Special Reports

Counter-terrorism, human rights and the rule of law in Africa


We are now well into the second decade since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 so vividly placed transnational terrorism on the international agenda. The far-sighted response at the time by the UN Security Council was based on the understanding that adherence to rule of law and human rights principles was indispensable to effective long-term counter-terrorist strategies. The main tenet was that in order to preserve our own values in the face of a complex open-ended conflict, and to avoid a self-defeating and hypocritical posture, counter-terrorist justice should be fair, and not just firm.

Then, just before the tenth anniversary of the attacks, popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya dramatically altered political and social landscapes across North Africa. The tendency in these countries for authorities to treat critical political voices within an overly broad definition of ‘terrorism’ can be understood as one factor that prevented freer political expression and fuelled serious popular grievance. The uprisings prompted reappraisals further south – from Angola to Zimbabwe – of prevailing assumptions about relationships between regime stability and the human rights climate.

While transnational terrorism of the 9/11 variety has not been at the heart of these more recent debates, rule of law and human rights issues certainly have. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) commissioned this paper as a forward-looking analysis of counter-terrorism in Africa in the second post-9/11 decade.

Most of Africa has been free from any direct impacts of terrorist violence, certainly of the sort that has a transnational or global agenda. Yet global counter-terrorist narratives remain very significant for Africa. This is the case, firstly, because of the degree to which some external actors will inevitably continue to see much of the continent through the (limited) lens of their own national security interests. Secondly, the wider climate for human rights and adherence to the rule of law is inevitably affected by the position that the state takes when defining and responding to what it considers terrorist activity. And, thirdly, African authorities’ actions in the name of preventing and countering terrorist methods take place within a global normative framework – and ought to comply with that framework.

Click here to read the full ISS report.

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