From Paris to Peshawar: Answer with Human Rights

January 8, 2015


Yesterday, gunmen attacked the Paris office of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. In Peshawar last month, at least 142 people—including 132 children—were killed by Taliban militants at a military-run school. These are just two of scores of attacks by armed individuals and groups that have occurred over the last year.

There is no question that these attacks must be unequivocally condemned not just as tragedies, but as human rights abuses. In Paris, Amnesty International France called yesterday’s attack “an atrocity that sought to kill journalists, suppress freedom of expression and sow fear.”

Yet in the wake of attacks, all too often governments respond by sidelining human rights: treating attacks as cause to abandon human rights principles as irrelevant; and citing national security as they deny basic human rights protections.

In Pakistan, for instance, the government has restarted executions for terrorism-related offenses, abandoning a six-year unofficial moratorium on the death penalty. In the United States, Guantanamo is nearing its grim 13th anniversary, with detainees kept prisoner by the politics of fear and a “forever war” mentality.

The problem is global, local and nearly constant. Abusive governments around the world exploit public anxiety and insecurity to justify abuse:  police crack down on protestors, security forces lock up dissidents, and governments use surveillance and discriminatory measures to target minority groups for repression. Governments attack basic human freedoms—from the right to life to the right to privacy—in the name of peace and security.

This wildly perverse approach–your government commits abuses, it claims, to end abuses by others — is not only short-sighted and wrong. It’s a notion the world rejected more than 65 years ago when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in recognition that “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

In the face of abuses—whether by government or non-government actors–human rights provide answers and a path forward.

  • It is imperative that those responsible for unlawful killings and other violations be brought to justice in fair trials and without recourse to the death penalty.
  • Where armed groups operate, the government also owes effective protection to civilians and must minimize the risk that armed attacks will be repeated.
  • Governments, including the U.S. government, must abandon claims that they can evade or ignore human rights obligations whenever they decide the circumstances warrant it. Instead, they should recognize that respect for the rule of law and human rights are the fundamental basis for countering attacks by armed groups.