11 September: combating terrorism while respecting international law

On the anniversary of the dramatic events of September 11 2001, the ICJ expresses its sympathy with the victims and their families affected by the terrorist attacks in the United States.

At the same time, the ICJ is gravely concerned by counter-terrorist measures proposed or adopted by a number of states and their implications for human rights protection.

The centrality of human rights protected under the rule of law, as recognised by states, is a landmark achievement of the second half of the 20th century. The State in removing basic human rights protections threatens a reversal of these great gains for humanity

The ICJ has repeatedly stressed that while States have both a right and a duty to prevent and combat terrorism, they are obliged to do so in conformity with international law. The partial and selective application of fundamental international legal principles is inimical to the very rule of law that governments have pledged to protect.

Since 11 September, governments around the world have been engaged in tackling terrorism. Extraordinary circumstances may, on occasion, require extraordinary measures. International law accommodates such concerns. Some Governments, however, have exceeded these limits to dramatically curtail fundamental rights, including the rights to due process and fair trial.

The United States has detained indefinitely hundreds of persons in Guantanamo Bay as unlawful combatants, denying them both prisoner of war status under the Third Geneva Convention and the protections of international human rights law. The United States has also begun the process of establishing military commissions to try terror suspects which contravene fundamental principles of due process.

A number of other states have also undertaken counter-terrorism measures which are incompatible with their international law obligations. The United Kingdom has placed several persons in indefinite detention without charge and New Zealand and Sweden have contravened their obligations regarding the return of persons to countries where they are at risk of persecution.

The ICJ hopes that the next High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio De Mello, whose term commences this week, will follow the example of his predecessor, Mary Robinson, in courageously protecting human rights and the rule of law in the context of these events. We encourage him to promote efforts to establish a UN system to monitor State’s counter-terrorism measures to ensure that they are in conformity with international standards of human rights and humanitarian law.

Note: For further information, please contact: Ian Seiderman on +41 22 9793823 or Federico Andreu on +41 22 9793819.

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