, 2016

After the celebration of Human Rights Day on Monday, 21 March, shockwaves once again reverberated around the globe from terrorist attacks in Turkey, Nigeria, Belgium and Pakistan. With the ever-growing number of terrorist incidents – 96 in January, 64 in February and 101 in March 2016[1] – the bleak shadow of terrorism on human rights cannot be ignored.

The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (General Assembly resolution 60/288)[2] states that ‘the promotion and protection of human rights for all and the rule of law is essential to all components of the Strategy, recognising that effective counter-terrorism measures and the promotion of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing’.

According to Eduardo Kapapelo, MPhil (Multidisciplinary Human Rights) graduate, current DPhil student, academic associate and coordinator of the Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot Court Competition at the Centre for Human Rights in the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria (UP), terrorism is not a phenomenon unknown to the African continent, although it was only in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States that the attention of western states was strongly turned to combating terrorism on a global scale.

‘In the wake of 11 September 2001, governments around the world rushed to enact anti-terrorism laws within their domestic jurisdictions. Countries such as the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Australia, Canada and India have all passed such legislation,’ says Mr Kapapelo.

Likewise, a number of African countries and others within the developing world have introduced anti-terrorism legislation, some having done so of their own accord, while others were constrained to do so by the US and its ally, the UK, as part of their ‘either you are with us or you are against us’ global anti-terrorism campaign. As a result, a number of African states have resurrected draconian, colonial anti-terrorism legislation. Almost invariably, these laws have substantially impinged upon, or have had serious implications for, civil and political rights and democratic freedoms.

Mr Kapapelo says that the attacks on Paris on 13 November 2015, which left more than 130 people dead, as well as the more recent attacks mentioned above, serve as a reminder of the scale and reach of terrorist organisations, and of their will to conduct such operations at the heart of European civilisations. In similar incidents in Western Africa, acts of terrorism by extremist groups such as Boko Haram and Alshabab led to the deaths of thousands of innocent people, to which western countries reacted with strong military action. Mr Kapapelo says that it is important to note, however, that terrorism cannot and must not be combated solely by military means.

He explains that the framework for combating terrorism in Europe is not suited to combatting terrorism in Africa. Such a ‘one glove fits all’ solution has been seen with the implementation of counter-terrorism policies in the horn of Africa, which was conducted not within the framework of the realities of African contexts, but rather within a western-driven framework.

The end of the cold war was a period during which Africa not only failed at the principle of state-building, many states in fact created a situation of ‘internal anarchy’ (a term coined by Kenneth Waltz) wherein the ‘state’ failed to become an umpire between different segments of society, and instead became the oppressors of their populations.

The process of state-building in Africa, therefore, in a sense took the shape of ‘illiberal peace-keeping’, wherein those controlling the machinery of the state marginalised either segments of their population or, at times, the entire population.

Mr Kapapelo reiterates that although counter-terrorism policies have surely trickled down to African states, the context of terrorist activities is very different within Africa. Most Western states not only have robust institutions, but their governments can, to some extent, function with more transparency and when clear violations are found, legal redress is attainable. Within the African context however, such institutions are still in the process of being established. State-building in Africa is an on-going process that still marginalises individuals who suffer from extreme poverty in terms of their civil and political rights. As a result, the idea of root causes of terrorism suggests that there is some form of causal relationship between underlying social, economic, political and demographic conditions and terrorist activity.  

‘It is important to note that every region possesses its own shared history and circumstances. I do not argue that such conditions are the same in regions such as Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, but rather that, within Africa, in order to tackle terrorism, it is imperative that African states re-evaluate their state-building practices. This would not only mean looking at issues of civil, political and socio-economic rights, but perhaps re-evaluating the conception of the African state in its entirety, in light of terrorism and its implications for human rights,’ concludes Mr Kapapelo.

- Author Elzet Hurter and Myan Subryan

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