Archive for counterterrorism

Counterterrorism and Human Rights under the Trump Administration

by Genevieve Zingg, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On Monday, the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School hosted an event on counterterrorism and human rights under the Trump administration. The event featured Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at the United States program of Human Rights Watch, speaking on the new human rights challenges posed by counterterrorism policies emerging under President Trump.

Prior to working with HRW, Pitter was a journalist and lawyer with the U.N. in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Under the Obama administration, she worked on accountability for past instances of torture and the prevention of government-sanctioned torture. Specifically, she worked to document torture that had not yet come to light prior to the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

Laura Pitter talks to students on October 23 at the Human Rights Institute about human rights under Trump // Genevieve Zinng

Human rights concerns under the Obama administration centered on detention practices at Guantanamo and the use of drone strikes. During this time, HRW focused on encouraging the release of Guantanamo detainees and ending the military justice system it operates under. There was also concern under Obama about the overly broad use of terrorism prosecutions, which were used to target individuals who did not necessarily express any intent to engage in terrorism.

Once Trump was elected, HRW’s focus changed as the administration explored the use of torture becoming a legal part of official policy and loosened rules for drone strike operations overseas. “There was already a lack of transparency with regard to drone strikes under Obama’s policies,” Pitter explained during the event. “They said they were careful, but civilians were killed, and we know that they did not properly investigate strikes that went wrong, follow through with reporting requirements, or pay condolence compensation.”

The rules under Obama were already loose, and the concern is that they will continue to deteriorate under the Trump administration. For example, Trump is considering giving the CIA more control over strike operations, so they would be even less transparent than they already are. As a result, Pitter said her work has become more domestically focused under the Trump administration. Trump’s “clear expression of hostility towards Islam” and policies directed toward “radical Islamic terrorism” are a matter of significant concern to HRW, she explained, especially once a draft executive order authorizing the reopening of CIA “blacksite” prisons was leaked in January 2017.

Further concerns over close U.S. partnerships with forces carrying out human rights abuses remain, namely focused on UAE and Saudi partners in Yemen. “We’re worried about proxy detentions and proxy interrogations,” Pitter said. The U.S., for example, has interrogated people in facilities in Yemen where there have been documented cases of torture by the UAE and Saudis. The U.S. claims to not know about these cases, according to HRW. When the organization released its report detailing the U.S.’s use of these facilities in Yemen, Senators John McCain and Jack Reed sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis asking for an investigation. The explanation they received is currently classified, but HRW is advocating to have it made public.

Protests in Washington, D.C., over the Muslim Ban // Creative Commons

“One thing we’re doing more of now is pressing other governments to press the U.S.” Pitter said, responding to a question during the event. “In order for the U.S. to carry out its work abroad, particularly in foreign policy and military operations, it requires the cooperation of other governments. HRW has always had a strong U.N. team, but we operate in that forum more aggressively now.” For instance, HRW built strong alliances with countries like Canada and the Netherlands to push the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish an international inquiry on war crimes in Yemen, against Saudi objections.

The talk emphasized that part of the frustration of the human rights community is that many of the policies laid out by the Obama administration have expanded and are being more aggressively enforced, including large-scale surveillance by the FBI of Muslim communities and immigration deportations. As for the Muslim Ban, arguably Trump’s most controversial executive order at this point in his presidency, there is a larger role for the courts to play in protecting human rights. “The courts from Hawaii to Maryland have recognized that counterterrorism is not a justification for the ban. Even Homeland Security has said that country of citizenship is not a reliable indicator of terrorist activity,” Pitter said. “The government can carry out counterterrorism initiatives without violating the rights of a specific religious or ethnic group. Policies like the Muslim Ban are actually counter to security because they generate anger and hostility toward the U.S.”

There has been strong pushback from the Departments of Defense and Justice and the State Department against some of Trump’s controversial security policies. The DOD and DOJ, for instance, have pushed back against expanding Guantanamo, which currently holds 41 people, only 7 of whom have been charged, while the DOJ has pushed for the use of federal prosecution over military commissions. The CIA and State Department, likewise, have also warned against the floated policy proposal to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, arguing that it doesn’t make sense from a foreign policy perspective.

Pitter ended her talk by focusing on the positive. “This administration has emboldened voices that were silent before. The administration has legitimized discrimination and animus toward minority groups, but at the same time, this has mobilized the human rights movement and engaged communities that weren’t engaged before,” she said. “It’s both a threat and an opportunity to promote respect for human rights, due process, and the fairness of the justice system.”

Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is a blog writer for RightsViews. 


Mis-Gendered Security: Women’s Exclusion from Counterterrorism Efforts

By Marina Kumskova, M.A. in Human Rights ’17

Achieving security for all is impossible without the involvement of more women in the field of security. In practice, the inclusion of women in security-related decision-making has proven difficult to achieve. It took decades for researchers, civil society activists and gender champions to demonstrate that meaningful inclusion of women in the field of security is a necessary measure that prevents the emergence of new security threats and addresses existing challenges.

The Global Study on Women, Peace and Security, part of the 2015 U.N.-led Global Review, was a culmination of these efforts, as it demonstrates the importance of women’s inclusion across multiple security situations. Specifically, the Global Study proved that women’s participation increases the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years by 20 percent. The NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security also found that refugee camps where women have been consulted in the design and implementation of protection strategies are much safer. In addition, states with a higher level of gender inequality are more prone to inter- and intra-state conflicts, according to gender scholar M. Caprioli.

A forum for community justice at a Peace Hut in the Liberian village of Totota in March 2011 // UN Women // Flickr

Women peace activists from Yemen, Liberia, Libya, Colombia, and elsewhere in the world demonstrated that women play a crucial role in bringing about positive change. In Yemen, for example, women are the humanitarian interveners without whom communities simply would not survive. In Libya, women are taking the lead in strengthening reconstruction and reconciliation efforts across the country, often at considerable personal risk to themselves and their families. In sum, women-led civil society groups and organizations are the actors best equipped to understand the concerns and opportunities on the ground, enabling them to identify, design and implement practical strategies to overcome the challenges facing their countries.

When it comes to counterterrorism, the exclusion and instrumentalization of women, and disregard for their agency as a means to achieving greater national security, can also be dangerous. Decades of disregard for women’s rights provided terrorist organizations with an opportunity to use women to advance their own agendas. For example, the lack of women’s rights-based perspective in counterterrorism can help a terrorist group use women to consolidate territorial gains, as happened in Libya. Terrorists in Nigeria, Syria and Iraq were also found to use women to carry out logistical tasks, such as the smuggling of arms and munitions and the passing of information. In fact, there is an assumption that women can pass checkpoints and avoid house inspections more easily than their male counterparts.

The current situation suggests that the lack of access for women to decision-making processes in the context of counterterrorism is a systemic issue, the result of the dominance of state-centric legal and administrative frameworks, which are based on patriarchal and masculine logic. As a result, the lack of consideration given to women’s experiences in counterterrorism financing and border control, for example, creates significant challenges for women, including the lack of access to education, political participation and empowerment, developing a feeling of separation from the state. A growing number of women are joining terrorist groups and becoming active perpetrators of terrorism. Some scholars believe they are driven by systematic violations of their rights and the limited space provided to them in the society to affect social change.

Finally, who understands the needs of women better than women? Women’s participation in counterterrorism can address problems that have been ignored by state-centric counterterrorism strategies for decades. In the ISIS-controlled territories, local women’s groups have organized networks to free captured women and return them to their families. Grassroots women in Iraq have built crucial infrastructure, such as shelters and safe houses, and set up escape routes maintained by networks of women human rights defenders. Women as active participants in counterterrorism are less likely to compromise on gender equality when it comes to developing counterterrorism strategies, concludes the Global Center on Cooperative Security.

What has the international community done to include more women in security conversations? The answer: very little. The international community, excluding state institutions, has a long way to go before the meaningful participation of women in counterterrorism will become a reality. Research shows, for example, that in the period between January 2001 and December 2016, the state representatives made references to women’s participation in counterterrorism in 15.39 percent of all United Nations Security Council meetings on terrorism-related issues, while references to the need to protect women from the effects of terrorism have been used in 79.36 percent of all meetings. Available references to women’s participation lack concrete steps for changing the current trends.

Syrian women from Families For Freedom stood outside of the UN to make their voices heard on the margins of the Syria talks // WILPF

In turn, women’s vulnerability and protection needs have been highly emphasized, and often used, by states to demonize terrorist groups (i.e. ISIS and Hamas) and political regimes (i.e. the Palestinian authorities). References to sexual violence are also utilized to support the intensification of “hard” and militarized counterterrorism activities.

As the phenomenon of terrorism evolves quickly, it is crucial to address areas in which a state-centric approach to security lacks women’s rights-sensitive understanding. Specifically, women’s rights-sensitive considerations, if they are present within a counterterrorism framework, may result in greater state regulation of women’s lives. The outcomes may produce greater regulatory attention to women and widen the range of legal acts that “count” as supporting or undertaking terrorist acts.

To change the situation, the international community must develop concrete steps to ensure that women, including those in the community, have their say in the development of counterterrorism strategies, not because they are “mothers,” but because they are valuable partners with experience that is currently absent and necessary in the field of counterterrorism. This can be a difficult and dangerous process. When women’s rights are seen to further national security interest, the possibility of instrumentalization of women’s rights and gender equality increases. The history of women’s exclusion from counterterrorism efforts offers critical lessons; the task is now to use these lessons to ensure that counterterrorism measures comply with international human rights standards both de jure and de facto and do not perpetuate cycles of violence by contributing to the development of new security threats.

By Marina Kumskova is an alumna of Columbia University’s Human Rights program and a program associate at WILPF/PeaceWomen.