The big question: Can war on terror respect human rights?

Tuesday November 26 2013

Kenyan Soldiers during a training exercise organised by the Danish Navy under the Nato Ocean Shield for Anti Piracy operations along the Indian Ocean. Navy officers from three East African countries went through the training.

Kenyan Soldiers during a training exercise organised by the Danish Navy under the Nato Ocean Shield for Anti Piracy operations along the Indian Ocean. Navy officers from three East African countries went through the training.  Photo/KEVIN ODIT

Everyone is worried about stopping terrorism”, Noam Chomsky once said.

“Well, there’s really an easy way: Stop participating in it!”

The American philosopher might not have known it at the time he uttered those words, but the one thing that has proven a headache for this generation is how to stop terror.

And, in conversations among security experts and human rights crusaders, the line between terrorism and defence tends to get blurred.

Your terrorist, the argument goes, could be someone else’s freedom fighter.

Kenya — and indeed the whole of East Africa — today finds itself smack in the middle of that tricky position of balancing the war on terror and respect of human rights.

Its geo-political position in the region means it is an attractive place to set up proxy detention sites where terrorism suspects are interrogated before being transferred to secret prisons around the world.


And a report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, presented to the UN General Assembly in September, is likely to cause more friction in these parts as it casts a spotlight on the killing of civilians by drones.

On the firing line of the rights crusaders is America, which is accused of using its naval vessels as secret detention sites.

American research analyst Stephen Lendman, writing for Global Research, says Reprieve, a UK-based organisation that promotes the rule of law and accountability, revealed in June 2008 that America “may have used as many as 17 ships as floating prisons”.

“Suspects are lawlessly abducted. They’re denied all rights.

They’re held secretly at US black sites. Confessions are extracted through torture.

Detainees say anything to stop pain,” Lendman claims.


Probably it is because of these allegations, and the fact that the war on terror is increasingly getting more complicated and sophisticated, that earlier this year the UN decided to send a special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism to examine CIA and Pentagon covert drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Ben Emmerson presented his findings to the UN General Assembly in September, and says his team identified “33 sample remotely piloted aircraft strikes that appear to have resulted in civilian casualties”.

“While the fact that civilians have been killed or injured does not necessarily point to a violation of international humanitarian law,” says Emmerson, “it undoubtedly raises issues of accountability and transparency.”

Drones are unmanned aircraft either controlled by “pilots” from the ground or programmed to fly over certain areas.

They are mainly used for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes, taking photographs and transmitting the images to a command centre.

Some drones can also be used to bomb targets on the ground.

On October 28, for instance, an Al-Shabaab top explosives expert was among two high-ranking members of the Somali militant group killed by a drone strike in southern Somalia.

Now, had this happened two years earlier, Kenya would not have been anywhere near the radar of rights crusaders, but this is 2013, and Nairobi is likely to feature in the ongoing conversation, especially because it has more than eight drones acquired from the US.

Although the eight Raven drones the US donated to Kenya are used for surveillance, Kenya Defence Forces spokesman Cyrus Oguna has confirmed that the drones used in the October 28 attack belonged to Kenya.


Nairobi, however, is likely to defend its actions based on its recent experiences with terror.

For a country that has been a victim of three devastating terrorist attacks — Westgate, US Embassy bombing and Kikambala — any effort made to contain these bloody adventures is likely to attract public support, and various surveys have shown that more than half of Kenyans support the war against Al-Shabaab across the border.

However, given the emerging developments, there is a possibility of Kenya reviewing its rules of engagement with the US, although President Uhuru Kenyatta has pledged his government’s support for anti-terrorism efforts.

Not everyone, however, believes the world is doing right by flexing its collective muscle against this global threat.

One of these is Canadian professor of economics at University of Ottawa, Michel Chossudovsky, who, in the book America’s War on Terrorism: The Truth Will Prevail, argues that the war on terrorism is a complete fabrication based on the illusion that one man, Osama bin Laden, outwitted the American intelligence apparatus.

“The war on terrorism is a war of conquest,” he argues.

“Globalisation is the final march to the New World Order, dominated by Wall Street and the US military-industrial complex.”

Prof Chossudovsky, who frequently writes for the Canada-based security think tank, Global Research, goes on to say that, for the last 13 years, the war-on-terrorism rhetoric has permeated political discourse at all levels of government, and that, somehow, in the last few months, this “Al-Qaeda paradigm” has shifted as the US government is actively and openly supporting Syria’s Al-Nusrah, the main fighting force in the war-torn country that is affiliated to Al-Qaeda and largely composed of foreign mercenaries.

“Is this part of a new normal: the unity of opposites whereby terrorism and counter-terrorism are merged into a single foreign policy focus?” he asks, adding that Al-Qaeda — the “outside enemy of America” as well as the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks — is a creation of the CIA, who previously referred to the terror organisation and its affiliates as “intelligence assets”.

But that is now water under the bridge, and the biggest question is how to deal with terror suspects in a world brimming with human rights activists.


Reprieve, for instance, says about 26,000 people are being held by the US in secret prisons — the number includes those held offshore and in land-based detention centers.

“We’ve identified 32 prison ships, sort of prison hulks you used to read about in Victorian England, which have been converted to hold prisoners, and we’ve got pictures of them in Lisbon Harbour, for example,” Resprieve legal director Clive Stafford reports.

The UN Human Rights Council report names Egypt, Somalia, Morocco, Ethiopia and Djibouti as among countries in Africa with CIA’s proxy detention facilities, while Kenya and Tanzania have only attracted the attention of both human rights activists and terrorists because they have been implicated by suspects transferred through them to other destinations as also having secret detention sites.

The UN study shows that secret detention in connection to counter-terrorism policies remains a serious problem on a global scale, and argues that the practice effectively takes detainees outside the legal framework and renders safeguards contained in international instruments meaningless.

“Secret detention should be explicitly prohibited, along with all other forms of unofficial detention,” the report, presented to the UN General Assembly in 2010, notes.

Another report, by the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, claims that the CIA operated a torture ring for terror suspects in different countries, including Kenya, following the 2001 US terror attacks.

The report said among those tortured and rendered by the US in Kenya were Sheikh Ahmed Salim and Mustafa Mohammed Fadhil.

But the press attache at the US embassy, Mr Christopher Snipes, when contacted over this report, said the US government does not comment on alleged activities of the intelligence community.

“President Obama, on his second day in office, issued three executive orders relating to detention, interrogation, and transfer policies of the US,” he said, explaining that in one of those orders, Mr Obama directed that, consistent with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, individuals detained in any armed conflict shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.

The order also states that such individuals “shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or related treatment, that is not authorised by and listed in the Army Field Manual, which explicitly prohibits threats, coercion, physical abuse, and water boarding”.

“The President also directed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to close as expeditiously as possible any detention centres it operated. Consistent with that Executive Order, the CIA does not operate detention centres,” Mr Snipes said.

The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is the lead agency in the covert global war on terrorism in East Africa, although the CIA also has a strong regional presence according to investigations by the US Army Times, which reports that the US has been carrying extensive covert military operations in Somalia since 2001.

Elite troops from Pentagon’s JSOC are routinely deployed to Somalia for surveillance, reconnaissance, and assault-and-capture operations.

This project was jointly sponsored by the Nation Media Group and the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (Fair)