Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans Köchler

Co-President, International Academy for Philosophy

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Innsbruck, Austria

President of the International Progress Organization

Terrorism and Human Rights:

Reflections on the Global War on Terror

Updated text of a lecture prepared for th

National Defense College of the Philippines and the General Staff College

Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 2008

I.P.O. Online Publications

International Progress Organization, A-1010 Vienna, Kohlmarkt 4, Austria

 © International Progress Organization, 2010. All rights reserved.



For almost half a century – since the end of World War II – the world lived in the fear of a devastating nuclear war. After this threat had receded with the end of the Cold War, brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union, mankind got only a short reprieve of roughly a decade before our minds were again consumed by an all-pervasive fear – in that case of a large invisible enemy by the name of “terrorism.”

Since the fateful events of the year 2001 in the United States, a “global war on terror” has been proclaimed by that country’s administration, with the “international community” – in actual fact the group of states aligned, in one way or the other, with the U.S. – following suit, albeit reluctantly and with much hesitation. While it is obvious that the term “war” is used in this phrase in a metaphorical sense,[1] this development has reintroduced into international affairs an essentially Manichaean worldview according to which mankind is divided into good and evil – with no intermediate ground. This dichotomy does not only apply to states, but to peoples, civilizations, and religions alike.

The decisive events of this “war,” so far, namely the armed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, have made obvious the extreme fragility of the international rule of law in the face of what is presented as an almost metaphysical danger: “international terrorism.”[2] These all-out military confrontations will also have made us aware, by now, that a mythical, vaguely defined global “war on terror” – as an effort at eradicating forces that are perceived or determined as evil – may never end;[3] on the contrary, it will itself become part of a global cycle of violence. It is against this background that the new U.S. administration has begun to cautiously distance itself from the doctrine as well as the term, suggesting that it be replaced by the more neutral and less ambitious phrase “Global Contingency Operation.”[4] However, no unified stand has been taken on the issue so far, and the term continues to be used by officials of the U.S. administration, especially the military establishment.[5]

Because of the vagueness of its goals, the lack of precision of the very notion of “terrorism,” and the discretionary dilemma inherent in any preventive use of force, this war will eventually become a self-defeating undertaking – unless it is made part of a comprehensive and truly universal (i.e. global) political effort, comprising a large majority of United Nations member states and not only the allies of the hegemonic power of the moment. Such a strategy will have to be aimed at eradicating the root causes of terrorist violence such as poverty, exploitation, and other forms of economic and social injustice, foreign occupation, denial of self-determination, etc.

If considerations of justice are excluded, the “global war on terror” will become a campaign of global revenge, a development that will ultimately bring about a multiplication of the terrorist threat in virtually all corners of the globe.

Only if terrorism is also understood as a form of reactive violence, and if one is prepared to undertake the intellectual effort at analyzing its specific causes, will one understand that further reactive violence – in the form of a global war on terror – can merely deal with the symptoms of the underlying conflict(s) and, in many circumstances, may even aggravate the situation. The course of events in Afghanistan is a drastic example of this dilemma: Seven and a half years into the conflict, the foreign armies are still fighting a largely invisible enemy and are losing control over ever larger parts of the territory – with first a British commander, then the President of the United States admitting that this may be a war that cannot be won militarily and, thus, hinting at the urgent need for a political approach.[6]



This dilemma between an exclusively military and a more comprehensive political approach directly brings in the human rights dimension not only of terrorist violence, but also of counter-terrorism (in the form of the “global war on terror”) – and in different respects and at different levels:

  1. In the first place, terrorist violence is often (though not always) a kind of reactive violence, namely a reaction to perceived violations of basic human rights (such as foreign occupation, oppression of civil liberties, denial of self-determination, etc.). It is to be stated that acknowledging this causal relationship does in no way mean condoning specific acts of terrorism. Politically motivated acts of violence against civilians – which is a kind of operative definition of terrorism accepted by international consensus[7] – cannot be justified under any circumstances. Nonetheless, refusing to acknowledge the specific motives behind terrorist acts will make us incapable to respond rationally and to develop a comprehensive, effective and sustainable counter-terrorist strategy. Such a “rejectionist” attitude would also make us victims of a desire for blind revenge and would make of the supposedly reactive use of force which many describe as “global war” a battle against windmills – since this war would only target symptoms, not the causes of terrorist violence (about which the strategy is ignorant in such a scenario).

  2. By definition, acts of terrorism are always a negation of the most basic human rights. Using violence against non-military targets to instill fear upon people is not only intrinsically evil in general moral terms; it is tantamount to violating the very rights that are derived from the inalienable dignity of the human being. Those rights are enshrined in the respective international covenants[8] and in domestic constitutions; they include, first and foremost, the right to life; the right to live free from fear and intimidation; the right to form one’s political opinion free from manipulation and in an open public discourse – and not as a result of “blackmail” in the form of politically motivated violence; etc. It is to be emphasized, in this context, that no double standards must be allowed in the use of the term “terrorism” insofar as the negation of fundamental human rights is concerned: Acts of terrorism are a negation of the dignity of the human person and a denial of human rights independently of their motives and irrespective of whether they are committed by individuals, loosely organized groups, large and well-disciplined organizations, or regular armed forces; furthermore, the human rights aspect also relates to all acts of state terrorism.

  3. Since the global war on terror was effectively proclaimed towards the end of the year 2001,[9] the international public has increasingly become aware of a third human rights aspect related to terrorism and to the spiral of violence in which the perpetrators of this war may get entangled: The measures against terrorism, whether undertaken as part of a “global war” or within a domestic political and legal framework, must not themselves violate human rights. International humanitarian law applies in all such situations. To counter acts that negate human rights – namely acts of terrorism – by means of further violations of human rights is not only a self-contradictory undertaking, but will completely undermine the credibility of the anti-terrorist effort and may stir up even more terrorist violence – because such lawless counter-terrorist measures will create a sense of desperation and humiliation among those brutally treated. Since the fourth quarter of the year 2001, the examples of systematic human rights violations, committed as part of a global anti-terrorist campaign abound. Torture as a standard element of interrogation techniques;[10] detention without trial; so-called “secret renditions” of terror suspects; their detention in secret prisons all around the globe; the denial of an accused person’s right to a defense of his own choosing in a court of law, etc.: all these practices constitute serious violations of human rights – that have already been widely and controversially discussed in connection with the ongoing global discourse on the war on terror[11] – and may eventually turn a proclaimed and all-encompassing anti-terrorist effort into a “terrorism-generating” campaign. What is portrayed as necessary and unavoidable measures to fight terrorism may itself become a self-defeating strategy, bearing the hallmarks of (state) terrorism.[12]

The risks and pitfalls of such tactics, not to speak of their immoral and technically illegal nature, have become more than evident in the anti-Western hatred triggered by the appalling human rights violations in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Furthermore, a Swiss member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has documented many of the human rights violations committed not only by the United States, but also by European Union member states as the former’s accomplices, as part of the “global war on terror,” especially as regards the secret “renditions” of terror suspects.[13]

It is to be hoped that the incumbent President of the United States will make good on his electoral promises and not only revise, but reverse, the doctrine and policies that have been behind those measures, and that he will, without any further delay, close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba and annul his predecessor’s order by which so-called “military commissions” have been established to try terror suspects.[14] The procedures laid out in this order are in clear and open violation of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Third Geneva Convention of 1949).[15]

 It cannot be emphasized often enough: the moral high ground will inevitably be lost – and with devastating consequences for a country’s international reputation – if a war against terror is conducted through measures that include systematic human rights violations. Such a war will not be perceived as an exercise of legitimate self-defense, but will more resemble a campaign of outright revenge,[16] fuelling a never-ending cycle of terrorist violence. The proclamations about a “terrorist threat” and the need to counter it by preventive measures may thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As aptly stated by a young American officer in an analysis of the United States’ anti-terrorist campaign: “mortgaging the principles established by the nation’s founders in the pursuit of short term gains will result in a series of successful battles, followed by a lost war.”[17]

It is further to be hoped that, in the not too distant future, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will be in a position to exercise jurisdiction over all cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity – whether those are committed as part of terrorist or counter-terrorist campaigns. At present, the hands of the Court are tied because many of the countries whose citizens were – or still are – involved in or are suspects of the commission of such crimes have not become parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC, first and foremost among them the United States.[18] For the Court to wait for “political” referrals of situations by the Security Council – as in the case of Sudan – cannot be an option.[19] Many of the human rights violations that are being committed in the course of the global war on terror constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined in the Rome Statute or in other international legal instruments such as the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Those governments that pursue the “global war on terror” – in whichever strategic or tactical framework[20] – should not further try to prevent the International Criminal Court from executing its universal mandate.[21] If they continue to do so they document, by such obstruction, that they do not take seriously international human rights standards and the rule of law – and they will finally defeat their own anti-terrorist campaign because they will de-legitimize it in the eyes of the international public.[22] As the new global discourse on secret renditions, detention in secret prisons, systematic use of torture as part of routine interrogation techniques, etc., has amply demonstrated, the citizens of the world will simply not tolerate such illegal methods any longer.



Not only for tactical, but for essentially ethical reasons, it is of utmost importance that the war against terror be conducted in a manner that respects the inalienable human rights not only of the population (the citizens to be protected), but also of terror suspects. The principles and values of a democratic polity do, under no circumstances, allow the erection of an effectively totalitarian system under the disguise of emergency measures supposedly necessitated by the fight against terror.

In order to minimize the need for measures due to which those rights might be violated, the human rights policy governing a state’s reaction to a terrorist threat must be complemented by a proactive human rights strategy – domestically and at the international level. If human rights are indeed taken seriously, a kind of reverse strategy has to be adopted in the definition of the scope of the “global war on terror.” The development of such a strategy will be an element of preventive self-defense in the genuine sense – unlike the forms of preemption that have been defined as the rationale of the ongoing war on terror in ever more theaters of operation.[23]

A “battle” – if we may use the term in a metaphorical sense – will have to be waged for the safeguarding, or restoration, of human rights in a comprehensive and all-encompassing sense, including civil and political, social, economic and cultural rights, on all continents. However, such an effort will not succeed as a unilateral undertaking; it will have to be part of a long-term global development policy in a multilateral framework such as that of the United Nations[24] or regional organizations like the European Union or ASEAN. Only this kind of strategy will produce sustainable results – through the eradication of the root causes of terrorism (which we have identified under category 1 above in the analysis of the human rights dimension of terrorist violence).[25] The ongoing global economic crisis and its impact on the developing countries should serve as a stark reminder of what is at stake.[26]

A global “war” – if we may again use the term in a metaphorical sense – against poverty and all forms of injustice will ultimately make a hot “global war on terror” obsolete. In any way, short-term military measures against violence can never replace a comprehensive long-term strategy.

If the “global war on terror” is only fought in the form of a reactive use of force that ignores the human rights implications in the three different dimensions we have outlined above, and if it exclusively remains in the military domain, such tactics may well lead to a perpetual confrontation that will condemn mankind to live in a state of constant fear – and that will ultimately undermine the very foundations of human rights on which a legitimate global order, the “international rule of law,” is to be built.[27] David Miliband, Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, has aptly expressed the fundamental challenge: countries must respond to terrorism by “championing the rule of law, not subordinating it.”[28]

As explained more than two centuries ago by Immanuel Kant, there can be no lasting peace without respect for human rights and the rule of law,[29] and there will be no end to the terrorist threat, indeed to the cycle of violence triggered by the sequence of terrorist and counter-terrorist operations, unless the global war on terror is superseded by a genuine global and multidimensional effort for the enforcement of human rights.

This – and not the mere technicalities of the use of military force – is the historical challenge which the human race is faced with at a junction of history where it is not yet clear whether the absence of a balance of power[30] will lead to a state of global anarchy – with the never-ending fear of terror as basic ingredient – or to the gradual emergence of a multipolar order that is founded on the principle of sovereign equality of states and peoples alike and, by implication, on the universal respect of human rights.

Those states and leaders who are seriously concerned about the threat of terrorism – and whose agenda goes beyond the realm of propaganda, short-term domestic political considerations, and a desperate defense of doomed imperial rule – will certainly take into consideration the second option; they shall engage in a proactive human rights policy that will make the first possibility (namely a state of global anarchy) a little less likely.




[1] On the problematic use of the term “war” in connection with “terror” as a method of violence see, inter alia, Ian Roxborough, “Weary Titan, Assertive Hegemon: Military Strategy, Globalization, and U.S. Preponderance,” in: Bruce Mazlish, Nayan Chanda, Kenneth Weisbrode (eds.), The Paradox of a Global USA. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007, p. 143: “‘Terrorism’ is a vague and diffuse term. Defining a war against a technique or method is strange. It is using ‘war’ as a metaphor. Wars are conducted against peoples or states, not against methods of fighting.” General Wallace C. Gregson, Commander United States Marine Forces Pacific (2005), also expressed his doubts about the term: “This global war on terror has a popular label, a political label, but it is not accurate. Terrorism is a means of power projection, a weapon, a tool of war. (…) This is not merely semantics. Words have a meaning, and these words are leading us to the wrong concept.” Wallace C. Gregson, “Ideological Support: Attacking the Critical Linkage,” in: The Struggle Against Extremist Ideology: Addressing the Conditions That Foster Terrorism. Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2005, p. 21.

[2] See Hans Köchler, “The Global War on Terror and the Metaphysical Enemy,” in: Hans Köchler (ed.), The “Global War on Terror” and the Question of World Order. Studies in International Relations, Vol. XXX. Vienna: International Progress Organization, 2008, pp. 13-35.

[3] See also Wallace C. Gregson, op. cit., p. 22: “The ‘war on terrorism’ label also sets a very high standard for success, and an infinite duration.”

[4] See, inter alia, the report by Al Kamen, “The End of the Global War on Terror.” The Washington Post, 24 March 2009. The author quotes from an internal Pentagon memo: “OMB says: ‘This Administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long war’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT]. Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation’.”

[5] It has been made clear, in the meantime, that no official instructions have been given to the Pentagon by President Obama in that regard and that the term “global war on terror” will continue to be used. See, inter alia: “No ban on ‘global war on terror’: US officials.” Associated Press, 25 March 2009, and Megan McCloskey, “Obama finds Bush-era language a sticky thing: Administration dislikes but can’t quite shake phrase ‘Global War on Terror.’” Las Vegas Sun, 21 May 2009.

[6] See the report by Christina Lamb on the position of Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith: “War on Taliban cannot be won, says army chief,” in: The Sunday Times, London, 5 October 2008. – Concerning the position of U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama see “Obama’s Interview Aboard Air Force One.” Transcript published by The New York Times, 8 March 2009: “Q: Mr. President, we need to turn it to foreign policy. I know we have a review going on right now about Afghanistan policy, but right now can you tell us, are we winning in Afghanistan? A: No.” For a further evaluation see the analysis by Milton Bearden, former CIA station chief in Pakistan: “Obama’s War: Redefining Victory in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” in: Foreign Affairs, 9 April 2009, at

[7] The definition offered by the United States reflects this informal consensus: terrorism is described as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” (Terrorism in the United States, 1997. Counterterrorism Threat Assessment and Warning Unit, National Security Division. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1997, p. i.) However, because of unbridgeable political and ideological differences between United Nations member states, there exists still no official definition of the term “terrorism.” For details see Hans Köchler, “The United Nations, International Rule of Law and Terrorism,” in: The Supreme Court Centenary Lecture Series. I: July 2000 – June 2001; II. September 2001 – June 2002. Manila: Supreme Court of the Philippines / Philippine Judicial Academy, 2002, pp. 550-571.

[8] Apart from the body of norms of international humanitarian law incorporated in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the basic legal instruments are: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Resolution 2200 (XXI) of 16 December 1966, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Resolution 2200 (XXI) of 16 December 1966.

[9] The Bush administration’s doctrine was based on the Joint Resolution entitled “Authorization for Use of Military Force” (107th United States Congress, 1st Session, Public Law 107-40) adopted by both houses of the U.S. Congress on 14 September 2001 and enacted on 18 September 2001. Cf. also the statement by President George W. Bush upon signing the resolution into law: “Our whole Nation is unalterably committed to a direct, forceful, and comprehensive response to these terrorist attacks and the scourge of terrorism directed against the United States and its interests.” (“President Signs Authorization for Use of Military Force Bill. Statement by the President.” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 18, 2001.) The doctrine was first pronounced by the U.S. President in an address to a joint session of Congress on 20 September 2001: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” (Quoted according to CNN: Transcript of President Bush's address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night, September 20, 2001, at

[10] For a critical evaluation see the comprehensive analysis by William Jones, Jr., LCDR, USN: The Role of Torture in Support of the Global War on Terror Intelligence Collection Effort. Air Command and Staff College, Air University. Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, April 2006, AU/ACSC/1360/AY06.

[11] Members of the U.S. military have themselves repeatedly emphasized the need to “to ensure that the framework being established to adapt to these new rules of war does not sacrifice the same freedoms we are attempting to protect.” Col. John C. Schulz, USAWC Class of 2008, The Global War on Terrorism: America’s Jihad. Strategy Research Project. Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2008, p. 20.

[12] For details see Abdul Rashid Moten, “The Consequences of Illegal Wars: Invasion and Occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq,” in: Hans Köchler (ed.), The “Global War on Terror” and the Question of World Order, pp. 85-107.

[13] See the report by Dick Marty: Alleged secret detentions in Council of Europe member states. Information Memorandum II. Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Doc. AS/Jur (2006) 03 rev (ajdoc03 2006rev), 22 January 2006. See esp. Chapter D: “Reminder: anti-terrorist action must respect human rights,” p. 11.

[14] See the Executive Order signed by President George W. Bush: Military Order – Detention, Treatment and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism. Executive Order dated November 13, 2001, 66 Fed. Reg. 57833 (16 November 2001).

[15] For details see Hans Köchler, Global Justice or Global Revenge? International Criminal Justice at the Crossroads. Vienna/New York: Springer, 2003, pp. 120f.

[16] On the mistaken interpretation of war in such a context of revenge see Teresa Degenhardt, The use of war as punishment in the international sphere. [Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli] Cortona Colloquium 2007: “War, Law and Global Order,” 19-21 October 2007.

[17] Col. John C. Schulz, The Global War on Terrorism: America’s Jihad, loc. cit., p. 21.

[18] In August 2002, the U.S. Congress adopted a law entitled “American Service-Members’ Protection Act” (ASPA) that prohibits all U.S. governmental agencies to co-operate with the International Criminal Court.

[19] On the risks of politicization of international criminal justice see the author’s analysis: Global Justice or Global Revenge? The ICC and the Politicization of International Criminal Justice. I.P.O. Online Papers, 2009, at

[20] Among the major operations launched by the United States, in co-operation with “willing” states, are: Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF); Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF); and Operation Noble Eagle (ONE), related to measures of “homeland security.”

[21] The Court exercises its mandate on the basis of complementary jurisdiction with domestic judiciaries; the universality of its mandate lies in the Court’s authority to investigate or prosecute in cases where a state is either unable or unwilling to undertake proper judicial action. For details see Hans Köchler, Global Justice or Global Revenge?, pp. 232ff.

[22] For details see the author’s lecture delivered at the International Ecumenical Conference on Terrorism in a Globalized World in Manila, Philippines, on 25 September 2002: The War on Terror, its Impact on the Sovereignty of States, and its Implications for Human Rights and Civil Liberties. I.P.O. Research Papers. Vienna: International Progress Organization, 2003, at

[23] For the Bush administration’s doctrine of preventive self-defense, which has shaped U.S. “war on terror” see The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, D.C.: The White House, 2002. For a critical evaluation of the doctrine see Mary Ellen O’Connell, The Myth of Preemptive Self-Defense. The American Society of International Law / Task Force on Terrorism. Washington, DC, August 2002.

[24] On the United Nations’ program for the establishment of a “New International Economic Order,” proclaimed in 1974 (!), but later abandoned under pressure from industrialized nations, see Hans Köchler (ed.), The New International Economic Order. Philosophical and Socio-cultural Implications. Studies in International Relations, Vol. III. Guildford (England): Guildford Educational Press, 1980.

[25] For details see also the text of the lecture delivered by the author before the National Police Commission of the Philippines at Camp Crame: “Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: Towards a Comprehensive Approach,” in: Hans Koechler. Manila Lectures 2002. Quezon City: FSJ Book World, 2002, pp. 29-42.

[26] For details see Hans Köchler, The Collapse of Neoliberal Globalization and the Quest for a Just World Order. Statement delivered at the international conference “Prague Dialogue on Europe in the XXI Century,” Prague, 14 May 2009. I.P.O. Online Papers, 2009, at

[27] In the meantime, an increasing number of military commanders appear having become aware of the futility of an exclusively – or essentially – military approach. As regards the coalition war in Iraq, which the Bush administration had linked to its “global war on terror,” U.S. General David Petraeus was quoted by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband as having said that “the coalition there could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife.” (Quoted according to the article by Rina Chandran, “UK foreign minister urges “war on terror” rethink.” Reuters, 15 January 2009.)

[28] Quoted according to the article by Rina Chandran, loc. cit. Miliband made the remarks in a statement delivered in Mumbai, India, on 15 January 2009.

[29] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and other essays on politics, history, and morals [Zum ewigen Frieden]. Translated, with Introduction, by Ted Humphrey. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.

[30] On the notion of the “balance of power” see e.g. Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. 3rd ed. Houndmills (U.K.)/New York: Palgrave, 2002. See also the author’s essay “The Precarious Nature of International Law in the Absence of a Balance of Power,” in: Hans Köchler (ed.), The Use of Force in International Relations: Challenges to Collective Security. Studies in International Relations, Vol. XXIX. Vienna: International Progress Organization, 2006, pp. 11-19.