Government leaders across the world have relied on overbroad, self-serving definitions of "terrorism" to craft counterterrorism policies that could lead to the repression of basic human rights like freedom of speech, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The study, called "Counterterrorism Measures and Civil Society," reported an "alarming rise" in restrictions imposed on citizens to curb their freedoms in the name of national security. Though this trend first became prevalent in the direct aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the report says civic space "has diminished more rapidly" in recent years.
"What we are seeing as an epidemic across the globe … is an epidemic of loose, vague, and highly problematic definitions of terrorism," Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, said Thursday during a CSIS event in Washington.
"The result is that the term ‘terrorist' or ‘extremist' is increasingly defined in many countries as those who simply dissent, those who disagree, those who offer oppositional views, those who challenge the purity or ethnic composition of the state, or those who simply do not fit in with prevailing political discourses and are then ousted from the protection of the state."
The report provides six case studies of governments in Australia, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Hungary, and India misusing the pretext of national security to limit human rights or to crackdown on activists.
In Bahrain, where mutual distrust percolates between the ruling Sunni Muslims and the Shia population, the government has criminalized participation in peaceful protests it deems disruptive to public order and dissolved the country's opposition political parties in the name of counterterrorism following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
In a 2017 State Department report, the United States said Bahrain's "politicization of [counterterrorism] issues threatens to conflate legitimate prosecutions of militants with politically motivated actions against the mainstream, nonviolent opposition and Shia community."
Aoláin said this type of crackdown is counterproductive to legitimate counterterrorism efforts.
"There is little doubt … that human rights violations are at the heart of the conditions conducive to the production of terrorism and the rationales that produce politically motivated violence in the first place," Aoláin said.
"The irony here is as states say they want to prevent terrorism, these actions in fact do precisely the opposite. We know empirically that what these actions do is create alienation, anomy, and the fertilization of the ground within which the conditions of terrorism thrive."