Saturday the 21st of May marked the annual world Anti- Terrorism Day. The Day is designed to spread the message of global peace, deter vulnerable youth from following cult practices, commemorate the victims of terrorism and honour the sacrifices made by soldiers who have battled against it.
Tackling terrorism, an act “meant to inflict dramatic and deadly injury on civilians and to create an atmosphere of fear for political or ideological purposes”, has been a global priority since the 9/11 attacks in New York. Weeks after 9/11 the UN passed resolution 1373 which committed all countries to combating international terrorism. This has been followed by the imposition of various national anti terror laws.
This year’s Anti - Terrorism day was particularly significant as it was the first since Osama Bin Laden’s death. As the recent bombings in Morocco, Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, terrorist violence is far from over. However Bin Ladens’s death presents an opportunity for the world to consider its response to global terror. It is time to revisit the debate of whether the cost of surrendering civil liberties in anti terror laws is a price worth paying.
In Africa in particular anti terror laws often repress rather than protect citizens. Terror legislation gives special dispensation for governments to bypass their constitutional and international obligations when national security is judged to be under threat. These laws concentrate great power which can be open to misuse. Governments have the potential to use anti terror laws to maintain themselves in power and silence democratic opposition. This threatens fundamental rights to free speech, privacy and a fair trial.
We see a clear example of this in Uganda where, a blanket ban against all forms of public assemblies and demonstrations has been in place since February, on grounds of ensuring “public security”. President Museveni declared a national emergency when the main opposition leader Kizza Besigye disputed the results of the February general election and called upon his followers to protest against the government. Subsequently the country has been rocked by unrest as peaceful protests have been met with brutal zero tolerance policing. Besigye remains under house arrest for attempting to hold a new wave “walk to work” protests.
Elsewhere in the continent anti terror laws allow power to accumulate in the hands of government. Nigeria passed an Anti Terror Law in March 2011, giving security forces far reaching powers to intercept communications and search property without a warrant. The law also allows judges to detain suspects for 30 days if they feel it is in the interests of “public safety”. Tanzania’s 2002 Prevention of Terrorism Act gives immigration officers the power, without warrant, to arrest any person suspected to have been involved in international terrorism. The low, or in many cases, non-existent levels of evidence required in order to satisfy these legal tests not only runs the risk of abusing people’s rights to privacy and freedom from arbitrary arrest, but can be seen to authorize such abuses. The use of anti terror legislation in this way could not be further from the purpose in which it was designed, and makes a mockery of the commitments made by these two states to protect human rights.
Another way we see governments using anti terror legislation as a tool for repression is in the limitations it imposes on freedom of expression. Journalists frequently face the possibility having their messages suppressed by governments enacting these laws. In The Gambia journalists regularly find themselves faced with surveillance, police charges, arbitrary arrests and even death threats if they criticise Jammeh’s regime. Similarly in Zimbabwe six foreign journalists reporting on the country’s 2001 political unrest were arrested on terrorism charges.
Anti terror laws are necessary but it is important that they are used responsibly. African governments must not be allowed to abandon their constitutional obligations and hide under the cloak of national security. Society must continue to hold governments to account and ensure that anti terror legislation is used to protect rather than pose a threat to democracy.
Henry Wilkinson, CHRI Africa. www.chriafrica.blogspot.com
Published in The Accra Times, Wednesday May 25th 2011 p.7. also published in The Ghanian Times, Tuesday 31st of May 2011 p.11