Introduction: Public Security and Human Rights

Human Rights Dialogue 2.8 (Fall 2002): "Public Security and Human Rights"

December 31, 2002

In February 2000, a public poll in Argentina revealed an alarming trend: when asked to chose between public order and freedom, nearly half the respondents said they favored combating crime with a strong hand, even though this might entail abuses against suspected criminals.* This is a surprising fact, especially in a country that has a history of abuse and brutality. It is a reflection, however, of a growing trend worldwide: people are placing their security above all else, protection of human rights included. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, citizens in countries as diverse as France, South Africa, Colombia, and the United States have indicated a similar willingness to trade rights for enhanced security. In this issue of Dialogue, we explore the ways in which public tolerance for suspending civil rights in the face of threats to public security—both criminal threats to personal security and terrorist threats to national security—has created new challenges for the human rights community. Public fear is the common link between these security threats, resulting in increased support for a strong hand and falling trust in the rights perspective both in societies with a long rights tradition and in societies for whom rights are newly won. Critics say that the most pressing social agenda for activists is no longer advocacy on behalf of political prisoners and defense of political openness, but fighting for fairer rules and institutions that can ensure that people who happen to be born in poorer, weaker states are not thereby cut off from economic opportunities and political power—factors that breed crime and terror. Conventional tools of human rights organizations may not address these salient issues, nor bring about improvement in the daily lives of the citizens they strive to protect. But is it the role of the human rights organization to create a secure and stable society, or is it to point out injustice and hold perpetrators accountable? Contributors to this issue of Dialogue address the tensions between the public’s demand for security and the priorities of the local human rights communities, providing insight into the innovative ways human rights advocates have adapted their traditional strategies to address what has become for some groups a crisis of public legitimacy. Rachel Neild leads off the issue by explaining the complex phenomenon of rising crime worldwide. Neild pays particular attention to newly democratic societies, where the collapse of authoritarianism, which had guaranteed public order through repression, has left a void of responsibility. The lag in human rights activists’ recognition of these problems has generated considerable public criticism that, in their preoccupation with the rights of perpetrators, they have ignored the rights of victims or potential future victims and are thus failing to advance social justice. Martin Schönteich provides a case study from South Africa, a country with a frighteningly high crime rate, on its “right to shoot” legislation. Despite the fact that much of the population experienced firsthand the military police’s brutality under apartheid, the public has been reluctant to place limits on the police’s right to fire upon any fleeing suspect. Schönteich’s colleague at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, Makubetse Sekhonyane, presents the results of their study of police in South Africa, which points to ways of reducing police vulnerability on the streets. In some countries, fearful publics have taken the law into their own hands—with dangerous consequences. As Innocent Chukwuma writes, vigilantism has become widespread in Nigeria, leading activists like him to teach neighborhood vigilante groups how to fight crime in a way that is consonant with human rights. In other contexts, groups have held their ground against public criticism and continue to act as thorns in the sides of governments. Such is the case with human rights groups in Colombia, reports Adam Isacson, where the collapse of the peace process has opened the way for a war-weary populace to turn to a heavy-handed new president for hope. Activist Jorge Rojas argues that human rights groups need to stay the course. This issue of Dialogue includes contributions from two Latin American activists-turned-government-officials—a sign of the changing times. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, co-founder of the Center for the Study of Violence in São Paulo and also Brazil’s secretary of state for human rights, and Carlos Basombrío, Peru’s vice minister of the interior, are among the first human rights advocates to take on the problem of crime. In an interview with Dialogue, Pinheiro describes the contribution that his university-based research center was able to make to Brazil’s crime policy while simultaneously criticizing the government for rights violations. Fiona Macaulay reports that in Brazil the number of university-based centers has grown, supplying the government with much needed expertise in criminology and human rights, while Andressa Caldas, Sandra Carvalho, and James Cavallaro present a more sanguine view of the results of engagement with the government. Basombrío reflects upon an essay about the crime challenge in Latin America that he penned for Dialogue back in 2000 when he was deputy director of the Institute for Legal Defense in Lima, and reports on his new insights on the problem “from the inside.” There has been much discussion of how the world has changed post–September 11. In the United States, the fear felt in the wake of the attacks has resulted in widespread public support for repressive government tactics such as increased censorship, wiretapping, military tribunals, indefinite detentions, and even the viability of torture as a means of obtaining “good information”—policies that the United States has long criticized in less-developed countries as violations of basic human rights. Michael Ratner, Jamie Fellner, and Elisa Massimino join Dialogue in a discussion of how their respective New York–based groups—the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights are dealing with this new environment. Kit Gage of the National Committee against Repressive Legislation explains how groups from the left, right, and center came together in the immediate aftermath of September 11 to warn Congress against taking extreme measures that would compromise fundamental rights. Many observers have noted that advances made by human rights activists are among the casualties of the worldwide campaign against terrorism. Malaysian human rights activist Elizabeth K.P. Wong describes how the campaign has buttressed Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s longstanding support for the country’s Internal Security Act, a focal point of Malaysian activism since 1960. Wong is especially concerned that some of her activist colleagues are now cowing to a new, government-led rhetoric of security in calling for a revised law, when in her view any such law puts human rights in danger. To Malaysian journalist and opinion-maker Karim Raslan, who was personally shaken by the terrorist bombing in Bali in October of this year, a reconsideration of security needs is justifiable. While the rise in crime and the U.S. war on terrorism have brought the question of public security to the fore, it is by no means a new issue. In conflict zones like India, Pakistan, Ireland, the Philippines, and Israel where crossborder or internal conflict has been looming for decades, human rights activists have cut their teeth in the struggle to protect human rights before a public that has run scared. In the case of Israel, writes Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom of Rabbis for Human Rights, the level of public fear is so high that its human rights culture has eroded, a fact that is highlighted by widespread support—both from the public and from Israeli human rights groups—for his government’s policy of targeted killing.