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55th Session of the Human Rights Council: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis/Guardian/The Guardian

55th Session of the Human Rights Council: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

12th March, 2024
Elena Vallejo
Team UN Geneva Researcher,
Global Human Rights Defence.

The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Mr. Ben Saul, is presenting himself to the Council for the first time and clarified that the two reports and the visits they cover were carried out by his predecessor, Ms. Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin. He will defend them before the council. The rapporteur presented two reports, one with reference A/HRC/55/48/Add.1 on the visit of the rapporteur to Bosnia Herzegovina and the other with reference A/HRC/55/48/Add.2 on the visit to Germany and North Macedonia.
In his intervention, the Rapporteur highlighted the need for the development of effective and harmonised laws to combat terrorism and which respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. He alarmed that in recent years anti-terrorism legislation has been developed and misused to attack freedom of expression, association and legitimate dissent. In part, it considers that the lack of an international definition of the concept of terrorism, as well as of the concept of violent extremism, contributes to such “broad interpretations” and double standards and urges the international community to make progress on this issue.
He also holds the UN somewhat responsible for having demanded across the board that all countries fight hard against terrorism without taking into account whether countries could meet minimum standards of respect for human rights.
He stressed the importance that states be held accountable for abuses and that the victims of these excessive counter-terrorism laws must be compensated and acknowledged and that mechanisms for non-repetition should be implemented.
Both the report on the visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the report on the visit to Germany and North Macedonia deal with the situation of national fighters from these countries who travelled to Syria and Irak to join terrorist groups, mostly Daesh. It appreciates the cooperation of all countries concerned and underlines the political will of these countries to carry out the necessary investigation, repatriation, prosecution and rehabilitation processes in accordance with international law, the rule of law, the principle of legality and in line with human rights.
Bosnia-Herzegovina as a concerned country highlighted the difficult situation in its country as the largest source of terrorism in Europe for the last thirty years, with more than 20 active groups working in the country and Bosnian citizens having actively participated in attacks such as 9/11 and 11M, among others. They believe it is a result of the Bosnian-Croat war, where many jihadists joined the ranks to fight against the Croats. They believe that despite the dismantling of the units, many Bosnians were influenced by these ideologies, especially in countries with more extreme Islamist ideologies and linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In their intervention they clarified that in the past it was possible that the government of their country may not have had sufficient political will to eradicate this situation. They argued that under previous criminal legislation some of those involved in terrorism were sentenced to very light penalties and even fines, as was the case with terrorist financing.
In Germany’s intervention as a concerned country, they stressed their commitment to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms in the fight against terrorism and indicated that they are focused on the return and prosecution of citizens from northern Syria and Iraq, they are aware of the importance of repatriating nationals from conflict zones. Regarding the report, they indicated that they do not have verifiable data on the exact number of German nationals in these camps. Regarding the gender disproportion, they point out that this is due to factual reasons, as many more men died in battle.

With regard to the intervention of North Macedonia, they are presented as one of the countries that defended the repatriation of nationals in conflict zones and consider that they have demonstrated that it is viable and necessary to ensure respect for human rights. They advocate the creation of national strategies by multi-sectoral bodies to counter violent extremism.

On the intervention of regional groups, the EU urged cooperation with the mandate and that countries should allow the rapporteur to visit their countries. It insisted that the fight against terrorism must be compatible with human rights, conducted with transparency, accountability and in accordance with the rule of law.

Qatar, on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council reiterated the rejection of terrorism and extremism in any form. They underlined their support for international efforts in the fight against terrorism and its sources of financing. They stressed the importance of also combating root causes, in clear reference to the situation of occupation by foreign powers.

The Gambia, on behalf of the African Group, stressed that the effort and commitment of the African continent in the fight against terrorism has intensified in recent years and stressed the importance of multi-sectoral approaches in the measures taken in accordance with the principle of self-determination and sovereignty. They also referred to the use of new technologies in the fight against terrorism and the importance of respecting human rights.
In her intervention, the UNICEF representative defended the fact that children used by terrorist groups are victims of these groups and often of their own families, and insisted that they should not be criminalized or prosecuted, but protected through repatriation and rehabilitation programmes in accordance with the principle of the best interests of the child. This reference is very important because of the number of minors who were taken by their families to Syria and Iraq or were even born already in these places and under the influence of the Islamic State.
Many countries, including France, insisted on the need to carry out these repatriation programmes to prosecute adults and rehabilitate minors, with humanistic values and a focus on recognition and respect for the victims. The United States stressed the importance of counter-terrorism laws that respect fundamental freedoms, especially freedom of expression and freedom of religion. It also stressed the great effort being made by the current administration to close Guantánamo, highlighting the visit to Guantánamo by the predecessor in the rapporteurship and the transfer of prisoners. The rapporteur himself subsequently highlighted this effort. Contrary to Russia’s opinion, which considers that the United States is ignoring the international community’s demands to close the prison, and calls for the situation to be assessed objectively and impartially by the rapporteur and other UN mechanisms.
Israel in its intervention referred to the 7 October attacks and insisted again that there is no alternative, either pursue Hamas or disappear. They undertook to behave in accordance with international law. In his reply, the Special Rapporteur expressed his solidarity with the victims and hostages of 7 October, but also stressed that the international framework is very clear and that he and other rapporteurs consider that Israel is not paying sufficient respect to civilians in the fight against terrorism. He offers his technical assistance in this regard and is open to collaboration. The representative of the State of Palestine described Israel’s actions as terrorist, using killing, bombing and starvation against civilians and asked the forum how they would respond to colonization, possibly justifying the acts carried out by Hamas.
In its intervention, China stressed that it shares the priorities of the Special Rapporteur and urges him to carry out his mandate in an impartial manner. They argued that they have taken steps to harmonize their view of the rule of law with international principles and that any discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or origin is prohibited. The reference to their vision of the rule of law and the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is striking, given the repressive situation of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang and other oppressed minorities accused of terrorism.
As for the representatives from Afghanistan present in the room, dissidents of the Taliban regime, they alarmed about the deteriorating situation in their country, with reprisals against former government agents and their families, the rise of madrassas and the radicalization of minors. They consider terrorism as a major threat to international peace and security and consider it a serious precedent that it is the terrorists themselves, as de facto ruling forces, who have the obligation to fight terrorism and protect the population from terrorism.
Some NGOs drew attention to the use of new technologies, both espionages, with programmes such as pegasus, electronic surveillance measures, facial recognition, among others, used to restrict freedom of expression and illegally control human rights defenders and political leaders under the pretext of the fight against terrorism, as in the case of political leaders in Catalonia, Spain. The rapporteur defended the importance of the development of national and international regulation.
In his last intervention, the rapporteur made reference to the fact that the day of commemoration of the victims of terrorism is being celebrated and that it is the 20th anniversary of the 11m terrorist attack in Madrid.

He also raised the alarm about the continued use of terrorist financing laws against civil society, which prevent many NGOs from prospering. He insisted that a review of these laws is necessary so that they fulfil their purpose, but do not restrict public freedoms and legitimate organizations.

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