Does respect for human rights prevent or promote terrorism?
While some — perhaps most notably Dick Cheney — contend that restricting human rights is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, others argue that the practice fuels terrorism by increasing support for extremists.
Political scientists James I. Walsh and James A. Piazza of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte find the latter true. Their research, which compares records of terrorist attacks alongside a country’s documented respect for rights, appears in the latest issue of Comparative Political Studies.
The authors argue that violations of a person’s physical integrity — through things like extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances and political imprisonment — should be linked to terrorism because “those rights resonate with universal ideas about human dignity.” In other words, in spite of wide cultural variation in other presumed human rights, like freedom of speech, religion or the right to vote, almost all cultures value the physical integrity of innocent people.
Walsh and Piazza posit that abusing physical integrity increases terrorism in three ways. First, it alienates the government from people who might otherwise provide intelligence on terrorist activities. Second, it causes conflicts with other, non-terrorist political groups in the country, such as human rights organizations, which distracts governments and reduces their efficiency in fighting terrorism. Finally, it reduces goodwill toward the government abroad.
They use the example of the “black sites” employed by U.S. security officials to illustrate this final point. When information came out about the abuse of prisoners and terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and the rendition of suspects by the CIA, possibly with the assistance of European governments, to secret detention centers in Europe and the Middle East, Europeans demanded independent investigations. Their outrage over their governments’ alleged collusion in human rights abuses made European government officials reluctant to comply with future U.S. intelligence efforts.
According to Piazza, the shift in physical integrity standards in U.S. counterterrorism efforts following 9/11 was an important motivator for the study. He cites a paper by colleague Beth Whitaker suggesting that elements of U.S. counterterrorism practices (some of which involve serious alteration of political, civil and human rights) have been adopted by its allies.
“What this suggests to me,” he says, “Is that there is a real normative impact of U.S. human rights standards on other countries.”
To include both domestic and transnational terrorist attacks in their study, Walsh and Piazza used both the International Terrorism: Attributes of Terrorist Events data set and the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Data Base. They used the Cingranelli and Richards Human Rights data set, which covers 195 countries from 1981 to 2004, to determine the each country’s “respect for physical integrity” score.
“Greater respect for physical integrity rights consistently reduces the number of terrorist attacks regardless of the type of terrorism — domestic or transnational — and the source of the measure of terrorism,” they write. Their previous research indicates that terrorist attacks don’t cause governments to engage in torture or political imprisonment; however, these attacks do increase the likelihood that governments will engage in the less-discussed acts of disappearances and extrajudicial killings. In other words, governments are more inclined to meet terror with terror, and not more restrictive legal environments.
Walsh and Piazza make a “hearts-and-minds” argument to explain their conclusions. By winning the hearts and minds of their constituencies, governments can decrease terrorist support within the communities terrorists claim to represent. Conversely, if these governments commit human rights violations themselves, they give terrorists fuel for anti-government propaganda and may increase the number and quality of terrorist recruits.
The pair notes that previous studies have focused on the link between terrorism and democracy, and many of these studies found that democracies experience more terror than non-democracies. But they believe that the way in which governments exercise their power (and not the way they are structured) is what truly determines a society’s vulnerability to terrorism.
Ultimately, Walsh and Piazza make two suggestions for improving counterterrorism policies. Governments that prioritize counterterrorism should make an effort to protect physical integrity rights. And powerful nations like the United States should use their resources to promote these rights overseas, especially in countries that experience a lot of terrorism.
Although he is quick to emphasize that their study sought more to emphasize the connection between physical integrity rights and terrorism than develop policy implications, Walsh suggests that the United States has three levers available to encourage human rights abroad: foreign aid, trade and military training. The U.S. could tie foreign aid to better respect for physical integrity rights, require that countries wishing to join the World Trade Organization take serious steps to improve their human rights records and incorporate rights protection into the military and police training it conducts internationally, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, he admits, “It is not entirely clear to me that steps such as these would be effective in all, or even many, cases. Foreign governments may choose to abuse human rights because they see this as an effective way to repress the opposition and remain in power. In many cases, the desire to retain power is likely to outweigh any pressure United States could bring to bear. During the late 1970s, for example, the Carter administration sought to link human rights performance to trade and aid. … This effort had mixed results.”
As Piazza concludes, “One way that the U.S. might try to encourage better physical integrity rights conditions in other countries is to simply hold itself to high standards and make sure it protects the human rights of its own terror suspects.”
Rather than pursuing democratization or economic development abroad as the primary weapon to fight terror, as is often suggested, Walsh and Piazza say governments concerned about terrorism should first respect human rights. “Improvements in physical integrity rights,” they write, “involve fewer changes to the structure of the political system and thus are easier for even authoritarian governments to implement while still retaining power.”