A United Nations team is visiting Washington this week to conduct its first review of U.S. counterterrorism policy. In announcing the visit, the White House touted the United States as a “global leader in counterterrorism” promoting a “rule-of-law” and “whole-of-society” approach. U.N. Assistant-Secretary-General Michele Coninsx, who is leading the U.N. visit, would do well to examine the facts behind this rhetoric before reaching a conclusion.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. has enlisted dozens of countries in what President George W. Bush called a “global war on terror.” In the process, it has undermined international legal norms for conduct both on and off the battlefield, from the treatment of captured fighters and the protection of civilians to the rights of all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality, to hold and peacefully express their beliefs.
Under the current administration, President Donald Trump has purposefully conflated immigrants and refugees with terrorists, choosing scapegoating and fearmongering as part of his “whole-of-society” approach. He has spoken falsely of “terrorists coming through the southern border” to try to secure congressional funding for his proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He has termed the U.S. refugee resettlement program a “Trojan Horse,” implying it’s a way for dangerous terrorists to secretly enter the country. He has also largely banned travelers from five Muslim-majority countries. His muted responses to deadly attacks by white supremacists stand in stark contrast to his condemnations of attacks by militant Islamists.
As for rule of law, Trump has been a cheerleader for indefinite detention without charge or fair trial at Guantanamo Bay, which still holds 40 prisoners, some who have remained there for 17 years. Seven face military tribunals distinguished by remarkable procedural failings; only two have been convicted of crimes.
Seemingly oblivious to how Guantanamo’s sordid history fuels the narratives of groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), the Trump administration has suggested that the prison could be used to detain suspected ISIS fighters captured in Syria. In the meantime, the U.S. underscored its indifference to humane treatment of terrorism suspects by transferring several alleged ISIS fighters from the custody of an allied, Kurdish-led coalition in northeast Syria to Lebanon, Macedonia and Iraq despite the documented risks of torture in those countries. And it held one dual U.S.-Saudi citizen for over a year without charge in Iraq, until a U.S. court ordered the detainee’s release.
Trump has continued the targeted killings campaign of his two predecessors in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, while scrapping accountability guidelines issued by then-President Barack Obama. More than 1,100 civilians have died in these strikes, according to estimates by the research group Airwars. The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been less opaque about civilian casualties, but its estimates are often only a small fraction of the numbers compiled by nongovernmental research groups, raising questions about their veracity. Airwars, for example, puts the civilian death toll in Iraq and Syria at 7,759 to 12,572, while the U.S. government estimate is 1,257.
Trump has also given credibility to sham terrorism trials abroad by embracing leaders of countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have unjustly prosecuted and executed hundreds of dissidents. Media reports allege that U.S. forces interrogated terrorism suspects who had been tortured in secret prisons in Yemen that were run by the forces of another U.S. ally, the United Arab Emirates. The allegations are particularly sobering in the context of the continuing impunity for CIA torture of terrorism suspects following the 9/11 attacks.
At the U.N., since 9/11, the U.S. has backed overly broad Security Council resolutions that require U.N. member states to enact tough counterterrorism measures—without defining terrorism. Many countries have used these vague laws to crack down on activists, journalists and opposition members practicing peaceful dissent.
Flaws in the U.S. approach should be front and center during the talks taking place this week between U.S. security officials and Coninsx, who heads the Counterterrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), an agency that reviews global compliance with U.N. counterterrorism measures.
Coninsx should firmly remind the U.S. that even the most sweeping Security Council counterterrorism resolutions bar countries from violating human rights. These include the rights to life, humane treatment, fair trials and freedom of religion and expression. Coninsx should also point to the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which warns that erosion of the rule of law and violations of human rights can fuel terrorism.
In addition, Coninsx should be frank in her public statements on U.S. counterterrorism policy. CTED has often welcomed a country’s counterterrorism efforts but glossed over its abuses—for example, the glaring procedural violations during trials of ISIS suspects in Iraq and Boko Haram suspects in Nigeria. Silence on countries’ egregious counterterrorism measures, in this case by a superpower boasting of its “global leadership” in confronting groups such as ISIS, can easily be construed as tacit acceptance.