Civil Society Facing the Consequences of Terrorism: Victims of Terrorism, Civil Liberties and Human Rights

Civil Society Facing the Consequences of Terrorism: Victims of Terrorism, Civil Liberties and Human Rights

Distinguished authorities,
Dear friends,
Ladies and gentlemen,

After hearing this evening’s authoritative speeches by the specialists who have taken part in the opening session and the two panel discussions, the one dedicated to victims and the one focusing on the social and economic costs of terrorism, I can assure you I have no intention whatsoever of belabouring you with a long address on issues which, for that matter, will be addressed in detail tomorrow.

I just want to say a few words with two goals in mind: first, to express my satisfaction about being able to join you and share a pleasant evening sponsored by the governments of Spain and Switzerland, to whose representatives, and especially Ambassador Juan Manuel Barandica, I am grateful for the invitation, and to make a few brief remarks that come to mind through the questions this seminar will examine.

If there is a phenomenon that is categorically incompatible with the rule of law and with the most elementary respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, even from a purely conceptual point of view, it is terrorism, in any of its various forms and expressions. Democratic societies –whose nature is identified with people’s desire to live together in freedom and whose goal is to reach the highest possible degrees of social progress and individual realisation– find in terrorism and terrorist acts their cruellest enemy. The actions of terrorists always target the very essence of democracy and attack its ultimate goals through fanaticism, hatred and senselessness. For this reason, although I would have liked to take part in all of the panel discussions, I am drawn in particular to the one which tomorrow will focus on analysing human rights and civil liberties at a time of unease brought about by the fight against terrorism.

Fortunately, the vast majority of democratic societies are now convinced that the greatest threat to world peace is the criminal obsession that terrorist groups constantly display. Despite the strength of democratic principles, broadened and developed through the generalisation and regulation of human rights, through their enforcement in various bodies of law, and through their application in doctrine and jurisprudence, no society is safe from those who engage in violence. And for this reason governments must be alert in order to avoid by all means the danger of barbarity and terrorism.

In this regard, aside from political and governmental measures that might prevent or reduce the likelihood of acts that cause pain and terror, the institutions of democratic states are also obliged to confront certain dangers which, for the very reason that they do not seem to be dangers, are potentially even more damaging. I am referring to two specific weapons, among many others, which the instigators of terrorist acts use with cunning and clear malevolence. In both cases, on the basis of my own personal experience, they use as an ideal shield a self-serving version of people’s most fundamental human rights and liberties.

In the first case they do not hesitate to attack, with all the means at their disposal, those measures of an administrative or judicial nature which disrupt or hinder terrorist acts. This is what happened, for instance, in the late 1980s when Spain started dispersing ETA prisoners in jails across the country to separate them from each other and encourage their rehabilitation.

Another commonly used method, one which you know very well, has to do with the suspicious slant that media organisations close to terrorist organisations give in documents prepared by supranational institutions, even those devised by experts hired by the United Nations, for instance. I again cite personal experience, this time while acting as Ombudsman, when on two occasions the final reports issued several years ago by Special Rapporteurs did not reflect certain documented information which had been provided by the institution I represent. Naturally, this omission affected the conclusions of the reports, which almost exclusively featured statements by groups or persons close to terrorist groups.

As is only natural, this kind of behaviour clearly strengthens the inadmissible arguments of those who encourage terrorism and make it possible. On the other hand it helps discredit the most efficient measures in the fight against this scourge that is so widespread in our time.

But if there is a special reason to feel reassured, it is the fact that societies have finally understood that it is people, first and foremost, and not just the democratic system in its abstract or conceptual configuration, who bear the brunt of terrorism in the most cruel fashion. It might seem that this has always been understood. However, the truth is that, in too many cases and around the world, the direct victims of terrorist attacks have been subjected to a kind of oblivion and even guilty silence.

In the past, the overall fight for democratic stability and the legitimate search for better ways of consolidating peaceful co-existence have led government officials to neglect paying tribute and rightful attention to all those who have been innocent victims of terrorist violence, and to their families. In many cases, after carrying out their bloody and merciless acts, terrorist organisations have claimed a second victim in the very dignity of democratic society, torn by fear or shame.

This is behind us now. Today, societies which want to share their vision for living together in democracy and freedom are more aware that respect for and remembrance of those who lost their lives or rights at the hands of murderers and those who destroy liberty are, as a Spanish poet once said, ‘a weapon loaded with the future’.

This remembrance which democratic society can offer manifests itself in widely varying ways. It can be through aid to survivors or the relatives of those killed; or through periodic tributes rich in sincerity and gratitude; or by embracing their suffering as a show of loyalty to the goals of freedom and co-existence among human beings. In any case, it should be done by firmly and relentlessly fighting all manifestations of terrorist violence and preventing the emergence of new threats. Through whatever of these means it might be, we can say that gradually the always innocent victims of terrorism are finding the place they deserve through recognition of their living testimony by democratic governments.

With no need to look further, and given the knowledge I have through the post I now hold, the reports that the Ombudsman’s office submits to Parliament each year spell out what Spanish government bodies do to try to compensate in some way the irreparable losses caused by terrorism. They also address the many new solutions that can still be implemented to alleviate, perhaps as a form of moral support, the pain of those who have suffered and continue to suffer from crimes of terrorism.

As the various panels scheduled for this seminar get down to work, the lectures by specialists from various countries can brief us on the situation and the most up-to-date proposals that bring us back to the problems we face today –problems which are quite different but the same time linked to each other–. Tomorrow, the debate will be further enriched with new presentations and observations on the necessary link between human rights and the fight against terrorism. It is a debate which must not neglect those who have suffered the greatest violation of fundamental rights, either in their life or their physical integrity.

The best antidote against heartless and well-equipped terrorism are the victims themselves, or, better said, the open and testimonial conduct of victims. Victims who do not hide away to dwell on their wounds but rather defy, without fear or weakness, the inadmissible demands of murderers and expose the tricks of those who commit outrages for evil purposes. Victims who do not seek a scrap of power or futile tributes but rather adopt a unified awareness of their diversity and circumstances so as to propose a doctrine and a series of common and reasonable actions. Victims who feel like citizens aspiring to everything they are entitled to, but do not embrace a superficial mantra of privilege and specific favours. Victims who, because of the very fact that they are victims, think with greater clarity about the values that must guide society as a whole.

Setting aside the characteristics of each country and regional context, one can state that those values put all of us who live under democratic systems on a par. And this is also the feature which defines us compared to the forces of terror and death. In the end, civilised, democratic societies are characterised by respect for the values that constitute the rule of law. The law joins us all and represents the overriding, decisive contract which protects us from brutality and outrage. If we reject the rule of law, all that would remain is despotism. In that clash between the rule of law and the law of the jungle, the victims of terrorism hold an important position. This is because it is the victims who have borne the heaviest and most painful burden for and in defence of the rule of law. Indeed, the memory of those who have fallen or suffered the consequences of terrorism has prompted us to overcome all kinds of temptations, even that of responding with violence, and return always to the validity of the initial contract embodied in the legitimately constituted State, in the rule of law.

This is no secret to those who conjure up ethnic, sociological, religious or cultural myths, and then perpetrate murders, kidnappings or extortion. Nor is it a secret to those who defend or justify them, or provide them with excuses that claim oppression or colonialism, ignoring the truth that comes from the direct testimony of victims or the awful consequences of mistreatment and crime.

In conclusion, we must keep firmly in mind the words of Goethe when he said ‘only he is worthy of liberty… who can conquer it for himself each day’. Let us win that longed-for freedom day by day, minute by minute. Our permanent presence and the memory entrusted to us represent the best strategy for making ‘the beasts find a place to hide and remain in their lairs’.

I do not wish to take more of your time. Thank you.