India’s role on the international counterterrorism stage is expanding, even as its broad-brush responses to armed extremist threats at home become more troubling. On Oct. 28-29, India will host a special meeting of the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee, which it chairs, on “Countering the Use of New and Emerging Technologies for Terrorist Purposes.” Next year, India will also chair the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), an alliance with a reputation for heavy-handed counterterrorism and that is dominated by serial rights offenders China and Russia (Iran is to join next year, and Turkey waits in the wings).
India’s efforts to increase its influence in this domain are concerning, given its domestic record of undermining human rights under the guise of countering terrorism. Its intensifying internal repression does not bode well for its approach on the Security Council.
To a large extent, India’s counterterrorism commitment at the United Nations is driven by a long history of attacks on India by armed groups based in or backed by Pakistan. However, India’s domestic counterterrorism measures have violated the due process and other rights of both actual terrorism suspects and Muslim men simply rounded up and charged on flimsy evidence. Many spend years in prison before the courts eventually dismiss their cases.
Under the administration of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, abuses of India’s draconian counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, have markedly increased. The authorities have jailed numerous activists, minorities, and critics of the government under the law, along with student protesters, ordinary citizens from rural and tribal communities, and political opponents. Leaders and affiliates of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party often stigmatize Indian Muslims, baselessly accusing them of terrorism.
Muslim Kashmiris, including protesters and independent journalists, have been accused of terrorism or arbitrarily detained under another abusive law, the Public Safety Act. Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar have been at risk of detention and deportation.
One focus of the upcoming Counter-Terrorism Committee meeting in Mumbai and Delhi will be the use of the internet and social media for terrorism purposes. Indian authorities have been targeting online expression, including through the use of counterterrorism, sedition, and hate speech laws, against people who have simply criticized or disagreed with the government. India has adopted new internet and social media rules and policies that expand censorship, weaken encryption, and threaten privacy, all in the name of security.
The meeting will also focus on ways to counter terrorists’ use of new payment technologies, such as cryptocurrencies, to bankroll their operations. Here again, the Indian government’s domestic record hardly serves as a model. The government has used laws intended to prevent money laundering to conduct raids on political opponents and critics, under the guise of preventing terrorist funding. It has also used its law regulating foreign funding for non-governmental organizations to arbitrarily arrest hundreds of civil society members and freeze their assets.
Rights-respecting U.N. Security Council members should ensure that the Indian government does not try to use its abusive domestic counterterrorism policies as a template for Counter-Terrorism Committee guidelines or council resolutions. And they should hold other council members to the same standard. In the past, an array of council members including France, Egypt, and Indonesia have proposed counterterrorism measures that seemed likely to weaken rights protections.
While not all of these problematic efforts have succeeded, the Security Council’s top-down approach to counterterrorism since 9/11, marked by opacity and scant opportunity for input from the broader U.N. membership, much less from civil society, requires urgent reform. Binding Security Council resolutions have required member states to criminalize terrorism and terrorist financing without defining what constitutes a terrorist act. The resolutions’ vague and overbroad language and absence of rights protections have enabled governments to unjustly target an array of groups, individuals, and activities as “terrorist,” regardless of whether they pose genuine security threats.
Governments have an obligation to protect the public from harm, including by countering violent extremist groups’ use of the internet and emerging technologies. But initiatives to do so should result from an engaged process involving multiple stakeholders, including all U.N. member states and civil society, to ensure they include rights protections. As the U.N. notes in its Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, repeatedly reaffirmed by the General Assembly since 2006, rights and security must go hand in hand. Rights abuses can backfire, the strategy warns, fueling rather than curbing armed extremism. Islamist armed extremists often use abuses against Muslims – from the torture and indefinite detention of foreign Muslims during the U.S.-led “Global War on Terror” to the 2002 Hindu pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat – to justify their atrocities.
India and the rest of the Security Council should be encouraging a rights-based approach to countering terrorism at home and abroad, not eroding it.