August 13, 2021

IntelBrief: Human Rights Abuses and the War on Terror in South Asia

(AP Photo/Channi Anand)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Nine days after the September 11th attacks, then President George W. Bush defined the Global War on Terror by stating, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” 
  • Authoritarian regimes have appropriated the rhetoric of the Global War on Terror and used related terrorism legislation to justify repressive actions.
  • The United States’ own approach to counterterrorism, which included the use of torture, has effectively weakened its ability to hold repressive regimes accountable. 
  • Going forward, it will be important for governments, communities, and the private sector to work together to ensure that NGOs are not securitized by default. 

In a joint session to Congress nine days after the September 11th attacks, then President George W. Bush uttered the words that would come to define the Global War on Terror. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make,” he said, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The statement drew a stark line in the sand and sent a chill through the corridors of power in capitals around the world, as governments decided how they would respond. In short order, 136 countries offered some form of military assistance; 142 countries froze assets of suspected terror groups; 76 countries agreed to let U.S. military aircraft land within their borders; and 23 countries agreed to host U.S. forces involved in offensive operations. 

As countries lined up to support the United States, the vaguely conceived “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) also provided authoritarian regimes an opportunity. The “war on terror” and “us versus them” framework unwittingly gave repressive regimes the language and tools they needed to crack down on domestic criticism and civil society groups, as well as paint minority communities and social movements as terrorist threats. They were able to appropriate this rhetoric, and use related terrorism legislation, to justify their actions as aligned with the U.S. approach. In March 2019, the Duterte administration in the Philippines, for instance, released a petition labeling 649 citizens as terrorists, a move used by the government to intimidate opposition activists and human rights defenders. 

As Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, has written, based on data gathered from 2005 to 2018, “the targeting of civil society is not a random or incidental aspect of counter-terrorism law and practice. It suggests the hard-wiring of misuse into counter-terrorism measures taken by States around the globe.” Ní Aoláin continues, “The ramping up of security space, leading to the narrowing of civic space, can be directly traced back to the international security-focused dynamic that emerged in 2001, and the embedding of international matrices in the global counter-terrorism architecture in order to authorize and sustain security measures.” 

This dynamic has been particularly illustrative in South Asia where, in countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India, the specter of “terrorism” is now used as a strategic weapon to crack down on activists who are questioning the legitimacy of government actions on human rights grounds. Furthermore, it is also used as a convenient cover to carry out ethnic cleansing and attack liberation movements fighting for self-determination—a fundamental aspect of international law. As legal experts Martin Scheinin and Mathias Vermeulen point out, for a long time after the September 11 attacks, it was generally agreed that fighting terrorism was of prime importance—to the extent that “authoritarian governments could get away with their repressive practices simply by renaming political opponents as ‘terrorists’.”     

A good example of this dynamic is the treatment of the Muslim community, especially the Rohingyas, in Myanmar. To be sure, the poor treatment of the Rohingyas in Myanmar long predates 2001: persecution throughout the 1970s displaced over 200,000 Rohingya; the 1982 Constitution not only made the Rohingyas stateless but also passed on stateless status to future children of Rohingya parents; and continued pogroms throughout the 1990s displaced hundreds of thousands more to neighboring Bangladesh. In 2010, the country celebrated the end of the military junta, but in the years following, several campaigns of violence led by Buddhist extremist groups like the 969 Movement and the Ma Ba Tha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion) overshadowed the birth of democracy in Myanmar.

In May 2012, violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State was set off by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. Over the next several days, Buddhists and Muslims in the country engaged in a series of revenge attacks, and a state of emergency was declared. Security forces were later accused not only of failing to stop the violence, but also of being complicit in perpetrating it. In October 2016, 300 Rohingya men attacked border posts in Rakhine State, killing nine police officers. Myanmar military forces responded violently, leading to an exodus of 87,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh. In August 2017, twelve security officers were killed by Rohingya insurgents in targeted attacks against police outposts. The Burmese military responded by starting a “clearance operation” in Rakhine state, burning down villages, and massacring civilians. A mass exodus of 600,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh over the next several months. 

The point is not to say that decades of persecution has not produced, on the part of some Rohingya, a militant response, but rather that the global “war on terror” has encouraged the Burmese government and religious leaders to label all opposition or violent protest as terrorism, and to try to repaint state human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing as counterterrorism operations. The United States’ own approach, which included the use of torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” has effectively weakened its ability to hold these regimes accountable. 

A similar dynamic exists in Sri Lanka. The notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), enacted in 1979 as a temporary measure, is now approaching its forty-second anniversary. The PTA allows the government to detain suspects without charge for up to eighteen months and submit confessions obtained through torture in court (with the onus being on the suspect to prove they confessed under duress). The PTA has been used to arrest many Tamils for supposed links to the militant separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and since the 2019 Easter bombings in Colombo that killed nearly 300, has led to the arbitrary arrest and detention of members of the Muslim community, as well.

In March 2021, the Sri Lankan government once again banned 300 individuals and a number of Tamil activist organizations operating in Canada, the United States, and other countries for supposed “links” to the Tamil Tigers, a byname of the LTTE. Combined with the sweeping powers of the PTA, such a listing created serious problems for activists around the world. It made it difficult for Tamil political parties on the island to receive support and funding from abroad; made it frightening for many diaspora activists associated with the banned organizations to visit family and friends in the country; and made it quite dangerous for NGO groups and aid workers to receive support, financially or otherwise, from diaspora organizations with vested interests in the country. In keeping alive unrealistic fears of terrorism, and allowing a culture of impunity to take root, the Sri Lankan government has fostered a space in which many injustices continue to plague the island.

Twenty years into the global war on terror, and in light of years of human rights violations, it is imperative that governments committed to human rights continuously evaluate counterterrorism cooperation with certain countries. There is extensive documentation of how governments have used counter-terrorism and P/CVE measures—including particular counter-terrorism financing rules—to undermine legitimate movements and civil society actors. Going forward, it will be important for governments, communities, and the private sector to work together to ensure that NGOs are not securitized by default. As Jayne Huckerby, a Clinical Professor of Law at Duke University, recently said, “Addressing this requires a range of measures—from ensuring that definitions of terrorism and violent extremism are not so capacious as to be used to criminalize opponents to having exemptions for civil society in CTF rules.” It is imperative that repressive regimes not be given the vocabulary, tools, and support to continue to thwart international human rights norms and values in the name of fighting terrorism, and that twenty years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, governments don’t hand violent extremists victories by themselves perpetrating abuses.

Amarnath Amarasingam is an Assistant Professor in the School of Religion and is cross-appointed to the Department of Political Studies, at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. He is the author of Pain, Pride, and Politics: Sri Lankan Tamil Activism in Canada (2015), and the co-editor of Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War (2016). He tweets at @AmarAmarasingam.