Security should not contradict human rights
During his visit to Egypt in August, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that, while there was concern over human rights in Egypt, the United States continues to back Egypt in its war on terrorism.
A month later, Russia started its war on terror in Syria and, in November, terrorism struck in Paris. European politicians picked up the cue and began talking about making security the top priority even at the expense of human rights.
In a similar train of events between March and November, Tunisia experienced its deadliest terrorist attacks yet. Human rights advocates at the time were adamant in their refusal of any constraint on freedoms under the guise of fighting terrorism even if the latter dealt serious blows to tourism and investment in the country.
But as soon as terrorist attacks spread to Europe and the United States, a totally different approach to the issue of human rights was in vogue, which makes one wonder whether the debate over the universality versus the specificity of human rights is settled. It also begs the question of how to deal with human rights within the context of the war on terrorism.
No one will question that the basic freedoms protected by Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are a necessary prerequisite for the exercise of citizenship. In exceptional circumstances, however, such as during periods of insecurity and uncertainty due to acts of terror, Article 4 is handled with extreme caution.
During those times, the primacy of national security becomes the rule and granting more freedoms the exception.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States implemented a battery of security measures that encroached on a number of basic freedoms. Thus, wiretaps have become quite common. Numerous suspects were apprehended and held prisoners at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for years without trial.
It is unclear how US authorities are going to deal with the aftermath of the massacre of December 2nd in California. The Obama administration warned against threats to national security emanating from the rights of citizens to own guns, including high-powered assault weapons.
In France, the terrorist attacks of November 13th produced a sharp rise in xenophobic sentiments. The French newspaper Le Figaro reports that 84% of French citizens polled said they would accept constraints on their freedoms in exchange for increasing their security. Others do not consider such drastic measures as eliminating dual nationalities and denying refuge and visas to people suspected of participating in terrorist activities as violations of human rights. Only a few among the French political class were opposed to these measures.
Theoretically, all human rights associations believe in and defend the universality of human rights. Advanced nations go along with this belief in times of peace but often do not see a problem with limiting these same rights in times of conflicts or wars as a prevention measure. To do so, some states invoke political or cultural or even security specificities. Often, the universality and specificity of human rights complement each other, but in many cases they contradict each other.
Human rights during the coming years will veer towards specificity rather than universality as countries continue to come to grips with the threat of terrorism and other security problems.
But then for the security situation to improve, a new cohabitation pact must be found in which human rights are exercised and enjoyed equally and fairly among all people regardless of their colour, religion, race or language.