Opinion piece in Al Jazeera by Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve

In the twenty years  since President George W. Bush declared “war on terror,” the idea that some people don’t deserve the protection of the law has spread through liberal democracies. Autocratic rulers have been quick to take advantage, by employing the same language to immunise themselves from criticism for human rights abuses.

UN Security Council Resolution 1373, passed in September 2001 to co-ordinate counter-terrorism efforts, famously did not define the word terrorist. “What looks, smells and kills like terrorism is terrorism,” offered the UK’s then Ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock.

The potential for abuse was immediately apparent to human rights groups. Four years later, the Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur to protect fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. In his first report, Martin Scheinin warned of “deliberate misuse of the term,” and singled out Egypt, Indonesia, Tunisia, the US and the UK, among others, as countries of concern. 

This has proved to be prescient. Earlier this year the Court of Appeal in the UK overturned the convictions of peaceful protesters who had been prosecuted for terrorism related offences for disrupting a deportation flight. Around the world, the threat of ‘terrorism’ is widely used to justify the denial of legal rights – often by allies of western governments that claim to uphold the rule of law.

In Bahrain, no-one had ever been sentenced to death on ‘terrorism’ charges until 2011, when thousands of people joined Arab Spring demonstrations. Of the 51 people sentenced to death since, 31 were charged with terrorism offences. Almost all had links to the political opposition. These are men like hotel bellboy Maher al-Khabbaz and father of three Mohammed Ramadhan, convicted based on confessions extracted under torture, who were simply taking to the streets to demand democratic rights.

British citizen Andy Tsege was sentenced to death in absentia for ‘terrorism’ under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. In 2014, he was abducted while transferring through Sana’a airport and flown to death row in chains. When then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was challenged about the statute by the BBC, following criticism that it was being used to detain journalists and human rights activists, he responded: “You know, we know that this accusation will come. So we said let’s copy from the British Law. If you compare the British terrorist law and that of ours, it’s almost similar.”

To Saudi prosecutors, the fact that Murtaja Qureiris attended his cousin’s funeral at the age of nine is evidence of extremism – significant enough to include on his charge sheet when seeking a death sentence against him at the age of 13. Fellow teenager Ali al-Nimr was charged with organising demonstrations on his mobile phone, teaching first-aid to protesters and ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’.

The misuse of terrorism charges to suppress dissent is by no means confined to states allied with the West – China labels Uighur separatists as terrorists and Myanmar’s military said the same of the Rohingya communities it massacred – but there is no question that NATO security partners have taken the opportunity to imprison and sentence to death domestic opponents by rebranding them a global terrorist threat.

In Egypt, for instance, twelve men sentenced to death in a mass trial of more than 700 people are at imminent risk of execution, for participating in a sit-in to protest the coup that brought Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi to power in 2013. At least 800 people were killed when security forces violently dispersed the protest. Surviving demonstrators were charged with terrorism offences, while the police continue to enjoy impunity for their actions.

In the years since the US and its partners first argued that ‘terrorists’ can be locked up forever without trial and assassinated by executive fiat, states have learned that if you call someone an extremist, you can deprive them of universal human rights and the international community will shrug. The failure of the ‘war on terror’ must be met with a renewed commitment to the global treaties that protect those rights, and a recognition that attempts to exclude people from the law’s protections make all of us less safe.