Liberty or security?

November 29, 2020

In the US, civil liberties were compromised following the 9/11 attacks

Although security versus liberty is not a new concern in the history of human rights, it became a more qualified one after the 9/11 attacks. The tragic episode changed attitudes towards human liberties in many societies – from some of the most developed to the under-developed.

United States predictably led the way in compromising on the liberties in the name of security following the devastating attacks on twin towers in New York, the worst terrorist attack on US soil. Many other countries were later affected by the wave of terrorism that swept the globe after 9/11.

In the US, civil liberties were compromised. Many restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms of expression, movement and religion were imposed – some of which have survived to this day. The prime purpose of these was to secure the US homeland and safeguard its people from threats of terrorism and politically motivated violence.

In Pakistan, which has a weak democratic system with already compromised fundamental rights, rights to life, due process and freedoms of expression and association were severely curtailed.

While most of the compromises on citizens’ rights were made in the name of fighting the terrorists and violent extremists, a large number of those affected by the changes in the security regime have been innocent citizens. The draconian laws have been used to target not only the militants and their facilitators but also political workers and social activists.

Over the past two decades, various governments have used this tool against their political opponents to restrict their political freedoms and stop political gatherings. The right to assemble has been seriously curtailed by frequent resort to Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code and arrest and detention in the name of Maintenance of Public Order.

Another dimension of the debate on security versus liberty is the enforced disappearances and the issue of missing persons. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a non-government body to monitor the rights situation in the country, has long emphasised that every enforced disappearance implies an absence of the right to liberty, security and life. It also implies a lack of guarantees that one cannot be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment. By making one entirely out of reach, this also denies the person the right to a fair trial or effective remedy. The families and friends of the disappearing persons are also denied the right to know the circumstances of the disappearance.

“In Pakistan, the legal system, state infrastructure and societal consensus have been deliberately moulded, particularly since the 1980s, to prefer security at the expense of fundamental freedoms. The colonial legal system that we inherited had public order, stability and security as its fundamental objectives instead of freedom and human rights. It was a legal system meant to govern subjects and not citizens,” says Saroop Ijaz, the Senior Counsel for Asia for Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately”, he says, “instead of amending and repealing the colonial laws, we built upon them to create a system where a binary is created between individual freedoms and collective security.

n Pakistan, which has a weak democratic system with already compromised fundamental rights, rights to life, due process and freedoms of expression and association were severely curtailed.

“It is often a false choice. Societies and states which prioritise human rights and fundamental freedoms are often successful at making the citizens safer. Those who seek to sacrifice liberty for security are often left with neither. One ongoing example is France, where violent acts of a few are cynically being used to justify draconian and Islamphobic measures which are neither rights respecting nor will make French citizens safer,” he says.

The sectarian violence of the 1990s led to a special law, the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. Post 9/11, security, and the threat of violence were used to roll back citizens’ rights around the world, most notably in the United States, where many draconian laws were introduced.

9/11 and the resulting long conflict in Pakistan resulted in legal and policy measures to fight new challenges. The security challenges that Pakistan faced after 9/11 were very real. They have amplified since then. The response needed to be, and still needs to be, robust. The response needs to be based on reform in the criminal justice system, modernising the law enforcement and security apparatus and fighting radicalization in the society. Freedom and liberty have to be at the heart of this response for reasons of principle and efficiency.

Similarly, following the horrific attack on Army Public School we took several immediate steps to fight terrorism. However, what was required was a wholesale stock taking of the legal, societal and policy measures to counter not only physical terrorism but also the factors which enable and encourage extremist thought and actions.

“The debate between security and freedom is often used as a distraction from taking tough, long-term decisions. In the age of violent terrorism, we need a functional, transparent, and equitable legal system that can prosecute and convict those who commit violent acts. We need modern, well-resourced, accountable law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism.” This can only be done while preserving and promoting human rights and freedom. Else, we risk being neither free nor secure,” warns Ijaz.

“This is not something peculiar to Pakistan. Contraction of liberties has been all over the world. Even in the United States of America. This is what people of the world are coping with these years,” Imtiaz Gul, the security analyst who also the heads Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), observes. Everywhere, the groups that a state perceives as a threat to it are dealt with strictly and liberties are compromised. Such acts also point to an abuse of liberties. For example, journalism seems to have turned into sheer activism and the right to criticise the state and its policies is sometimes abused, he says. “We should realise that liberty is never unlimited and rights come with some responsibilities,” he says.


The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Liberty or security?: In US, civil liberties were compromised following the 9/11 attacks