Since September 11, 2001, terrorism and the resulting War on Terror has dominated the headlines and preoccupied global national security efforts. Nowhere has the effects of terrorism been felt more acutely than in the Middle East, and the response from governments in the region has often been erratic and heavy handed. Iraq is a case in point. On August 21, the Iraqi government executed 36 men following a conviction last year by Iraq’s central criminal court in Baghdad. The men were hanged for their involvement in a 2014 mass killing of around 1700 people claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Many human rights groups criticized the trial and subsequent hangings because the defendants did not have access to their lawyers and the evidence against them primarily relied on confessions made under duress and the accusations of secret informants. Because the executions took place in the wake of international criticism that Iraq has been too soft on ISIS, the trial’s brevity and lack of due process made the executions seem more akin to vengeance killings than justice. It was also a missed opportunity to thoroughly air the grievances of Iraqi victims who have suffered immensely as a result of ISIS’s atrocities.
Even in Western democracies, individuals suspected of ties with terrorism are held and tried secretly under obscure national security laws. As we approach the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the attacks, and his co-defendants are still awaiting trial by a military commission in Guantanamo Bay. Not only does this delay undermine the accused’s right to a speedy trial, but the victims of 9/11 and their families have grown frustrated at the lack of a judicial resolution. Both the US Congress and the Department of Defense fought to keep the trials out of civilian courts by claiming security concerns, but in civilian courts, basic human rights standards would have been upheld, the defendants would have been convicted years ago, and victims would have gotten much needed closure.
Other governments have used the United States’ broad view of counterterrorism to target political opponents. Syria’s President Bashar al Assad has long justified his brutal response to the 2011 uprising and subsequent civil war as a fight against terrorism. In a 2013 address, Assad promised to “stamp out” terrorism with an “iron fist,” but the government’s campaign against terrorism has instead indiscriminately targeted civilian areas, killing many innocent women and children. Uzbekistan’s late-President, Islam Karimov, used a similar tactic, branding anyone who resisted or had grievances against his regime a terrorist. Seen as an important ally in the war against terror, the United States largely overlooked Karimov’s abuses against his own people, paving the way for him to use the global fight against terrorism to further erode human rights and consolidate power. Ironically, in driving dissent underground, Karimov created fertile ground for ISIS recruitment. Syria and Uzbekistan are not alone — worldwide, the fight against terror has forsaken both the human rights framework and justice for victims.
Even when countries approach the issue with more of a human rights lens, the results are not always victim-centric. In the first trial of its kind, Niger surrendered Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to the International Criminal Court (ICC) where he is being prosecuted for the war crime of intentionally targeting historic monuments. Al-Mahdi was being held by Niger for his ties with Ansar al-Dine, an armed group in Mali with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. While the destruction of cultural heritage is a grave crime under international law, some have questioned the ICC’s motives in focusing only on this crime when there are credible allegations of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced marriage, rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence that occurred during the same time that Ansar al-Dine and al Qaeda-linked militants overran the area. Human rights organizations have called on the ICC to expand the charges, noting that the current charges overshadow the immense suffering felt by victims of terrorism in Mali.
In order for there to be true justice for victims, perpetrators must be held accountable for their crimes. Extrajudicial killings (e.g.,targeted drone strikes) and secret court proceedings fail basic due process protections and do not adequately serve victims’ need for closure. And while the ICC’s case is a step in the right direction, it similarly fails to address the full range of harms suffered. Of course there are challenges to fully achieving these aims. In some cases, terrorists pose an imminent threat that may require prompt military action and certain evidence may have national security implications if shown publicly at trial. But these concerns have elicited broad, heavy-handed responses that cause far more harm in the long-run, eroding trust in government and the rule of law and incentivizing recruitment into terrorist organizations.
Fighting horrific atrocities committed by terrorists with state-sponsored human rights abuses will not end the War on Terror. Rather, in both the Middle East and in the West, a victim-centric approach that focuses on rebuilding the human rights framework and confidence in the rule of law is desperately needed, now more than ever.
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