Countries attending a United States-led counterterrorism summit should ensure that measures to stop citizens from joining extremist groups abroad comply with international human rights standards. On September 29, 2015, US President Barack Obama will host the summit of more than 100 world leaders on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
More than 30 countries have enacted laws or policies designed to counter so-called foreign terrorist fighters, most since the UN Security Council addressed the issue in Resolution 2178 of September 2014. Human Rights Watch research has found that overbroad language in these laws could target members of certain religious groups, stifle peaceful dissent, unduly curtail freedom of movement, or allow suspects to be held for long periods without charge.
“Governments are responsible for protecting their populations from violence by extremist groups, but that’s not a license to trample basic rights,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “World leaders should commit to promptly revamping so-called foreign terrorist fighter laws to ensure they don’t become tools of repression.”
Resolution 2178 requires all UN member countries to “establish serious criminal offenses” for citizens who travel or seek to travel abroad to join or train with foreign terrorist organizations. The resolution also requires countries to criminalize recruitment and funding for and sharing intelligence on suspected foreign terrorist fighters, and to create programs to counter violent extremism.
At least 33 countries have adopted laws, decrees, or policies since 2013 to stem the flow of citizens traveling abroad to join armed extremist groups. Twenty-four of the countries enacted their measures after the Security Council passed Resolution 2178.
World leaders should use the summit to review implementation of Resolution 2178 to ensure that countries’ actions comply with its provisions to adhere to international human rights and humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.
Resolution 2178 states that the measures must comply with a country’s human rights obligations. But it does not define “terrorism” or “terrorist acts,” giving governments broad leeway to apply or retain definitions that may criminalize peaceful dissent and other basic rights.
For example, “terrorist” offenses in Saudi Arabia’s 2014 counterterrorism law and decrees include “harming the reputation of the state” without requiring an element of violence, and “attending conferences, seminars, or meetings inside or outside [the kingdom] targeting the security of society, or sowing discord in society.”
Democratic countries also have enacted provisions that raise human rights concerns. The United Kingdom’s 2014 and 2015 laws permit authorities to strip British citizenship from naturalized citizens convicted of foreign terrorist fighter offenses, even if it may lead to statelessness, or to bar them from returning for up to two years on mere suspicion of such activities. These measures could arbitrarily deny people the basic right to enter their own country.
A 2015 law in Germany empowers authorities to replace passports and national identity cards of citizens they consider a security threat with identity cards that read, “Not valid for travel outside of Germany.” Critics have said the substitute documents stigmatize those carrying them.
Several countries have extended or reinstated prolonged detention without charge or trial. Malaysia’s vague and overly broad security law of 2015 reinstates detention without trial for two years, with indefinite, two-year extensions, for activities including suspected links to foreign terrorist groups.
Tajikistan’s 2015 decree banning nationals under age 35 from traveling to the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage excessively restricts freedom of religion, Human Rights Watch said.
The Security Council should adopt a resolution requiring that definitions of “terrorism” and “terrorist acts” are fully consistent with international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said. Such definitions should, for example, exclude acts that lack the elements of intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages.
“The Security Council’s ‘Foreign Terrorist Fighter’ resolution gives governments a free hand to designate whomever and whatever they want as terrorist,” Tayler said. “Instead of making the world safer, repressive measures risk angering and encouraging the very people at risk of joining extremist groups.”
Countries that have passed foreign terrorist fighter measures since 2013 include:
Austria, Australia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Cameroon, Chad, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Libya, Macedonia, Malaysia, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan.
Countries that have proposed new or additional foreign terrorist fighter measures include:
Albania, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Kuwait, Latvia, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.