Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Respect Human Rights, Reduce Terrorism

• April 08, 2010 • 3:00 PM

New research suggests that to be effective, counterterrorism efforts should support human rights, rather than violate them.

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.”

Elisabeth Best
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Elisabeth Best is currently pursuing a Masters of Pacific International Affairs at the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, where she is the editor in chief of the Journal of International Policy Solutions. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara in June 2009 with a BA in global studies and a minor in professional editing. As an undergraduate, she wrote for The GW Hatchet and Coastlines magazine and hosted “The Backseat” on WRGW.

More From Elisabeth Best

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.