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A New Approach to Terrorism

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It is hard to believe more than seven years have passed since the Bush administration launched the unfortunately named Global War on Terror -- insisting that any country wanting to remain an ally sign up.

We have had time to reflect on that strategy, and all evidence points to the fact that it has not only been a failure, but worse. It has actually buttressed the very extremists it was designed to defeat. As we consider the future of counter terrorism, I suggest we embrace a three-pronged approach. We must act globally, we must proceed in a lawful manner consistent with our values, and we must enhance human rights.

We must act globally because terrorism is a global problem. No city is immune -- not New York, not Madrid, not Bali, London, Riyadh, Amman, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Mumbai. Not any place. So counter terrorism requires a coordinated international effort. Clearly there are steps governments must take to combat terrorism, and doing so in conjunction with the world community makes sense. Many of those steps will be discussed during the course of today's conference. But labeling those efforts as the so-called Global War on Terror has been destructive.

First, terrorists are criminals who target the innocent. But calling this a war on terror makes them sound like warriors, and we think of warriors as heroic. We should not make terrorist cowards into heroes.

Second, in much of the Muslim world, the Global War on Terror is seen as a code word for a war on Islam. This has undermined our efforts and increased suspicion of our motives.

Third, labeling these collective efforts under the rubric of the Global War on Terror has allowed nations to lump together things that ought not to be conjoined. Because of the failure to clearly define the word terrorism, governments have often labeled whatever they don't like as "a terrorist threat to National Security." As a result, Russians have targeted Georgians, Arab governments have targeted opposition politicians, Chinese have targeted Tibetans, the Sudanese target the people of Darfur. Elsewhere, journalists, trade union organizers, women's rights advocates and even shepherds from the wrong tribe have been labeled terrorists and hauled off to jail.

The governments that comprise the United Nations must take some responsibility for this, because they have failed for years to come up with an international definition for "terrorism". The UN has drafted more than a dozen treaties addressing terrorism, but without an agreed upon definition of the term, the central treaty on the subject, the Comprehensive Convention against Terrorism, is both incomplete and ungratified. It lays dormant. So today the onus is on governments to work through the United Nations to end this impasse and to define the term. The absence of a clear definition has allowed too much harm to be carried out in the name of counter-terrorism for far too long.

Beyond defining terms, we must proceed lawfully, and consistently with universal values. Too often, law enforcement is rank with corruption, and preys upon rather than protects the public. There is a range of actions countries can take to combat terrorism by improving the professionalism of law enforcement, from assuring decent wages to improving techniques for surveillance, investigation, and evidence gathering. For the sake of discussion, I'd like to focus specifically on interrogation methods.

The underlying theory of interrogation should be to build trust with the interrogated, so that, over time, the person being questioned views his or her interrogator as their last best hope. A person in detention who is being interrogated is in isolation. Experience interrogators know that they can turn this relationship into a major advantage and play on the fact that they are the detainee's sole regular contact to the outside world. As Air force interrogator Matthew Alexander put it in his book How to Break a Terrorist:

The quickest way to get most captives talking is to be nice to them. That means, getting to know the subject better than he knows himself and then manipulating him by role playing, flattering, misleading, and nudging his perception of the truth slightly off center. The goal is to turn the subject around so that he begins to see strong logic and even wisdom against his own comrades or cause. Respect, rapport, hope, cunning and deception are our tools.

Of course this methodology, in addition to being the most effective, has the added virtue of being legal.

In contrast, torture and other forms of forced coercion are not only illegal, morally repugnant, and harmful to any country's image, they also are ineffective. Torture victims will tell tormentors whatever they think they want to hear to make the pain or cruel treatment stop. Thus information obtained using official cruelty is often misleading and useless.

In addition, the use of torture plays precisely into the hands of the very extremists we are trying to stop. Their argument is that we are corrupt, unjust regimes that must be toppled. So when we use torture, we become morally corrupt and unjust, proving their point. Indeed, Alberto Mora, who served as General Counsel of the Navy under Donald Rumsfeld, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that the number one recruiting tool for insurgents in Iraq were "the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo."

We owe it to our troops and other security services to remove this stain that ultimately will only expose more of them to risk.

Beyond interrogation, the idea of using preventive detention, and holding people indefinitely is a misguided police. So is the idea of creating national security courts. These measures are not needed and invite denials of basic due process of law to people suspected of committing terrorist crimes or participating in conspiracies linked to such crimes. These people ought to be investigated diligently, charged with crimes and tried in national courts. These prosecutions should be vigilant and those found guilty punished.

The military commissions in Guantanamo have been a failure by every possible measure. It was gratifying to see that President Barack Obama, in one of his first acts as President, made the call to suspend the military tribunals in Guantanamo. I am confident that he will order Guantanamo closed as soon as possible and will instruct his legal team to begin reviewing all 245 cases of the people still being held there to determine how to best resolve them. Many will be transferred to their home countries. Some will be resettled in third countries. Some of these cases should, I think, end up in US Federal courts.

In these and related areas, we must be vigilant to assure that we pursue policies that promote collective security and individual liberties. In my view, this is not a zero sum game. It is mistaken to assume that we must sacrifice liberty to achieve security or vice versa.

Our society can embrace various security policies that are prudent and erode no rights. We are all now more willing than ever before to endure the inconveniences of heightened security, longer lines at airports, metal detectors in all government buildings, and the like. But we should proceed with wisdom and caution when any government or leader proposes policies like the use of coercive interrogations which play to our worst fears. A war on terror which undermines the most basic values of society -- life, liberty, the rule of law -- is not worth waging if we end up creating a society which mirrors the repression we battled in the first place. Instead, we must be vigilant to conduct ourselves in manner which strictly adheres to the UN Charter and the International covenants on human rights.

This leads to my third and final point:

There will always be extremists in society, from Tim McVeigh to Osama bin Laden. We must isolate and contain the most dangerous elements. But for isolation to be truly effective, the fanatics must be regarded as treacherous by society at large. Thus, people who live under repressive governments must have viable means to create change -- to create a more just and peaceful world for themselves and their children -- without turning to violence.

We should work to assure that all governments comply with the international human rights instruments which assure peaceful means to create change through elections, as well as free expression.

In societies which are repressive, we should identify the agents of change and buttress their work. Sometimes, this will mean calling attention to individuals who advocate for human rights. But we must proceed with caution. Often, this will mean echoing the aspirations of the citizens of the country at large. Iran is a good example. Rather than criticizing Ahmadinejad for his country's nuclear program, we may be more effective at calling his leadership into question by directing tough questions to issues like why he has failed to deliver decent schools, clean water, and good wages to his people -- not to mention smothering internal dissent.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must assure that all people, endowed as they are with inalienable rights, have the knowledge and capacity to demand respect for those rights. That is why we at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights have developed the Speak Truth to Power human rights education program.

At RFK Speak Truth, we teach students about the fundamentals of international human rights law, and provide them with a toolkit for action, so they can create change in their communities, their countries and the larger world on everything from free expression to trafficking to Corporate Responsibility. With such knowledge in hand, the next generation is free from the siren call to violence which has so plagued our world, and instead can take charge of their own destinies.