THE BLOG

Using the 'T' Word to Justify Human Rights Abuses

From China to Burma to Egypt, some governments invoke the "T" word to justify official conduct that runs afoul of international human rights law.

Often politically motivated rather than security oriented, this trend risks endangering the very security interests officials claim to be protecting.

While sharing in the unequivocal condemnation of terrorism, this post briefly examines the phenomenon in the afore-mentioned countries.

China

In China, Uighur Muslims are an oppressed ethnic and religious minority numbering approximately 8.9 million. Commonly regarded as a security threat, the Uighurs suffer discrimination codified into national law.

The country's policy on religion is regulated by the National Regulations on Religious Affairs (NRRA). The law includes vague language concerning national security that allows the government to restrict the peaceful activity of the Uighur Muslims, among others. They claim to do so in an effort to eradicate "extremism and terrorism."

Chinese officials prohibit Uighur students and government employees from manifesting religious belief outwardly. For instance, headscarves and beards are not allowed. They also view student prayer as illegal as well as religious classes that have not otherwise received prior government approval.

As a result of continued abuses, tensions have been simmering in Uighur majority cities with riots occurring in April, June and August 2013. Unfortunately, violence erupted again in October 2013 when a man rammed a vehicle into a crowd of tourists visiting Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Chinese officials immediately attributed the act to Uigher "militants" and dubbed it a "terrorist attack" although observers are skeptical of the claim.

One month later, in November 2013, the government launched "Project Beauty" -- an initiative targeting Muslim women and persuading them to unveil -- in a purported effort to enhance security. Project Beauty checkpoints can now be found in predominantly Uighur cities. It is an interesting development since women were not involved with the "terrorist attack" in Beijing but remain conspicuous targets for anti-Muslim bigotry.

According to the U.S. State Department, Chinese "authorities often failed to distinguish between peaceful religious practice and criminal or terrorist activities." In its annual report for 2013, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) characterizes China's religion policy as "counterproductive," and "leading to the very type of extremism Beijing's policies are allegedly trying to forestall."

Egypt

Political turmoil continues to roil Egypt. Pertinent to the instant discussion, the Egyptian government designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization back in December, criminalizing membership and association with it.

The designation came immediately after a bomb attack on an Egyptian police station. Several months earlier, the military removed then President Mohamed Morsy, a leading member in the Brotherhood, from high office presumably because of widespread popular discontent with his leadership.

In response, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement attributing the designation to political motivations and, in essence, "a desire to crush a major opposition movement."

Egyptian authorities ascribed the violence to the Brotherhood without investigating the bomb attack or providing evidence of its connection to it. Shortly afterwards a different group (with no affiliation to the Brotherhood) claimed responsibility for the attack. The Brotherhood has renounced violence since the 1970s, HRW observes in its statement.

Some analysts now worry that such Egyptian government excesses may push otherwise peaceful Brotherhood members onto a path toward violent extremism.

In a related memo to President Obama, The Brookings Institution, an American think tank based in Washington, D.C., advises, "the Brotherhood's exclusion from politics could lead its members to give up on peaceful politics, radicalize and return to terrorism..." It describes the terrorist designation as "...less an empirical description than a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Myanmar

In January 2014, the Burmese government also played the terrorism card to deflect international pressure for a human rights inquiry into the killings of more than 40 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

By way of background, Rohingya Muslims comprise approximately 5 percent of Myanmar's estimated 60 million population, and suffer from discriminatory laws and policies that restrict the free exercise of religion, freedom of movement, and access to education and equal employment opportunity. The group remains "stateless" because the country's 1982 Citizenship Act deprives them of citizenship rights further exasperating their struggle for survival. Notably, the UN has described the Rohingya as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

After the killings were reported last month, Burmese officials claimed that militants had murdered a police officer making no mention of the Rohingya murders. The government also accused international journalists of disseminating misinformation concerning the Rohingya.

According to the UN, however, Burmese security officials and local villagers were complicit in the Rohingya murders. Interestingly, Burmese government officials provided no evidence to support their allegations concerning the incident.

Observations and Concluding Thoughts

It is significant to note that China and Egypt signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); however, Myanmar has yet to sign or ratify the international human rights treaty. The ICCPR sets forth individual's basic civil and political rights as well as a nation's responsibility to protect them.

These include, for example, the right to life (violated in Burma), freedom of assembly and association (violated in Egypt) and freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including peaceful manifestations (violated in China).

To be sure, human rights are universal, for all human beings in all places. Still Burmese, Chinese and Egyptian government officials violated one or more of these rights in each of the cases above, without consequence for their actions.

Alluding to terrorism serves to stigmatize groups, justify abuses and silence related criticism -- further exasperating human rights abuses inflicted by Chinese, Burmese and Egyptian officials.

We should remain steadfast and resolute in our determination to eliminate violent extremism. And, claims like those described above should be viewed by the international community with an increasingly critical eye where credible evidence is lacking.

They should also be met by a realization that such human rights abuses jeopardize the very security interests they presume to protect.