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Homeland Security

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Promotion, Protection of Human Rights, Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism, 21 October 2011

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

While it was crucial that States comply with their human rights obligations while fighting terrorism, the suffering of its victims and the prevention of terrorist acts must also receive attention from a human rights perspective, a United Nations expert told the correspondents at Headquarters this morning.

“Any sound, sustainable and comprehensive strategy for combating terrorism requires the recognition of the suffering of the victims of terrorist acts and a framework for developing the core obligations of States towards victims,” said Ben Emmerson, the new Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, following his presentation yesterday of the annual report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian, Cultural) (See Press Release GA/SHC/4016).

It was Mr. Emmerson’s first report since taking up the functions on his mandate, which was created in 2005 by the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights and renewed by its successor body, the Human Rights Council, for a three year period in September 2010.

From a human rights point of view, he said, national frameworks should include prevention and investigation of terrorist acts, along with reparations for victims. In the course of prevention, he added, it was important to address human rights violations that were conducive to the spread of terrorism. In that light, he intended to adopt in his work the principles of Security Council resolution 1963 (2011), which affirmed that States could not defeat terrorism by intelligence, military and law enforcement measures alone, but by addressing underlying causes as well.

While addressing such concerns, he affirmed, the core of his mandate would remain State accountability for human rights violations in the investigation, prosecution and punishment of those alleged to have engaged in the preparation, instigation or commission of acts of terrorism.

Asked to further reconcile the priorities he had stated, Mr. Emmerson said that the top priorities for his mandate and for all of the United Nations organs concerned with counter‑terrorism was to bring about measures that had genuine impact on preventing future acts of terrorist violence. He did not wish to become mired in a debate about whether acts of terrorism committed by non‑State actors were properly classifiable as human rights violations. From the point of view of the victim, it was as clear as it could be that their human rights had been violated.

Effective and accountable counter‑terrorism measures, he said, served the cause of human rights protection. It was a primary obligation of States to provide protection to its citizens and those within their jurisdiction. For that reason, he saw absolutely no conflict, in principle, between the effective protection of human rights in countering terrorism and the ultimate objective of reducing terrorist acts around the world.

Asked which States had the worst record of violations in the context of fighting terrorism, he said it was difficult to say because there was no standard calculus; violations were measured differently and levels of transparency varied between States. Most States involved in fighting terrorism, however, in the past 10 years had, in one form or another, used measures that were incompatible with fundamental human rights, which then could feed into grievances that influenced the commission of future terrorist acts.

He said that his predecessor, Martin Scheinin, was able to develop universal propositions of best practice for States on the matter drawn from across the world because the problems arose in common. “What one sees are patterns of violations,” he said.

He said that Mr. Sheinin’s standards of best practice covered all aspects of the investigation, prosecution and punishment of those suspected of being involved in acts of terrorism and included supervision and democratic oversight of intelligence services, fair trial standards and also addressed a range of administrative measures including suppression of speech, as well as recognizing a need for systems of compensation both for victims of terrorist acts and for the victims of human rights abuses committed in the course of the war against terror. He intended to build on his predecessor’s work during his tenure

If there was one over‑arching principle in the mandate, it was that the concept of terrorism should not be abused by an overbroad definition by States that wanted to silence criticism of State policy. For that reason, he said, a core foundation principle was the development of a workable, legal definition of terrorism that was descriptive of the act and its intentions. An important part of his function was to review national legislation and definitions of terrorism for that purpose.

Finally asked about planned country visits, he said that there was an agreement in the works with Burkina Faso, and added that Thailand had also extended an invitation. Requests to visit a number of countries in the Middle East were still outstanding. The Government of Egypt had indicated, however, that once the transitional processes there had taken root, serious consideration would be given. He would also report on his predecessor’s visit to Tunisia in his next report to the Human Rights Council.

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