Tackling terror: a human rights approach

By Savi Hensman
November 16, 2015

There have been various reactions in London to the horrific attacks in Paris on 13 November, including sorrow, anger and prayer. Over 120 were shot dead and many others critically injured.

In addition over 20 people were killed in explosions in Baghdad. The previous day, suicide bombers had killed over 40 people in Beirut. Isis claimed responsibility for all these attacks.

Obviously it is important for the security forces and emergency services to be alert. But in the UK and beyond, the question arises of how the risk of further such attacks can be reduced.

Some may favour the tactics of treating anyone who looks or sounds vaguely like the attackers as suspicious, and cracking down hard on suspects. But this approach is not only unjust but also ineffective. While a handful of terrorist sympathisers may be caught, more may be created by alienating sections of the public. And these communities may in turn be terrorised by others acting violently.

A more just and effective alternative is an approach based on human rights for all.

While those who attack innocent bystanders are responsible for their own choices, the actions of others can make such violence more or less likely. Humans often tend to act tribally and follow leaders swayed by the quest for prestige, power and wealth. These factors can create volatile conditions.

For example, most people in the UK will react more strongly to other civilians if they can easily identify with them. This usually means that mass violence against Westerners, mainly white, who are citizens of an allied country which many British people have visited, will evoke a strong reaction.

In contrast, large-scale killing, torture and rape of unarmed African, Asian and Latin American people will usually trigger less of an emotional response, especially if there are fewer images of those affected. In addition, if terror is inflicted by a Western-backed regime or militia, the harm done will tend to be downplayed by politicians and media ,while strategic or trade considerations may be emphasised.

Indeed those from other continents fleeing terror may be portrayed as primarily a nuisance or threat, as has often happened with refugees. However, now and again a story or image can break through this distancing and remind people from another ‘tribe’ of a shared humanity. Then the response may be impressively generous.

Ethnic and religious minorities can be equally tribalist and inconsistent, leading to a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. Attacks on ‘us’ are unacceptable terror, while harm to ‘them’ does not count as much.

The UK government’s recent enthusiasm for praising overseas leaders with appalling human rights records highlights the contradictions of an ethically inconsistent stance. The lavish reception of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, can maybe be explained away as an attempt at building a more durable peace.

But other developments are harder to justify, including the welcome given to Egypt’s president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, responsible for mass killings and the detention of dissidents without trial.

Even if the focus is solely on terror by anti-government or paramilitary groups, the line taken is far from consistent. When King Abdullah died, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, praised him “for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths”, and flew to Saudi Arabia to pay his respects.

But Saudi rulers, as well as abusing human rights at home, helped to lay the ground for Al-Qaeda and later Isis by exporting a hardline and distorted version of Islam worldwide, including to the West. More moderate Muslims did not have the funds or clout to compete. Perhaps in retrospect, backing the regime was not that smart, even if it financially benefited sections of big business in Britain. Western policy in the Middle East has left many disaffected, further bolstering various kinds of extremism.

Likewise the recent welcome of Narendra Modi, India’s extreme-right prime minister, was embarrassingly over-the-top. Cameron even mentioned a shared interest in countering terrorism. But Modi, from the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been a member since boyhood of the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This is part of a cluster of groups which use a distortion of Hinduism to further their own brutal ends.

In contrast, a human rights-based approach would emphasise everyone’s right to safety and respect for their political, economic and cultural rights. This would apply wherever they lived and whatever their ethnicity, faith, class, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, and whether or not they are disabled.

The emotional appeal of scapegoating, militarism, communalism and violent nationalism would be acknowledged. But the human cost of violence, repression and deprivation, and dangers of handing too much power to any state, militia, party or corporation, would be emphasised. And aspects of particular traditions which foster justice, peace and compassion could strengthen efforts to protect the defenceless.

A re-emphasis on legal and ethical codes protecting noncombatants may also be timely. The horror and grief in Paris are a reminder of what happens whenever mass killings of civilians take place anywhere in the world, whether the perpetrators are 'the enemy' or 'our' troops or allies, rebel or state-backed regular or paramilitary forces. The ideology of the attackers in this instance is clearly brutal and oppressive but destroying large numbers of unarmed and defenceless people in the name of supposedly superior ideals only tarnishes these.

This might represent the best chance of countering terrorism of all kinds. Unfortunately governments cannot be relied on to take this approach, given the power of vested interests. It may be up to the civilians of the world, by insisting on everyone’s human worth, to protect ourselves and one another.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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