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A Strategy to Combat Terrorism and Advance Human Rights

The recent terrorist attacks in Sinai came as a reminder that the world, not only Egypt, needs to adopt a whole new strategy to combat violent extremism. The tragic number of casualties – 305 dead and 120 wounded – reminds us of the September 11 attacks in the United States, which marked a dramatic shift in international affairs. The appalling situation in Sinai today makes it a necessity to review the currently adopted policies and attempt to find new, creative ways to deal with the issue. One first step outside the box is to reevaluate the too many theoretical debates defining the scope of the effect of terrorism and its claimed correlation to idealist humanitarian values like human rights. Over the past few years, we have been listening to world leaders talking about the two topics – human rights and violent extremism – as if they are two ends of the same spectrum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued several fact sheets explaining the link between human rights and terrorism. Consequently, the topic has been debated intensively in several UN main sessions and side events. Analysts from think tanks and academia have issued a tremendous number of papers on the so-called “interdependent relationship” between fighting terrorism and advancing human rights. Their arguments usually deal with fighting terrorism and advancing human rights as a zero-sum game. Pursuing more of one side should necessarily mean losing more on the other side, so they argue. If you want more security and success fighting terrorism, you have to stop achieving progress on human rights, and if you want more progress on human rights, then you have to drop speaking about terrorism as a threat to human security and be more lenient on fighting violent extremists out of fear of being “Islamophobic” or not “respecting others’ religion.” Even worse, some analysts have gone as far as making excuses for terrorists by claiming that their activities stem from a lack of human rights in their home countries. In practical reality, such arguments have been proven wrong. We have seen French, British, and American citizens turning into terrorists despite the fact that they grew up in liberal democratic nations that cherish individual freedoms and respect human rights. Likewise, we have seen state officials abusing the state of fear arising from the threat of terrorism as a justification to practice political repression on their own citizens or launch military attacks on other nations. This approach of adopting one of the two extreme strategies has led to nothing but infinite loss and unbearable damages over decades. Based on my over 10 years of experience as a human rights activist and researcher on Islamic extremism, I believe that linking human rights and terrorism in the way we are today is a fatal mistake. By playing the game of fighting terrorism versus advancing human rights, we lethally empower terrorists while tying the hands of nation-states, thus making it impossible to put an end to terrorism or achieve any tangible progress on human rights. Advancing human rights and fighting terrorism are like water and oil. They are two substances from two different spheres. They are neither interdependent nor even linked to each other. On the one hand, human rights are, at the core, a set of international laws codifying idealistic goals human beings have been desperately trying to realize for decades and have not fully realized – yet. National states abide by international human rights law. Nation states are obliged to take all necessary measures to guarantee those rights for the humans (citizens) living under their governance. On the other hand, terrorism is a criminal act that requires an immediate and equal reaction. Terrorism is committed by non-state actors who do not conform to any laws or rules that dignify human life and well-being. Terrorists do not have a common identity or an organized body capable of committing them to any agreement or international treaty of any kind. Killing human beings and destroying nation-states is their ultimate goal and only rule. Nation-states can sometimes fail at advancing human rights or guaranteeing a space for open democracy. This is a shortcoming that can be rectified by time, experience, and a proper amount of pressure from local citizens and the international community. However, nation-states do not have the luxury of trial and error when it comes to fighting terrorism. Failure is not an option here, because it means the end of the state itself. The “Arab Spring” revolutions and their unfolding consequences in each country could serve as an example. All these revolutions were launched by ordinary citizens, who were eager to end dictatorships and start a new era of liberal democracy where they could enjoy their hard-won human rights and civil freedoms. As the majority of these revolutionaries were so civil and sincere, there were also masked terrorist groups preying on the power vacuum created by toppling dictators. In countries like Egypt and Tunisia with stable and independent military institutions that already have strong bonds of trust with the citizenry, it was possible to keep violent extremism within its limits, and subsequently preserve the wholeness of the state and put the nation’s feet on the right track toward liberal democratization. In countries like Syria and Libya, the situation went out of control because preserving the well-being of the state was not a priority, and this created the perfect opportunity for terrorists to flourish. In that sense, we should understand that terrorism is not a threat to human rights, but a threat to human existence. If humans are killed, there won’t be human rights. For humans to practice their rights, they need to exist in a safe context first. Terrorism is only one of many obstacles in the way of progressing human rights. Yet, terrorism is not equivalent to human rights, i.e., one is not dependent on the other. Human rights are not a luxury, they are a necessity, that cannot be realized under terrorism. But at the same time, human rights should not be used as an obstacle in the way of fighting terrorism. This vital distinction could be a game-changer for how the world deals with the threat of terrorism in the next decade.


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