Human Rights versus Self-Defense in the Context of International Terrorism



Katrina Rannala


At the end of the Second World War, setting international standards of rights that all human beings are entitled to without discrimination, was at the top of the agenda for the newly formed United Nations. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, marked the beginning of a new era in the protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of all peoples, regardless of race, gender, language or religion. The movement for the protection of human rights arose as a result of the atrocities committed against humankind in the Second World War and alongside the establishment of the United Nations, and both were viewed, “as a means to a better world” (Aggelen, 2000, p.130). The United Nations has since created numerous subcommittees and positions, charged with the task of regulating human rights in all nations, setting new standards and alerting the Secretariat and General Assembly of human rights violations. These committees include the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.


From the time when the idea of the United Nations was first conceived, the United States under the leadership of President Harry Truman was one of its greatest supporters and formed the strongest voice pushing for the adoption of a set of international human rights standards. From that point, the US has outwardly remained as a leader in the development of international human rights laws and treaties and in the promotion of peaceful global conflict resolution. However, with the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001 and the Bush administration, the situation has been drastically altered. The United States has become increasingly powerful as a nation, politically, economically and militarily, which it is well aware of. The attitude of the US with the UN has been anything but friendly in recent years and their relationship has remained intact only because they each require the global influence of the other.


Many critics argue that the US no longer feels that it should be subject to the authority of an international governing body and that international terrorism has completely changed the way in which wars are fought and the global community interacts. One of the ways in which this has manifested itself is in the apparent disregard of human rights standards in the treatment of terrorist suspects and for initiating military action in both Afghanistan and Iraq without the approval of the UN Security Council. The US has been condemned by many organizations for its involvement in Afghanistan, as well as its invasion of and the human rights violations in Iraq, yet the US fails to show any real move to justify or get approval for its actions. The US has become more hypocritical in its support of international human rights standards as it is becoming a more noticeable violator of them. Where previous presidents and administrations were more covert, Bush is much less secretive and apologetic about the violations of both the UN Charter and human rights and is less willing to play by the rules in order to appease the international community and UN.


The UN has not shown itself to be an effective international organization or human rights regulatory body in the cases of the US and its War on Terror, in that it has allowed the US to take on the role as the leader of the coalition of nations fighting against terrorism, when it should be filling that position itself. It must be asked why an organization as powerful as the UN, which has a great amount of international support, should be so intimidated by the United States? This paper will aim to assess how the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the US lead War on Terror have altered adherence to the UN Charter and human rights standards. This will be discussed in terms of the United States making use of international terrorism in order to justify its military action in both Afghanistan and Iraq, when the legality of both is highly debatable. The US is able to seemingly get away with human rights violations by stating that they are necessary in order to protect the American people from the threat of terrorism and help maintain international peace and security. It will also be examined if a nation’s right of self-defense in the specific context of international terrorism trumps human rights standards and the UN Charter.