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10 years of combating racism

Palais de l’Europe, Room 1
Strasbourg, Thursday 18 March 2004

Workshop I

Paper prepared by Mr Aaron RHODES, Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation

The views expressed are those of the author only.

I should like to try to address this topic first referring to some general tendencies that appear in the perspective of the long and tragic history of terrorism, and then to discuss some current problems in the international response to contemporary terrorism based upon research by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and finally to convey several recommendations to members of the Council of Europe.

As phenomena, racism and terrorism are often deeply embedded in one another. Most acts of terrorism are based on racist attitudes that allow terrorists to approach their victims as less than human. The central characteristic of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians - in this, I subscribe to the attempt to define terrorism “objectively,” that is, based on actions, not ideologies or beliefs. The horrific attacks against civilians in order to terrorize populations - attacks not only by non-state actors and organizations (or, one might say, “NGOs”) but by state authorities as well - are almost always racist in nature. They occur in a context of dehumanization. When we come to the social-political contexts from which terrorism emerges, there we also almost always find racism - racism that leads to oppression, and to the seduction of morally vulnerable, weak or corrupt persons by terrorist ideologies that are themselves racist. Terrorism reveals how dangerous racism is. Racism appears at the origins of terrorism and in its consequences. Terrorism is often an expression of the self-perpetuation of racism.

It is the responsibility of the civilized world not to be sucked into this syndrome of hatred and death. The response to terrorism in the wake of the 2001 attacks in the United States has, unfortunately, often been a pretext for oppressive governments to consolidate their power. Called a “war,” the campaign against terrorism has resulted in the abrogation of human rights principles in many areas.

Since the attacks on the United States new policies have been adopted inter alia in the fields of interrogation, detention, surveillance and asylum and immigration. Many of these measures have been necessary and appropriate. However, as the IHF documented in a report published in April 2003,1 some of the measures have not been proportionate to the threats posed, and have violated norms protecting persons from racism and discrimination. Most worrisome, these measures have served to foster and aggravate intolerance against members of minority groups.

Relevant Legal Standards

The right not to be subjected to discrimination is obviously a fundamental principle of international human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that “[a]ll are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.”2 Article 2 of the ICCPR obliges all state parties to the covenant to respect rights set forth in it of everyone within their territory “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,” and article 14 of the ECHR lays down a similar provision with respect to that treaty. Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights establishes a general prohibition against discrimination.3

Moreover, the ICCPR specifically prohibits derogations that involve “discrimination solely on the ground of race, colour, sex, language, religion or social origin”.4 The ICCPR also requires state parties to ensure that their laws “guarantee to all persons effective protection against discrimination”5 and to prohibit “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”6

The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)7 specifically lists a number of rights that states are obliged to guarantee to everyone without distinction as to race, colour, national or ethnic origin, including the right “to security of person and protection by the state against violence or bodily harm, whether inflicted by government officials or by any individual group or institution”. Those states that are party to this convention have also undertaken to “[…] review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists”.8

The OSCE member states committed themselves in 1990, at the meeting in Copenhagen, to take effective measures to protect persons or groups who may be threatened or subjected to discrimination, hostility or violence as a result of their racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity, and to protect their property.9 They also agreed to take effective measures to promote tolerance and understanding.

At the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban in August-September 2001 the participating states concluded that “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance condoned by governmental policies violate human rights and may endanger friendly relations among peoples, cooperation among nations and international peace and security”.10

Post-September 11 Fight against Terrorism Fostered Intolerance

The September 11 events shocked and angered people all over the world. This public fear and outrage also added fuel to prejudices and hostility against those perceived to be associated with the perpetrators. As documented by the IHF, a xenophobic backlash occurred in many OSCE member states after September 11, involving an increasing number of incidents of harassment and violence against Muslims, Arabs and other vulnerable groups.

The most serious xenophobic backlash took place in the United States, where a greater number of violent attacks and more widespread abuse occurred than in any other country. However, across the EU, an increase in violence and harassment against Muslims and members of other minority groups was also reported. The reported incidents included physical assaults, vandalism, intimidation, as well as verbal abuse. For example, many incidents where reported where Muslims and members of other minority groups were pushed, kicked, hit with umbrellas or other objects, had slurs and insults thrown at them in the street, and received intimidating phone calls and death threats. In several countries mosques and other Islamic institutions were vandalized or subjected to bomb attacks or set on fire. After several months, the level of violence abated, but in many cases it remained at a considerably higher level than prior to September 11.11

In some EU and Council of Europe countries the rise in xenophobic violence was clearly intertwined with an upsurge in racist rhetoric on the part of political leaders. For example, in Italy the political elite engaged in intense anti-Islamic and anti-immigration rhetoric following September 11. In particular, the Northern League, which is a government party, publicly linked heightened security concerns to the presence of Muslims in Italy. 12 There is no doubt that the hateful language used by the Northern League to target Muslims fuelled hostility against this group.

In most other countries experiencing backlashes, the governments publicly condemned all forms of “revenge” against Muslims, and took a firm stand against any form of intolerance in the wake of September 11. However, in several cases, the governments subsequently embarked upon a political course in striking contrast to their own message by introducing new measures that disproportionately affected Muslims and other minority groups. These policies, which include arbitrary searches of homes, arrests and interrogations, profiling schemes, and tightened asylum and immigration policies, have violated the right not to be discriminated against. In addition, as the policies have appeared to be based on the assumption that people of certain backgrounds are more likely to be terrorists than others, they have bestowed legitimacy to prejudices and encouraged hostility on grounds of race, ethnicity and religion. Below, a few examples are given, all of which are discussed at length in the IHF report on human rights implications of the post-September 11 fight against terrorism.

In the United Kingdom, various measures adopted to combat terrorism in the aftermath of September 11 have particularly targeted Muslims. Above all, hundreds of Muslims have been detained on terrorism allegations, which often have been vary vague. The most controversial detentions have been undertaken under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which was adopted in December 2001 and allows for indefinite detention without charge of foreign nationals who are suspected of terrorism but who cannot be returned to their home countries. Some of those detained under this act have been detained for more than two years by now.13 Only few of those detained under other anti-terrorism legislation have been charged with terrorism-related crimes, and many have simply been released without charge.14

In Germany, thousands of Muslims have had their personal data screened since September 11 because their profiles matched certain basic criteria, foremost of which is an affiliation with Islam. Many Muslims have also had their houses searched and have been interrogated and arrested, often with little or no cause, other than that they fit the profile criteria, and sometimes involving police brutality. Muslims have, for example, been awakened from their sleep and taken in for interrogations in the middle of the night. Police have also showed disrespect for mosques as sacred places by, for example, storming them during Friday prayers.15

Following September 11, a number of EU member states have adopted new restrictive asylum and immigration policies, arguing that these are necessary to ensure the security and credibility of their immigration and asylum systems. For example, the Danish government introduced new immigration legislation in May 2002 which inter alia increased the period that non-citizens must remain in the country before they can receive a permanent residence permit from three to seven years. During this period, they are only entitled to reduced levels of welfare benefits and may have their residence permits withdrawn if the situation in the country they have fled is considered to have changed for the better. These and other amendments give rise to concern that a large number of non-citizens will be treated as second-class residents, rendering their integration into Danish society very difficult.16

Moreover, the IHF is concerned that security considerations have been allowed to dominate the elaboration of common asylum and immigration policies within the EU since September 11. By upgrading illegal immigration to a security concern of prime importance the EU has inevitably contributed to fostering the impression that all asylum seekers and immigrants are potential terrorists. The IHF is particularly concerned that recent trends indicate that the EU member states are seeking to realize the ongoing harmonization of asylum policies on the basis of the lowest common denominator rather than on the basis of rigid respect for international refugee standards. For example, the EU member states have considered excessively wide applications of the ”safe third country” rule which, if they were applied, could result in serious breaches of the principle of non-refoulement.17

Another concern of the IHF is that the increased involvement of EU countries in Central Asia following September 11 has not been accompanied by due attention to the abusive policies of the governments in the region, including highly discriminatory policies targeting Muslims and other minorities. Since September 11, the Central Asian governments have increasingly justified repressive policies to curtail political, religious and civil opposition by referring to the need to undermine radical Muslim and other “extremist” forces seeking to destabilize their countries. While EU countries have at times voiced strong criticism regarding these developments, they have failed to grasp opportunities to link improvement in the area of human rights to bilateral or multilateral assistance. In this way, they have indirectly strengthened the impression of the Central Asian governments that they have a carte blanche to curtail basic rights of minorities and other groups of citizens as long as this is done under the pretext of counteracting terrorism.18

Fight against Terrorism Needs be Reconciled with Respect for Human Rights

Terrorism clearly poses a threat to the most fundamental values of personal liberty and security. Its means are antithetical to human rights and the rule of law. As such, states have a right and obligation to ensure that those in their territory are protected from terrorist violence and that the perpetrators of such violence are brought to justice. Enormous harm and loss of life has already occurred as a result of terrorist violence, and the IHF recognizes that the threat of such violence still exists. However, the state response to terrorism can itself endanger the very freedom it seeks to protect and pose a serious threat to our security and liberty by failing to pay due attention to fundamental human rights standards.

During the post-September 11 fight against terrorism the importance of respecting human rights has often been rhetorically affirmed. However, in practice, the balancing of individual rights against the security interests of the state has tended to tip in favour of the state. International human rights norms that had been deemed beyond question prior to September 11 have suddenly become open for reconsideration, including the fundamental principle of non-discrimination. The IHF is seriously concerned about these developments, and would like to take this opportunity to remind the EU states that it is perfectly possible to counter terrorism effectively while respecting international human rights standards. In fact, measures compromising the right to freedom from racism and discrimination as well as other fundamental human rights are incompatible with a state’s efforts to achieve national security. Any anti-terrorism campaign that does not include human rights protection as a core component of its overall security strategy endangers the very values it is trying to preserve and is therefore counterproductive.

The IHF believes that, in order to ensure that states comply with international human rights standards when fighting terrorism, effective international and/or regional monitoring is absolutely essential. International mechanisms are needed to ensure that in times of crisis or perceived crisis, when governments may be blind to concerns other than security, they are not allowed to lose sight of their long-term, as well as short-term, priorities, including the protection of human rights and rule of law. In order for such mechanisms to have any deterrent effect, however, stronger international oversight and scrutiny are needed that grant substantially less deference to states opting to derogate from and limit human rights than has been the case to date.

Recommendations to the Council of Europe:

In conclusion I would like to express my appreciation for this opportunity to take part in ECRI’s anniversary events. And I would like to acknowledge with our thanks and support, the important role of ECRI in addressing the serious threats to human rights and security to which we have called attention.

1 IHF, Anti-terrorism, Security and Human Rights, April 2003.

2 UDHR, article 7.

3 “Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.”

4 ICCPR, article 4.

5 ICCPR, article 26.

6 ICCPR, article 20.

7 CERD, adopted by General Assembly Resolution 2106 (XX) of 21 December 1966, at http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/d_icerd.htm, article 5b.

8 CERD, article 2c.

9 OSCE Copenhagen document, para. 40.

10 Durban Declaration, article 85.

11 See, the chapter on Hate Crimes and Discriminatory Policies in IHF, Anti-terrorism Measures, Security and Human Rights. Compare European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, Summary Report on Islamophobia in the EU after 11 September 2001, at http://eumc.eu.int

12 The Co-operation for the Development of Emerging Countries (COSPE), Anti-Islamic Reactions in the EU after the Terror Attacks against the USA: Italy, EUMC, May 2002, at http://eumc.eu.int

13 Liberty, “Internment – detention without trial,” December 2003.

14 Islamic Human Rights Commission, “UK Rights group condemns police and media hype over alleged terrorism arrests”, November 28, 2003.

15 Information from Dr. Nadeem Elyas, chair of the Cantral Council of Muslims in Germany, per telephone March 10, 2003. See also comments by the Council in: Ruth Ziesinger and Jost Müller-Neuhof, “Die Leute werden nachts aus den Betten geholt”, Der Tagesspiegel, 16 October 2001; and “Intergration in Gefahr”, Die Tageszeitung, 16 October 2001.

16 Compare UNHCR’s comments on the Draft Bill on amending the Aliens’ Act, the Marriage Act and other Acts, March 2002.

17 Amnesty International – EU Office, “Amnesty International Open Letter to the Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform,” January 20, 2004; European Council for Refugees and Exiles, “Memorandum to the Irish Presidency – Countdown for the Amsterdam Treaty Deadline: ECRE’s Recommendations for an EU Asylum Policy,” January 2004.

18 Compare Bruce Pannier, “Central Asia: six months after – human rights seen as backtracking”, RFE/RL, 12 March 2002. In this article a number of human rights advocates with regional expertise are quoted as saying that the Central Asian republics have interpreted their involvement in the international war on terrorism to mean that they enjoy new leeway in terms of their domestic policies. See also Yevgeniy Zhovtis, director of Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, “11th September: Consequences for Human Rights in Central Asia”, January 2002. In this article the author discusses, in particular, how the Central Asian regimes have monopolized the right to define what extremist and radical activities are.