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Terrorism: A Comprehensive Response, or an Opportunity Missed?

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Across the world, governments are actively undermining human rights in the name of the fight against terrorism. How far has this process of erosion actually inflamed terrorism, rather than staunching it - particularly given that these measures have all too often targeted and discriminated against those very communities whose support is needed to fight terrorism?

It would have been good if this issue could have been discussed in depth rather than just answered at the end of this morning's discussion between Michael Chertoff, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz of Pakistan, David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative party in the UK, and Gijs de Vries, the EU's counter-terrorism coordinator in the session "The comprehensive response to terrorism".

But the panel included no representatives of civil society - no NGOs, no religious leaders, no representatives of groups of victims of terrorism, nor of groups of those who have been the victims of sweeping anti-terrorism measures. It would have been good for there to have been an opportunity for their voices to be heard from the Davos platform. As it was, we were left hearing only one side of a vitally important argument.

Nonetheless, I was able to ask the panel this question. The reality is that, in seeking to fight terrorism, the USA, the UK, Pakistan and members states of the European Union - among many others - have undermined fundamental principles of human rights and justice. They have promoted the use of torture; they have created a shameful network of secret detention centres and they have resorted to indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Mr. De Vries acknowledged that the response of the EU has not been consistent and that torture can never be justified. Prime Minister Aziz of Pakistan spoke of the need to win the hearts and minds of people and acknowledged that this requires more than security measures. Mr Chertoff felt that not every departure from civil liberties should be seen as catastrophic. He used, as an example, the circumstances in which states may legitimately, in his eyes, dispense with trial by jury; the irony is, of course, that the current US Administration has gone so much further than even this questionable example and has offered those it is holding at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere either no trial at all, or a form of trial that breaches both international standards and US law.

For his part, David Cameron took a swipe at the judiciary in the UK who, according to him, had wrongly interpreted the European Convention on Human Rights. He called for a "common-sense approach" - the implication seemed to be that there was something irrational about respect for human rights principles and the rule of law.

All in all, it was a deeply dispiriting event and a missed opportunity. The World Economic Forum should perhaps run history lessons for political leaders, starting with the words of John Locke: "Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins".

For more Davos coverage -- including news, videos, and blog posts -- visit the Davos Conversation site.