The human cost of terrorism has been felt in virtually every corner of the
globe. The United Nations family has itself suffered tragic human loss as a
result of violent terrorist acts. The attack on its offices in Baghdad on 19
August 2003 claimed the lives of the Special Representative of the
Secretary-General, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other men and women, and
injured over 150 others, some very seriously.
Terrorism clearly has a very real and direct impact on human rights, with
devastating consequences for the enjoyment of the right to life, liberty and
physical integrity of victims. In addition to these individual costs, terrorism
can destabilize Governments, undermine civil society, jeopardize peace and
security, and threaten social and economic development. All of these also have a
real impact on the enjoyment of human rights.
Security of the individual is a basic human right and the protection of
individuals is, accordingly, a fundamental obligation of Government. States
therefore have an obligation to ensure the human rights of their nationals and
others by taking positive measures to protect them against the threat of
terrorist acts and bringing the perpetrators of such acts to justice.
In recent years, however, the measures adopted by States to counter terrorism
have themselves often posed serious challenges to human rights and the rule of
law. Some States have engaged in torture and other ill-treatment to counter
terrorism, while the legal and practical safeguards available to prevent
torture, such as regular and independent monitoring of detention centres, have
often been disregarded.
Other States have returned persons suspected of engaging in terrorist activities
to countries where they face a real risk of torture or other serious human
rights abuse, thereby violating the international legal obligation of non-refoulement.
The independence of the judiciary has been undermined, in some places, while the
use of exceptional courts to try civilians has had an impact on the
effectiveness of regular court systems.
Repressive measures have been used to stifle the voices of human rights
defenders, journalists, minorities, indigenous groups and civil society.
Resources normally allocated to social programmes and development assistance
have been diverted to the security sector, affecting the economic, social and
cultural rights of many.
These practices, particularly when taken together, have a corrosive effect on
the rule of law, good governance and human rights. They are also
counterproductive to national and international efforts to combat terrorism. 2
Respect for human rights and the rule of law must be the bedrock of the global
fight against terrorism.
This requires the development of national counter-terrorism strategies that seek
to prevent acts of terrorism, prosecute those responsible for such criminal
acts, and promote and protect human rights and the rule of law.
It implies measures to address the conditions conducive to the spread of
terrorism, including the lack of rule of law and violations of human rights,
ethnic, national and religious discrimination, political exclusion, and
socio-economic marginalization; to foster the active participation and
leadership of civil society; to condemn human rights violations, prohibit them
in national law, promptly investigate and prosecute them, and prevent them; and
to give due attention to the rights of victims of human rights violations, for
instance through restitution and compensation.
This Fact Sheet has been prepared with the aim of strengthening understanding of
the complex and multifaceted relationship between human rights and terrorism. It
identifies some of the critical human rights issues raised in the context of
terrorism and highlights the relevant human rights principles and standards
which must be respected at all times and in particular in the context of
counter-terrorism. It is addressed to State authorities, national and
international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), national human rights
institutions, legal practitioners and individuals concerned with ensuring the
protection and promotion of human rights in the context of terrorism and
Human Rights And Terrorism:
This chapter sets out the human rights framework before examining the impact
that terrorism has on human rights. It then addresses the relationship between
terrorism, human rights and other relevant international legal provisions.
What Are Human Rights?
The nature of human rights Human rights are universal values and legal guarantees that protect
individuals and groups against actions and omissions primarily by State
agents that interfere with fundamental freedoms, entitlements and human
dignity. The full spectrum of human rights involves respect for, and
protection and fulfilment of, civil, cultural, economic, political and
social rights, as well as the right to development. Human rights are
universal-in other words, they belong inherently to all human beings-and are
interdependent and indivisible.
International human rights law International human rights law is reflected in a number of core
international human rights treaties and in customary international law.
These treaties include in particular the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols.
Other core universal human rights treaties are the International Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on
the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its
Optional Protocol; the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman
or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its Optional Protocol; the
Convention on the Rights of the Child and its two Optional Protocols; and
the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant
Workers and Members of Their Families.
The most recent are the International Convention for the Protection of All
Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the Convention on the Rights of
Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, which were all adopted
in December 2006. There is a growing body of subject-specific treaties and
protocols as well as various regional treaties on the protection of human
rights and fundamental freedoms.
The nature of States' obligations under international human rights
law: Human rights law obliges States, primarily, to do certain things and
prevents them from doing others. States have a duty to respect, protect and
fulfil human rights. Respect for human rights primarily involves not
interfering with their enjoyment. Protection is focused on taking positive
steps to ensure that others do not interfere with the enjoyment of rights.
The fulfilment of human rights requires States to adopt appropriate
measures, including legislative, judicial, administrative or educative
measures, in order to fulfil their legal obligations. A State party may be
found responsible for interference by private persons or entities in the
enjoyment of human rights if it has failed to exercise due diligence in
protecting against such acts.
For example, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
State parties have an obligation to take positive measures to ensure that
private persons or entities do no inflict torture or cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment or punishment on others within their power.
Those human rights that are part of customary international law are
applicable to all States.4 In the case of human rights treaties, those
States that are party to a particular treaty have obligations under that
treaty. There are various mechanisms for enforcing these obligations,
including the evaluation by treaty-monitoring bodies of a State's compliance
with certain treaties and the ability of individuals to complain about the
violation of their rights to international bodies.
Moreover, and particularly relevant to a number of human rights challenges
in countering terrorism, all Members of the United Nations are obliged to
take joint and separate action in cooperation with the United Nations for
the achievement of the purposes set out in Article 55 of its Charter,
including universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and
fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language,
What is Terrorism?
Terrorism is commonly understood to refer to acts of violence that target
civilians in the pursuit of political or ideological aims. In legal terms,
although the international community has yet to adopt a comprehensive definition
of terrorism, existing declarations, resolutions and universal "sectoral"
treaties relating to specific aspects of it define certain acts and core
In 1994, the General Assembly's Declaration on Measures to Eliminate
International Terrorism, set out in its resolution 49/60, stated 6 that
terrorism includes "criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of
terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for
political purposes" and that such acts "are in any circumstances unjustifiable,
whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial,
ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them."
The General Assembly is currently working towards the adoption of a
comprehensive convention against terrorism, which would complement the existing
sectoral anti-terrorism conventions.
Its draft article 2 contains a definition
of terrorism which includes "unlawfully and intentionally" causing, attempting
or threatening to cause:
- death or serious bodily injury to any person; or
- serious damage to public or private property, including a place of
public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system,
an infrastructure facility or the environment; or
- damage to property, places, facilities, or systems�, resulting or likely
to result in major economic loss, when the purpose of the conduct, by its
nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government
or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.
The draft article further defines as an offence participating as an
accomplice, organizing or directing others, or contributing to the commission of
such offences by a group of persons acting with a common purpose. While Member
States have agreed on many provisions of the draft comprehensive convention,
diverging views on whether or not national liberation movements should be
excluded from its scope of application have impeded consensus on the adoption of
the full text.
The impact of terrorism on human rights:
Terrorism has a direct impact on the enjoyment of a number of human rights, in
particular the rights to life, liberty and physical integrity. Terrorist acts
can destabilize Governments, undermine civil society, jeopardize peace and
security, threaten social and economic development, and may especially
negatively affect certain groups.
All of these have a direct impact on the
enjoyment of fundamental human rights. he destructive impact of terrorism on
human rights and security has been recognized at the highest level of the United
Nations, notably by the Security Council, the General Assembly, the former
Commission on Human Rights and the new Human Rights Council.7
Specifically, Member States have set out that terrorism:
Terrorism aims at the very
destruction of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It attacks the
values that lie at the heart of the Charter of the United Nations and other
international instruments: respect for human rights; the rule of law; rules
governing armed conflict and the protection of civilians; tolerance among
peoples and nations; and the peaceful resolution of conflict.
Accountability and the human rights of victims:
From a human rights perspective, support for victims in the context of terrorism
is a paramount concern. While efforts immediately following the events of 11
September 2001 largely failed to give due consideration to the human rights of
victims, there is increasing recognition of the need for the international
community to take fully into account the human rights of all victims of
In the 2005 World Summit Outcome (General Assembly resolution 60/1),
for example, Member States stressed "the importance of assisting victims of
terrorism and of providing them and their families with support to cope with
their loss and their grief." Similarly, the United Nations Global
Counter-Terrorism Strategy reflects the pledge by Member States to "promote
international solidarity in support of victims and foster the involvement of
civil society in a global campaign against terrorism and for its condemnation."
In addressing the needs of victims of terrorism, consideration must be given to
the distinction between victims of crime, on the one hand, and victims of human
rights violations, on the other. While this distinction is not always clear-cut,
it is important to note that, in most cases, terrorist-related acts will be
addressed as criminal offences committed by individuals and a State will not, in
principle, be responsible for the illegal conduct itself. Acts constituting
human rights violations are committed primarily by organs or persons in the name
of, or on behalf of, the State. In some circumstances, however, the State may be
responsible for the acts of private individuals that may constitute a violation
of international human rights law.
While a comprehensive analysis of the needs of victims of crime and human rights
violations in the context of terrorism, and of responses to those needs, is
beyond the scope of this publication, several basic principles should be
underscored. In particular, international and regional standards with regard to
victims of crime and victims of gross violations of international human rights
law and serious violations of international 10 humanitarian law may be
instructive in addressing the needs of victims of terrorism.14 Certain
provisions of the universal treaties relating to specific aspects of terrorism
are also relevant to addressing the situations of victims of terrorism.
According to the Declaration on Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime
and Abuse of Power, set out in General Assembly resolution 40/34, victims
include "persons who, individually or collectively, have suffered harm,
including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or
substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions
that are in violation of criminal laws operative within Member States, including
those laws proscribing criminal abuse of power."
Importantly, the Declaration
notes that an individual may be considered a victim "regardless of whether the
perpetrator is identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted and regardless
of the familial relationship between the perpetrator and the victim". The term
victim may include "the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim, as
well as persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in
distress or to prevent victimization."
Terrorism and other aspects of international law:
Terrorism and international humanitarian lawInternational humanitarian law contains a set of rules on the protection of
persons in "armed conflict", as that term is understood in the relevant
treaties, as well as on the conduct of hostilities. These rules are reflected in
a number of treaties, including the four Geneva Conventions and their two
Additional Protocols, as well as a number of other international instruments
aimed at reducing human suffering in armed conflict. Many of their provisions
are now also recognized as customary international law.
There is no explicit definition of "terrorism" as such in international
humanitarian law. However, international humanitarian law prohibits many acts
committed in armed conflict which would be considered terrorist acts if they
were committed in times of peace.
Terrorism and international criminal lawOver the course of four decades, the international community, under the auspices
of the United Nations, has developed 13 conventions relating to the prevention
and suppression of terrorism. These so-called sectoral instruments, which
address issues ranging from the unlawful seizure of aircraft and the taking of
hostages to the suppression of terrorist bombings, contribute to the global
legal regime against terrorism and provide a framework for international
They require States to take specific measures to prevent the
commission of terrorist acts and prohibit terrorist-related offences, including
by obliging States parties to criminalize specific conduct, establish certain
jurisdictional criteria (including the well-known principle of aut dedere aut
judicare or "extradite or prosecute"), and provide a legal basis for cooperation
on extradition and legal assistance.
Terrorism and international refugee law:Alongside the general obligations of human rights law, international refugee law
is the body of law which provides a specific legal framework for the protection
of refugees by defining the term refugee, setting out States' obligations to
them and establishing standards for their treatment. Aspects of international
refugee law also relate to persons seeking asylum. The 1951 Convention relating
to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of
Refugees are the two universal instruments in international refugee law.
The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) initiates
and coordinates numerous training programmes covering different priority crime
areas and aimed at enhancing the capacity of States to combat terrorism. To
complement the courses, INTERPOL provides corresponding Training Guides,
including the "Bio-Terrorism Incident Pre-Planning and Response Guide".
has conducted to date five regional workshops on Bioterrorism, attended by
delegates from over 130 countries and has commenced train-the-trainer sessions,
which brought together police, health, prosecution and customs, promoting ways
to work together.
The sessions identify effective strategies for prevention and
response, forge subregional cooperation and assess the legal authorization for
undertaking critical police functions. INTERPOL has provided support to member
countries during major events by deploying specialized teams to bolster national
efforts to secure and protect the event. It also developed a Best Practices
Guide in Combating Terrorism, available on the CTC website.
As part of the CTITF
Working Group on Strengthening the Protection of Vulnerable Targets, INTERPOL
will establish a Referral Centre in order to facilitate the exchange of
expertise, best practices and, where necessary, technical assistance.
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
- International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).
- The International Bill of Human Rights.