Human Rights and the Legacies of 9/11 – Confronting the False Dichotomy of Human Rights or Security

baghdad 2003
American soldiers patrol an Iraqi university campus in the wake of the post-9/11 Invasion (July 2003) - K. Watenpaugh

Human Rights and the Legacies of 9/11 – Confronting the False Dichotomy of Human Rights or Security

Twenty years later the aftermath of 9/11 remains a critical challenge for Human Rights Studies Professionals

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  • One of the most difficult challenges facing Human Rights Studies today, even 20 years later, is making sense of how 9/11's aftermath continues to transform human rights.

This week brings the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, when a militant Islamist organization, al-Qaeda, mounted a series of terrorist attacks on US soil, murdering thousands.  The American government’s response to those attacks over the last two decades, primarily its “War on Terror,” and the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, left deep scars on global human rights. It weakened institutional support for human rights law, treaties, and norms; and has made routine the abuse of human rights in the name of illusory security. Alongside weakening the defense of human rights, the response has made us less safe, and delayed for a generation any serious effort to address the problems of inequality and climate change that represent real and pressing threats to human rights and human security.

One of the most difficult research and teaching challenges facing Human Rights Studies students and scholars today, even 20 years later, is making sense of how that response hurt institutions supporting human rights and undermined global confidence in the human rights idea. It colors much of what we do and indeed was the formative event in the lives of many scholars practicing today, in particular those like me who were trained in the history of the Modern Middle East. 

What I teach, my research, the form of my public scholarship and engagement all have their origins in the events of that day and more importantly the terrible, stupid and inhumane cascade of decisions made in its aftermath. A year and half after that September, I was in Iraq, trying to figure out how to connect with Iraqi colleagues and preserve the country’s academic institutions in the face of a poorly administered American occupation, only to then watch in horror as the mismanagement of the country fostered a civil war that led to the assassination of dozens of the country’s leading intellectuals, artists, journalists, and university professionals.

Costly - in human and financial terms - wars of choice and the reinvention of covert war into a perpetual and more palatable “forever war,” of aerial drone strikes is partly why many in my field took this path; as was the elaboration of an anti-human rights legal régime built on cruel Orwellian euphemisms that legitimized torture (enhanced interrogation,) kidnapping (extreme rendition,) imprisonment without trial (indefinite detention,) illegal jails (black sites,) murder (targeted strikes,) and the violation of the Geneva Convention protections of soldiers and prisoners of war (enemy combatants.)  But more, it was the abandonment of core principles that had made visible a bright ethical and moral line between those who attacked America on 9/11 and us; and the fact that in the years since no one who made those decisions was held accountable - creating in the US the kind of culture of impunity we decry when it occurs in South America or is practiced by Eastern European dictators.

Alongside that challenge is making certain that Human Rights Studies professionals do not fail to mark the utter misery, mass killing and even genocide that Islamist militancy has visited up the peoples of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Islamists have killed many more Muslims (and local ethnic and religious minorities) than they have Americans. When they come to power, as witnessed in Afghanistan these last few weeks or a few years ago in the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, they pose and enormous threat to human rights.  That’s no justification for happened after 9/11.  Still, al-Qaeda, Wahabists, Neo-Deobandist Taliban and their ilk make no pretense that they are supporters of human rights.

The False Dichotomy

Emblematic of the challenges of the post-9/11 environment to human rights is a powerful and persisting narrative elaborated by leading figures of then president George W. Bush administration that posits a false dichotomy between human rights and security. In that narrative, human rights, and later human rights organizations, treaties like the Convention Against Torture and the International Criminal Court (from which the US withdrew in 2002) are an impediment to the needs of national security and "safeguarding the homeland." To prosecute the “War on Terror,” which promoted fear and xenophobia as a strategy, it was argued that civil and political human rights must be curtailed. Those who might call attention to human rights, especially the human rights of Muslims or Arabs or oppose the wars were deemed weak or in some cases just plain seditious in the face of what was considered the real threat, that of Islamist terrorism.

As early as 2002 Amnesty International’s then president Irene Khan had voiced concerns about the way the so-called “War on Terror” was becoming a catch-all justification for ignoring human rights.  In her introduction the organization’s first report after the attacks, she noted:

Global insecurity, far from diminishing the value of human rights, has actually heightened the need to respect them. A more secure world demands a paradigm shift in the concept of security, a shift that recognizes that insecurity and violence are best tackled by effective, accountable states which uphold, not violate, human rights. Unless that shift happens, security will be a skewed concept, bringing in its wake greater insecurity.

The irony  is that Bush administration had relied on reporting by human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to buttress public support for the invasions and occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq.  For Afghanistan, it was an after-the-fact embrace of women’s rights; in Iraq human rights became a warrant for war after no weapons of mass destruction were found, the putative reason for the American invasion and occupation in the first place.

However, when Amnesty International condemned the Bush administration for its detention and torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in 2005, (Irene Khan had called it the “Gulag of our time,”) Bush officials and supporters in the press mounted a concerted media attack on the organization’s credibility and US-based leadership that has permanently diminished its popularity and reach.

Even after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, around the time UC Davis faculty laid the foundations for the Human Rights Studies program at our university, we felt real pushback from colleagues and administrators who voiced concerns that teaching human rights would somehow leave the university open to criticism and prove politically problematic.

Thankfully, this is no longer the case.

Remembering and Forgetting 9/11

The multiple human rights legacies of 9/11 remain.  In a prefab building at the US base on Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who most likely designed and oversaw the 9/11 attacks is standing trial.  He had been arrested in Pakistan (2003) and held in illegal black sites in Eastern Europe before being transferred to Cuba.  In US custody, he was tortured. It’s a core legal principle of American jurisprudence that confessions extracted by torture cannot be entered as evidence and Mohammed’s lawyers and even the US military are raising questions about whether or not he can receive a fair trial, especially as prosecutors will seek to have him put to death following a guilty verdict.  Torturing him probably elicited more false information than anything actionable or reliable, but more so, the families of those killed that September day will not have justice either, if he cannot be tried.

The scenes of chaos on the tarmac of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and the tens of thousands of refugees who will need help and asylum is also a legacy of decisions made after 9/11.  When the US invaded Afghanistan in a failed effort to capture those who had attacked, it laid the foundation for the multiplicity of missteps and mistakes, including supporting the corrupt and human rights-abusing government of Hamid Karzai, that allowed the Taliban to rebuild and then recapture the country. 

I lived in upstate New York in 2001 and remember gathering around a tv in the common room of the small college where I was teaching to watch the Twin Towers burn and then collapse. We knew that many people had been unable to get out. Only later did we learn of the hundreds who had raced in to save them also died in those moments. I still think about the professionalism, humanity and sacrifice in that moment and I do worry that fact of 9/11 is being ignored as we collectively seek to forget the years of squandered wealth and needless war and death after.

The human rights burden of that day is carried in the wounds seen and unseen of soldiers returned and now in the lives of the tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in our midst. How we bear that burden will be the real legacy of 9/11.

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