Office of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights


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“The promotion and protection of human rights for all and the rule of law is essential to all components of the Strategy, recognizing that effective counter-terrorism measures and the promotion of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing”

United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy
(General Assembly resolution 60/288, annex)



The human cost of terrorism has been felt in virtually every corner of the globe. The United Nations family has itself suffered tragic human loss as a result of violent terrorist acts. The attack on its offices in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 claimed the lives of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other men and women, and injured over 150 others, some very seriously.

Terrorism clearly has a very real and direct impact on human rights, with devastating consequences for the enjoyment of the right to life, liberty and physical integrity of victims. In addition to these individual costs, terrorism can destabilize Governments, undermine civil society, jeopardize peace and security, and threaten social and economic development. All of these also have a real impact on the enjoyment of human rights.

Security of the individual is a basic human right and the protection of individuals is, accordingly, a fundamental obligation of Government. States therefore have an obligation to ensure the human rights of their nationals and others by taking positive measures to protect them against the threat of terrorist acts and bringing the perpetrators of such acts to justice.

In recent years, however, the measures adopted by States to counter terrorism have themselves often posed serious challenges to human rights and the rule of law. Some States have engaged in torture and other ill-treatment to counter terrorism, while the legal and practical safeguards available to prevent torture, such as regular and independent monitoring of detention centres, have often been disregarded. Other States have returned persons suspected of engaging in terrorist activities to countries where they face a real risk of torture or other serious human rights abuse, thereby violating the international legal obligation of non-refoulement. The independence of the judiciary has been undermined, in some places, while the use of exceptional courts to try civilians has had an impact on the effectiveness of regular court systems. Repressive measures have been used to stifle the voices of human rights defenders, journalists, minorities, indigenous groups and civil society. Resources normally allocated to social programmes and development assistance have been diverted to the security sector, affecting the economic, social and cultural rights of many.

These practices, particularly when taken together, have a corrosive effect on the rule of law, good governance and human rights. They are also counterproductive to national and international efforts to combat terrorism.

Respect for human rights and the rule of law must be the bedrock of the global fight against terrorism. This requires the development of national counter-terrorism strategies that seek to prevent acts of terrorism, prosecute those responsible for such criminal acts, and promote and protect human rights and the rule of law. It implies measures to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, including the lack of rule of law and violations of human rights, ethnic, national and religious discrimination, political exclusion, and socio-economic marginalization; to foster the active participation and leadership of civil society; to condemn human rights violations, prohibit them in national law, promptly investigate and prosecute them, and prevent them; and to give due attention to the rights of victims of human rights violations, for instance through restitution and compensation.

This Fact Sheet has been prepared with the aim of strengthening understanding of the complex and multifaceted relationship between human rights and terrorism. It identifies some of the critical human rights issues raised in the context of terrorism and highlights the relevant human rights principles and standards which must be respected at all times and in particular in the context of counter-terrorism.

It is addressed to State authorities, national and international non­governmental organizations (NGOs), national human rights institutions, legal practitioners and individuals concerned with ensuring the protection and promotion of human rights in the context of terrorism and counter­terrorism.

Specifically, the Fact Sheet is intended to:

  • Raise awareness of the impact of terrorism and counter-terrorism on the enjoyment of all human rights;
  • Provide a practical tool for practitioners dealing with terrorism, counter-terrorism measures and human rights;
  • Provide guidance on ensuring compliance with human rights when countering terrorism;
  • Illustrate specific human rights challenges in countering terrorism.

This chapter sets out the human rights framework before examining the impact that terrorism has on human rights. It then addresses the relation­ship between terrorism, human rights and other relevant international legal provisions.

  1. What are human rights?
  2. The nature of human rights

Human rights are universal values and legal guarantees that protect individuals and groups against actions and omissions primarily by State agents that interfere with fundamental freedoms, entitlements and human dignity. The full spectrum of human rights involves respect for, and protection and fulfilment of, civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, as well as the right to development. Human rights are uni­versal—in other words, they belong inherently to all human beings—and are interdependent and indivisible.1

  1. International human rights law

International human rights law is reflected in a number of core international human rights treaties and in customary international law.

These treaties include in particular the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols. Other core universal human rights treaties are the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its Optional Protocol; the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its Optional Protocol; the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its two Optional Protocols; and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The most recent are the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, which were all adopted in December 2006. There is a growing body of subject-specific treaties and protocols as well as various regional treaties on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

International human rights law is not limited to the enumeration of rights within treaties, but also includes rights and freedoms that have become part of customary international law, which means that they bind all States even if they are not party to a particular treaty. Many of the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are widely regarded to hold this character. The Human Rights Committee has similarly observed, in its general comments N° 24 (1994) and N° 29 (2001), that some rights in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights reflect norms of customary international law. Furthermore, some rights are recognized as having a special status as norms of jus cogens (peremptory norms of customary international law), which means that there are no circumstances whatsoever in which derogation from them is permissible. The prohibitions of torture, slavery, genocide, racial discrimination and crimes against humanity, and the right to self-determination are widely recognized as peremptory norms, as reflected in the International Law Commission’s articles on State responsibility. The International Law Commission also lists the basic rules of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflict as examples of peremptory norms.2 Similarly, the Human Rights Committee has referred to arbitrary deprivation of life, torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage-taking, collective punishment, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and violations of certain due process rights as non-derogable, while the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in its Statement on racial discrimination and measures to combat terrorism, has confirmed the principle of non­discrimination as a norm of jus cogens.

  1. The nature of States’ obligations under international human rights law

Human rights law obliges States, primarily, to do certain things and prevents them from doing others. States have a duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. Respect for human rights primarily involves not interfering with their enjoyment. Protection is focused on taking positive steps to ensure that others do not interfere with the enjoyment of rights. The fulfilment of human rights requires States to adopt appropriate measures, including legislative, judicial, administrative or educative measures, in order to fulfil their legal obligations. A State party may be found responsible for interference by private persons or entities in the enjoyment of human rights if it has failed to exercise due diligence in protecting against such acts. For example, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, State parties have an obligation to take positive measures to ensure that private persons or entities do no inflict torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment on others within their power.

Human rights law also places a responsibility on States to provide effective remedies in the event of violations.3

Those human rights that are part of customary international law are applicable to all States.4 In the case of human rights treaties, those States that are party to a particular treaty have obligations under that treaty. There are various mechanisms for enforcing these obligations, including the evaluation by treaty-monitoring bodies of a State’s compliance with certain treaties and the ability of individuals to complain about the violation of their rights to international bodies. Moreover, and particularly relevant to a number of human rights challenges in countering terrorism, all Members of the United Nations are obliged to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the United Nations for the achievement of the purposes set out in Article 55 of its Charter, including universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

A key question is the territorial reach of a State’s international human rights obligations. The nature of the general legal obligation of States parties in this respect is addressed in article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As confirmed by the Human Rights Committee in its general comment N° 31 (2004), this obligation on States to ensure Covenant rights to all persons within their territory and subject to their jurisdiction means that a State party must ensure such rights to anyone within its power or effective control, even if not situated within its territory. Furthermore, the enjoyment of international human rights is not limited to the citizens of States parties but must be available to all individuals, regardless of nationality or statelessness, such as asylum-seekers and refugees. In an advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice has, similarly, concluded that “the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is applicable in respect of acts done by a State in the exercise of its jurisdiction outside its own territory.” It reached the same conclusion with regard to the applicability of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.5

  1. What is terrorism?

Terrorism is commonly understood to refer to acts of violence that target civilians in the pursuit of political or ideological aims. In legal terms, although the international community has yet to adopt a comprehensive definition of terrorism, existing declarations, resolutions and universal “sectoral” treaties relating to specific aspects of it define certain acts and core elements. In 1994, the General Assembly’s Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism, set out in its resolution 49/60, stated that terrorism includes “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes” and that such acts “are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them.”

Ten years later, the Security Council, in its resolution 1566 (2004), referred to “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act”. Later that year, the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change described terrorism as any action that is “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non­combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act” and identified a number of key elements, with further reference to the definitions contained in the 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004).6

The General Assembly is currently working towards the adoption of a comprehensive convention against terrorism, which would complement the existing sectoral anti-terrorism conventions. Its draft article 2 contains a definition of terrorism which includes “unlawfully and intentionally” causing, attempting or threatening to cause: “(a) death or serious bodily injury to any person; or (b) serious damage to public or private property, including a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system, an infrastructure facility or the environment; or (c) damage to property, places, facilities, or systems…, resulting or likely to result in major economic loss, when the purpose of the conduct, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” The draft article further defines as an offence participating as an accomplice, organizing or directing others, or contributing to the commission of such offences by a group of persons acting with a common purpose. While Member States have agreed on many provisions of the draft comprehensive convention, diverging views on whether or not national liberation movements should be excluded from its scope of application have impeded consensus on the adoption of the full text. Negotiations continue. Many States define terrorism in national law in ways that draw to differing degrees on these elements.

Specific challenges related to the definition of terrorism and the principle of legality are addressed in further detail in chapter III, section G.

  1. The impact of terrorism on human rights

Terrorism aims at the very destruction of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It attacks the values that lie at the heart of the Charter of the United Nations and other international instruments: respect for human rights; the rule of law; rules governing armed conflict and the protection of civilians; tolerance among peoples and nations; and the peaceful resolution of conflict.

Terrorism has a direct impact on the enjoyment of a number of human rights, in particular the rights to life, liberty and physical integrity. Terrorist acts can destabilize Governments, undermine civil society, jeopardize peace and security, threaten social and economic development, and may especially negatively affect certain groups. All of these have a direct impact on the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

The destructive impact of terrorism on human rights and security has been recognized at the highest level of the United Nations, notably by the Security Council, the General Assembly, the former Commission on Human Rights and the new Human Rights Council.7 Specifically, Member States have set out that terrorism:

  • Threatens the dignity and security of human beings everywhere, endangers or takes innocent lives, creates an environment that destroys the freedom from fear of the people, jeopardizes fundamental freedoms, and aims at the destruction of human rights;
  • Has an adverse effect on the establishment of the rule of law, undermines pluralistic civil society, aims at the destruction of the democratic bases of society, and destabilizes legitimately constituted Governments;
  • Has links with transnational organized crime, drug trafficking, money-laundering and trafficking in arms, as well as illegal transfers of nuclear, chemical and biological materials, and is linked to the consequent commission of serious crimes such as murder, extortion, kidnapping, assault, hostage-taking and robbery;
  • Has adverse consequences for the economic and social development of States, jeopardizes friendly relations among States, and has a pernicious impact on relations of cooperation among States, including cooperation for development; and
  • Threatens the territorial integrity and security of States, constitutes a grave violation of the purpose and principles of the United Nations, is a threat to international peace and security, and must be suppressed as an essential element for the maintenance of international peace and security.

International and regional human rights law makes clear that States have both a right and a duty to protect individuals under their jurisdiction from terrorist attacks. This stems from the general duty of States to protect individuals under their jurisdiction against interference in the enjoyment of human rights. More specifically, this duty is recognized as part of States’ obligations to ensure respect for the right to life and the right to security.

The right to life, which is protected under international and regional human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has been described as “the supreme right”8 because without its effective guarantee, all other human rights would be without meaning.9 As such, there is an obligation on the part of the State to protect the right to life of every person within its territory10 and no derogation from this right is permitted, even in times of public emergency. The protection of the right to life includes an obligation on States to take all appropriate and necessary steps to safeguard the lives of those within their jurisdiction. As part of this obligation, States must put in place effective criminal justice and law enforcement systems, such as measures to deter the commission of offences and investigate violations where they occur; ensure that those suspected of criminal acts are prosecuted; provide victims with effective remedies; and take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations.11 In addition, international and regional human rights law has recognized that, in specific circumstances, States have a positive obligation to take preventive operational measures to protect an individual or individuals whose life is known or suspected to be at risk from the criminal acts of another individual,12 which certainly includes terrorists. Also important to highlight is the obligation on States to ensure the personal security of individuals under their jurisdiction where a threat is known or suspected to exist.13 This, of course, includes terrorist threats.

In order to fulfil their obligations under human rights law to protect the life and security of individuals under their jurisdiction, States have a right and a duty to take effective counter-terrorism measures, to prevent and deter future terrorist attacks and to prosecute those that are responsible for carrying out such acts. At the same time, the countering of terrorism poses grave challenges to the protection and promotion of human rights. As part of States’ duty to protect individuals within their jurisdiction, all measures taken to combat terrorism must themselves also comply with States’ obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law.

  1. Accountability and the human rights of victims

From a human rights perspective, support for victims in the context of terrorism is a paramount concern. While efforts immediately following the events of 11 September 2001 largely failed to give due consideration to the human rights of victims, there is increasing recognition of the need for the international community to take fully into account the human rights of all victims of terrorism. In the 2005 World Summit Outcome (General Assembly resolution 60/1), for example, Member States stressed “the importance of assisting victims of terrorism and of providing them and their families with support to cope with their loss and their grief.” Similarly, the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy reflects the pledge by Member States to “promote international solidarity in support of victims and foster the involvement of civil society in a global campaign against terrorism and for its condemnation.”

In addressing the needs of victims of terrorism, consideration must be given to the distinction between victims of crime, on the one hand, and victims of human rights violations, on the other. While this distinction is not always clear-cut, it is important to note that, in most cases, terrorist-related acts will be addressed as criminal offences committed by individuals and a State will not, in principle, be responsible for the illegal conduct itself. Acts constituting human rights violations are committed primarily by organs or persons in the name of, or on behalf of, the State. In some circumstances, however, the State may be responsible for the acts of private individuals that may constitute a violation of international human rights law.

While a comprehensive analysis of the needs of victims of crime and human rights violations in the context of terrorism, and of responses to those needs, is beyond the scope of this publication, several basic principles should be underscored. In particular, international and regional standards with regard to victims of crime and victims of gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law may be instructive in addressing the needs of victims of terrorism.14 Certain provisions of the universal treaties relating to specific aspects of terrorism are also relevant to addressing the situations of victims of terrorism.

According to the Declaration on Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power, set out in General Assembly resolution 40/34, victims include “persons who, individually or collectively, have suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that are in violation of criminal laws operative within Member States, including those laws proscribing criminal abuse of power.” Importantly, the Declaration notes that an individual may be considered a victim “regardless of whether the perpetrator is identified, apprehended, prosecuted or convicted and regardless of the familial relationship between the perpetrator and the victim”. The term victim may include “the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim, as well as persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimization.”

The Declaration further outlines the minimum standards for the treatment of these victims according to several basic principles of justice. These require that victims should:

  • Be treated with compassion and respect for their dignity;
  • Be informed about, and have their views and concerns presented at, legal proceedings;
  • Be entitled to proper assistance throughout the legal process;
  • Be protected against intimidation and retaliation;
  • Have their privacy protected;
  • Be offered the opportunity to participate in informal mechanisms for the resolution of disputes, including mediation;
  • Enjoy restitution and compensation, as appropriate; and
  • Receive the necessary material, medical, psychological and social assistance.

The Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights

Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, adopted in 2005 by the General Assembly in its resolution 60/147, underscore the need for victims to be treated with humanity and respect for their dignity and human rights, and emphasize that appropriate measures should be taken to ensure their safety, physical and psychological well-being and privacy, as well as those of their families. The Basic Principles and Guidelines also outline remedies to be made available to victims of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. These include the victim’s right to equal and effective access to justice, effective and prompt reparation for harm suffered, and access to relevant information concerning the violations and reparation mechanisms. More specifically, they outline certain obligations on States to provide reparation to victims for acts or omissions which can be attributed to the State and constitute gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law, and to establish national programmes for reparation and other assistance to victims, if the parties liable for the harm suffered are unable or unwilling to meet their obligations.