the WTC Disaster: The Sacred, the Profane, and Social Solidarity"
Janet Abu-Lughod, Sociology, New School University
Shifting Grounds for Transnational Civic Activity"
Jeffrey Ayres, Political Science, St. Michael's College;
and Sidney Tarrow, Sociology, Cornell University
Seyla Benhabib, Political Science, Yale University
and Protect, After September 11"
Didier Bigo, Institut d'Etudes Politiques, Paris
Identity and Community After September 11"
Kay Deaux, Psychology, City University of New York
Return of the State"
John A. Hall, Sociology, McGill University
New After September 11th?"
Dick Howard, Philosophy, SUNY at Stonybrook
and the New 'Anti-politics' of 'Security'"
Kanishka Jayasuriya, Political Science, City University
of Hong Kong
Politics Against Terrorism"
Peter Alexander Meyers, Sociology, UniversitÃ© de Lille
Human Rights Approach to Sept. 11"
Kathryn Sikkink, Political Science, University of Minnesota
Aristide Zolberg, Political Science, New School University
Human Rights Approach to Sept. 11
Sikkink, Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota
As we try to
come to grips with the tragedy of September 11, as individuals
and as social scientists, a human rights approach can provide
some guidance. A human rights approach always begins with,
and has as its essence a concern with individual victims of
rights abuses. We turn first to the victims of the September
11 attack and their families and friends. The enormity of
the loss of life, and the premeditated nature of the attacks
on September 11th justifies calling them a crime against humanity.
Murder, when "committed as part of a widespread or systematic
attack directed against any civilian population" is a crime
against humanity.1 The victims of this crime are
entitled not only to our deepest sympathy, but also to justice,
either in the our courts or in an international tribunal.
When I worked on human rights in Latin America I came to understand
the human rights situation in Argentina or Chile or El Salvador
by learning the names and stories of individual victims. In
some cases, I met their family members. In the same spirit,
I try to start understanding the tragedy of September 11th
through the stories of the people who have lost their lives,
in New York, Washington, D.C. or in Afghanistan. Yes, there
are differences, but the pain each family feels at the loss
of its loved one, and its desire for justice are as deep as
victims of rights abuses feel throughout the world.
Often as social scientists we skip over this
first step of starting with the victims and their families.
We are trained to explain phenomena using abstract theories.
It is second nature to us to immediately ask "why" and begin
the search for deep and proximate causes of puzzling events.
It may be useful, especially when speaking to the public,
to preface our search for explanations with some prior comments.
First, a search for explanation does not imply justification.
There is no justification for such acts. Nor does any explanation
remove the perpetrators' moral and legal responsibility for
these criminal acts. Hannah Arendt was concerned about exactly
such a point in the last pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem. She
wrote: "Another such escape from the area of ascertainable
facts and personal responsibility are the countless theories,
based on non-specific, abstract, hypothetical assumptions....
which are so general that they explain and justify every event
and every deed: no alternative to what actually happened is
even considered and no person could have acted differently
from the way he did act..... All these cliches have in common
that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them
is devoid of all risk." She says that such theorizing is a
symptom of "the reluctance evident everywhere to make judgments
in terms of individual moral responsibility."2
In this vein, we need to begin by stating that the crimes
of September 11th were consciously committed by individuals
who could have chosen to act differently, and who bear moral
and legal responsibility for their actions. Human rights law
provides the international standards to make judgments about
individual responsibility. The Rome Statute of the International
Criminal Court and the statutes of ad-hoc tribunals for Rwanda
and the former Yugoslavia move us away from any notion of
collective guilt or responsibility by focusing on individual
legal responsibility for crimes.
Having recognized the perspective of the victims, we still
need to turn to explanation. I find the literature on the
causes of human rights violations useful for thinking about
what leads to attacks of this sort. This research tries to
identify under what conditions governments and people will
commit large scale murder, torture, and arbitrary imprisonment.
It both helps us understand the reasons for such acts and
provides some guidance for policies to prevent future human
rights violations. The findings indicate that authoritarianism,
war, and poverty can lead to large scale human rights violations.3
Because authoritarianism and human rights violations are linked,
it ultimately is counterproductive to fight terrorism by supporting
and arming authoritarian regimes. But we also shouldn't be
too optimistic that we can improve the situation quickly simply
by encouraging countries to democratize. Although democracies
have better human rights records than authoritarian regimes,
during the process of transition to democracy, ethnic conflict
and related human rights violations often increase.4
Perhaps the strongest finding of the quantitative literature
on repression is that there is a strong connection between
war and human rights violations. Decades of civil war in Afghanistan
created conditions where terrorism and human rights violations
flourished prior to the attacks of September 11th. The legacy
of war, authoritarianism, and poverty will make it difficult
for any post-Taliban regime to protect human rights and establish
the rule of law.
Certain kinds of ideas can also lead to human rights violations.
Studies of genocide show how ideas that dehumanize other people
can exclude them "from the realm of human obligation."5
These ideas can help people believe that it is acceptable,
even desirable to kill others. We must be very careful that
our response to human rights violations does not serve simultaneously
to dehumanize others and in turn make it possible for people
to commit crimes against them.
Whatever the deep causes of terrorism, such as war and authoritarianism,
the proximate reason is surely a set of ideas - in this case
a set of religious ideas. The individuals responsible for
crimes against humanity of September 11 believed that their
cause was so righteous that they were called upon to murder
others in its name. This belief is not unique to a particular
strand of extremist Islam. It was a basis for violence in
Christianity for many centuries and is still used by some
extremist Christians (for example, those who bombed abortion
clinics) to justify violence. These religious ideas are a
subset of a wider set of ideas, often utopian ideas, that
have been frequently associated with extreme human rights
violations. I refer to them as "ends-justify-the-means ideas."
Pascal recognized the power of such ideas to generate terror
when he said "Never does man do evil more fully and joyfully
than in the service of high ideals." (Jamais on ne fait le
mal si pleinement et si gaiement que quand on le fait par
conscience.") Not all utopian ideas or high ideals are suspect,
but rather those with this familiar "ends- justify-the-means"
logic. In these ideologies some desired endpoint - Aryan race,
pure communist society, or Western and Christian civilization
- is so compelling that highly repressive means are seen as
necessary for achieving those ends. Studies of ideologies
as diverse as Nazism, that of Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, and
the National Security Doctrine of the repressive authoritarian
regimes in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, have identified
these ends-justify-the-means processes in action. We might
say that this was also the logic behind the U.S. decision
to drop the atomic bomb on the civilian populations of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. The goal of bringing WWII to an end was seen
as so compelling that it justified dropping bombs on two large
cities and killing over 100,000 people, most of them civilians.
What does it mean if the proximate reason for the terrorist
attacks is a particular set of ideas, ideas that share a logic
with past ideas also associated with devastating violations
of human rights? First, our response and the response of our
government must not be based on ideas that replicate this
same ends-justify-the means-logic. We can not justify dehumanizing
our opponents or excluding any individuals from "the realm
of human obligation." When the FBI floats the idea of using
torture to wrest information for detainees, or when we disregard
the impact of our bombing campaign on civilians, we too are
using an ends-justify-the-means argument.6 We need
to fight these arguments when we find them.
for the Rome Statute of the ICC and here
for the Rwanda tribunal.
The best way to fight ideas is not to suppress
them. Suppressed ideas have an odd way of gaining more power.
A human rights approach is committed to free speech, free
religion, and a free press. Within this context of free expression,
we must contest intellectually and politically ends-justify-the-means
ideas, whether held by bin Laden or John Ashcroft. President
Bush's statement that "we will make no distinction between
the terrorists who committed these acts and the those who
harbored them," taken to its logical conclusions also implies
an ends-justify-the-means logic. Human Rights Watch recognized
this and effectively contested this idea one day later. "Yet
distinctions must be made; between the guilty and the innocent;
between the perpetrators and the civilians who may surround
them; between those who commit atrocities and those who may
simply share their religious beliefs, ethnicity, and national
origin. People committed to justice and law and human rights
must never descend to the level of the perpetrators of such
Finally, what does a human rights perspective provide in terms
of thinking about responses to the attacks of September 11?
A vigorous international and domestic crime fighting campaign
is necessary to investigate the crimes of September 11th,
bring the perpetrators to justice, and to prevent future crimes
of this nature. Coordinated international campaigns to track
down the criminals, stop their sources of finance and weapons,
and break their networks are essential. A human rights approach
also reminds us to be especially vigilant about attempts to
violate basic rights in this country or in any other country
in the name of the struggle against terrorism.
for the full text of the Human Rights Watch press release.
In response to the unprecedented attacks
of September 11th, the U.S. government has launched a new
campaign against terrorism, reminiscent in its breadth and
fervor to the anti-communists campaigns of the Cold War. We
have yet to see clearly how this campaign will play itself
out. But the story of U.S. policy towards Latin America over
the last 25 years has much to offer people thinking about
the new campaign against terrorism. In Latin America, our
government's struggles against communism sometimes led it
to commit, support, and justify crimes. With classic ends-justify-the-means
logic, we overthrew democratic governments and supported authoritarian
ones that murdered their own citizens. The language that some
members of our government, press, and members of the public
are now using is similar to the language used by authoritarian
regimes in Latin America to justify human rights violations.
One of the most troubling issues in the wake of the September
11th attacks has been the willingness of certain news commentators
to suggest that the U.S. should use torture to gather information
from detainees.7 Human rights law permits the suspension
of certain rights in cases of "public emergency which threatens
the life of the nation." But these suspensions are limited
by the requirement that they be "strictly required by the
exigencies of the situation." And violations of some rights,
such as the right to be free from torture and cruel and unusual
punishment are not permitted in any circumstances. For many
decades authoritarian leaders around the world have been saying
that torture is necessary to gather information to prevent
future terrorist attacks. There is virtually no evidence that
torture serves this information gathering purpose. There is
ample evidence, however, that once a government starts to
torture, it begins to use it routinely against a range of
detainees. Another clear lesson from Latin America is that
covert operations have been the most pernicious exercises
of U.S. policy in the region. U.S. covert action against the
Allende regime contributed to the rise of Pinochet. The U.S.
covert operation that helped overthrow the elected Arbenz
government in Guatemala in 1954 set in motion a 25 year cycle
of increasingly repressive military regimes that eventually
culminated in the genocide of 1980-1982. The 1954 covert operation
against Arbenz was the twin of a similar covert operation
in 1953 against the democratically elected leftist government
of Muhammad Mossadeq in Iran that set into motion a similar
downward spiral with far reaching effects for the Iranian
people and the whole region. In another odd twist linking
the two regions, the fundamentalist government of Iran made
a willing partner for yet another covert operation, the Iran-Contra
clandestine sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of profits
to right wing contra rebels in Nicaragua. This makes me particularly
alarmed that some policy makers and academics are calling
for a reinvigoration of covert action in U.S. policy.8
Overt policies where the press, our allies, NGOs and the American
public can observe, critique, or applaud the actions and their
consequences are not only more democratic, but they have been
more successful in producing viable policy in the long term.
for Article IV of the International Covenant on Civil and
A human rights approach does not necessarily
rule out a military response. Indeed, much of the criticism
of the failure of the response of the U.N. and of governments
to the genocide in Rwanda turns on their refusal to use military
force to prevent genocide. But the social science literature
showing that war contributes to human rights violations should
make us extremely cautious about a military solution. Is the
remedy actually exacerbating the very problem it is aimed
to solve? A human rights approach commits us to deep concern
for the civilian victims of the bombing raids in Afghanistan.
Under humanitarian law civilians can not be military targets,
and combatants need to make efforts to protect civilians.
The Geneva Conventions empower the Red Cross to act in times
of war to protect civilians and medical personnel. Our bombing,
not once but twice, of Red Cross warehouses in Kabul is thus
deeply symbolic of the more general failure of the bombing
campaign to protect and spare civilians. The U.S. military
have clarified that they are making efforts to avoid civilian
deaths. We judge differently the responsibility of those making
efforts to avoid civilian deaths from those whose main goal
is provoking civilian deaths. But for the Afghani parent who
has lost a child to U.S. bombing raids, such distinctions
provide no comfort. Military methods that inevitably lead
to significant civilian deaths are inconsistent with a human
rights approach, regardless of the intentions of the planners.
The most disturbing recent development is President Bush's
announcement that he will order non-citizens to undergo trial
in military courts if there is reason to believe that the
individual is a member of the Al-Qaida terrorist organization.
Not only does this move undermines our commitment to civil
liberties and rule of law, but it is unnecessary. In the last
decade, states have innovated solutions for pursuing justice
for exactly these kinds of crimes, including domestic trials,
trials in foreign courts, and international tribunals. The
most far reaching of these - the International Criminal Court
- has yet to be established, and could not, in any case, try
cases that happened before it came into being. The U.S. has
not ratified the ICC Statute, and certain members of the U.S.
Congress are actively hostile to the idea. If these crimes
had been committed after the Court entered into force, and
if the U.S. had ratified the Treaty, the ICC could have been
the obvious and most legitimate place to try perpetrators
of crimes against humanity. This should make U.S. policy makers
rethink their position on the ICC. We do need international
institutions to help us - not only to find the intellectual
authors of this crime, but also to bring them to justice with
the greatest legitimacy. The Security Council could set up
a Special Tribunal to try perpetrators of terrorism, much
as they set up the ad-hoc war crimes tribunals for the former
Yugoslavia and Rwanda. A special tribunal would have the virtue
of requiring us to think about the tragedy as a crime carried
out by specific individuals who have legal responsibility
for the act. By thinking about the tragedy as a crime against
humanity, we can refrain from thinking about collective guilt
of the Afghani people, or Islamic fundamentalists. An international
tribunal would also underscore that this kind of attack is
of concern to all countries, not only the United States. It
would build the confidence of our allies and world public
opinion that people accused of terrorism would receive a fair
and impartial trial. The struggle we face is not mainly a
military one, but a struggle about ideas and public opinion.
Our commitment to civil liberties and rule of law is an essential
part of our identity and should not be squandered by some
of the short sighted policies of this administration.
for the full text of the Red Cross Convention.
1 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998 (U.N.
2 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality
of Evil (NY: Penguin, 1964), p. 297.
3 See, for example, Steven Poe and C. Neal Tate, "Human Rights
and Repression to Personal Integrity in the 1980s: A Global
Analysis," American Political Science Review 88 (1994):
853-72; and Steven Poe, C. Neal Tate, and Linda Camp Keith,
"Repression of the Human Rights to Personal Integrity Revisited:
A Global Crossnational Study Covering the Years 1976-1993,"
International Studies Quarterly 43 (1999): 291-315
4 Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and
Nationalist Conflict New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
5 Helen Fein, Genocide: A Sociological Perspective London:
6 "Silence of Four Terror Probe Suspects Poses Dilemma for FBI,"
Washington Post October 21st, 2001, A6.
7 "Torture Seeps Into Discussion by News Media," New York
Times 11/5/01, p. C1.
8 See, for example, John Mearshimer, "Guns Won't Win the Afghan
War," New York Times, 11/4/01 calling for diplomacy and
covert action to oust Al Qaeda.