Whenever security is discussed, there seem to be two sides emerging, seemingly one contesting the other: Security v. Human Rights. The debate becomes stronger whenever the discussion regards terrorism, a crime and security threat that is very high on the agenda of the international community and has been pivotal in the change of laws and the adoption of security measures worldwide. Trying to mediate between the two sides and help them reach a consensus in a democratic society can be a challenge, although in reality there is no conflict at all between the two of them. They are more than complementary; they are the two sides of the same coin.
Security serves as the base upon which all human activity takes place and can flourish. From everyday functioning as a human being to the economic development of countries, it all depends upon the principle that there is security as a foundation. Security can be regarded as a human right of the utmost importance, with impact in several expressions of social reality. This is why, when the threat of terrorism arises (or of any other serious crime for that matter), it is imperative for states to take measures and address the danger. It is not that statistically terrorist attacks take place so often, but it is the surprise nature and blind hostility of terrorism (at least in its recent forms) that make victimization an everyday possibility people dread. Thus, they are ready to accept anything, any measure that seems to provide, or indeed provides protection from a terror attack.
On the other hand, human rights, or liberties (as some use the term) are also fundamental to our democratic societies. After centuries of struggle, political, philosophical, and religious ideologies that have influenced our civilization and connected human dignity with freedom, it is almost impossible to conceive the notion of a state that does not respect the full range of human rights protected by international conventions and modern constitutions. But freedom and all the set of human rights can be enjoyed, when there is security and a strong legal framework that protects them.
Citizens should actually not be divided into those who are in favor of the application of law and those who are in favor of the protection of human rights. Both positions in the contemporary legal civilization echo the same thing. One cannot support the law, want its enforcement, but turn a blind eye when- for example- police officers use illegal means (like torture) in order to extract from a terrorist a forced confession. Committing a terror attack and torturing during police custody are both crimes, punishable under criminal law. There cannot be an “à la carte” legality and sense of justice when we are talking about illegal activities.
Furthermore, when people want security, they are seeking after conditions that make them be and feel secure. A state where police can arrest you with little reason except for the arbitrary power of police and the accused has to prove innocence instead of the authorities proving guilt is not a state of security. It is per definition a state of insecurity, creating societies of insecurity. Police states are not something the world has not seen, the experience has been bitter in many countries with their citizens remembering how it is to fear under constant fear of been arrested and interrogated. Moreover, the standard accusation has always been terrorism or security reasons (a vague accusation used to handle all those who would stand against tyranny). So actually those who support security should first of all support human rights and a legal framework that in theory and practice effectively protects freedom and human rights.
The most difficult and critical situation arises when the subject is to change the existing legal framework in ways that new laws introduce new standards of less human rights protection. This way law enforcement acts according to law, but this law fails to protect human rights and liberties adequately. The change in American legislation with the Patriot Act, the “enhanced methods of interrogation” and Guantanamo are blatant examples, along with changes in the legislation of European countries, like the UK and France (to name but a few). During critical times as such, when there are proposals for laws, constitutions, even international conventions to be changed, then security should become part of the projected society we are wishing for with the changes envisaged. Hence, we go back- once more- to what security means. Does it mean only preventing or thwarting terror attacks (keeping in mind that no law and no security measure can 100% ensure a positive outcome)? Or does it also mean protecting citizens from a state that could become oppressive and violent against them? At the end of the day, what are the qualities of the state and society that we are so eager to protect from terrorists?
As the war against terrorism has not been yet won (and it is doubtful if it is a war that can be won, at least not in the way history speaks of wars been won) and on the contrary new groups and threats emerge, knowing where we stand as societies are imperative. In democracies, we have to bypass the dilemma “security or human rights” that is presented as expressing two different schools of thought. The common interest and point of connection of the two sides that must be highlighted and realized is that security and human rights are so interconnected that they can be considered one, indivisible value and principle to govern and inspire any counterterrorism policy. Both offer an incentive, but also pose restrictions, necessary for our societies to be worth defending against terrorists.