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The Details Matter: Human Rights and the War on Terrorism

March 19, 2001

For a moment, the war in Afghanistan appeared to be a war on behalf of human rights. Who can ever forget the sight of Afghan women celebrating openly in public? But while the ouster of the Taliban led to dramatic improvements for many in that country, this outcome was a byproduct, not a primary goal, of the American-led offensive.

In much of the rest of the world, civil liberties are suffering a setback. From India to Malaysia, governments have introduced stringent new anti-terrorism measures, or have given new life to laws once used to suppress peaceful dissent. In foreign policy circles, there is less talk of universal rights standards and more emphasis on what kinds of assistance states are providing to the war on terrorism. In this climate, is a deepening clash between human rights and national security inevitable?

For the past twenty years, human rights thinking has increasingly shaped how citizens and policymakers evaluate the behavior of nation-states and other key international actors. Michael Ignatieff recently described human rights as the "dominant moral vocabulary in foreign affairs" in the post-Cold War era. He and others have warned, however, that after September 11, we may be witnessing a sea change in attitudes.

President Bush has used moral language in calling for a war on terror; but his imagery - of the forces of good and evil locked in mortal combat - draws more on the Old Testament than on universal human rights standards. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft have each adopted more narrow interpretations of the constraints of international and U.S. constitutional law than did their predecessors. Even commentators who are critical of the Bush administration's rhetoric have argued that U.S. leaders have a duty to act proactively to forestall other, potentially even more damaging attacks before it is too late, even at the expense of some rights protections.

In the face of the changing tide, U.S. rights advocates are scrambling to shape the nation's understanding of recent events. Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch labeled the 9/11 attacks a human rights crime and has urged U.S. leaders to avoid falling prey to the same "ends justify the means" thinking that motivates their terrorist foes. In addition to tracking the shrinking space for dissent around the world and the impact of new security restrictions at home, Roth's organization is now engaged in a detailed assessment of how the United States is conducting its military campaign.

Other rights advocates have challenged the Bush administration's unilateralist tendencies, arguing that the United States needs to appeal to common aims and aspirations to maintain an effective international coalition, for which human rights provides a necessary framework.

Clearly, both security issues and human rights concerns have a claim on our attention, but the details matter: the framework we use to understand September 11 and its aftermath will have a decisive role in shaping what comes next.

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