Terrorism Update
Show/Hide Search
    Click to Enlarge

Terrorists, Human Rights and the United Nations
Arundhati Ghose*

I was India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN Offices in Geneva at a time when the issue of militants and known terrorists utilising the UN as a platform to gain some kind of legitimacy came into sharp focus. It was this personal experience that forms the basis of what I write here.


Human rights issues in the UN are handled not just at the level of the annual meetings of the UN General Assembly in New York, but more specifically, through the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC), by the Commission on Human Rights which meets annually in Geneva, by the Centre for Human Rights which has its headquarters in Geneva and operates under the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and by the various instruments and mechanisms set up by these bodies. The Sub-Commission for the Protection of Minorities has also legally evolved a role for itself. It is a subsidiary body of the Commission, composed of independent experts, who are supposed to advise the inter-governmental forum and to bring to its attention patterns of gross violations of human rights anywhere in the world. Since, however, the experts are elected by the Member States of the Commission, the politicisation which rules the Commission has crept into the Sub-Commission as well. It has developed an agenda of its own and its own mechanisms. Its studies and reports are rarely considered by the inter-governmental fora. The main characteristic of the Sub-Commission is the interaction between its members and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who use this opportunity to bring their complaints to the attention of the experts and of the international community.

In addition to these bodies there are the Treaty Bodies. The Human Rights Committee oversees the implementation by States of the obligations they have undertaken under the International Covenants on Human Rights. Other expert bodies have also been set up to monitor the implementation, again by States, of the different Conventions to which they are party. These include the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), The Convention against Torture (CAT), among others. Members of these various expert bodies are elected by the States. All these bodies and mechanisms, such as Working Groups and Special Rapporteurs (both country specific and issue specific), give the idea of an impressive network at the international level, even of activity at the global level, against the violation of human rights anywhere in the world. This would, however, in my view, not be an accurate picture and before I turn to the specifics of the actual practice regarding debates and interventions on human rights issues at the international level, I would like to make at least three general comments.

  • Firstly, since the treatment of human rights issues is handled in the UN by Member States, there is a high degree of politicisation of the subject. The usual pattern of the meetings that I have observed consists of accusations or charges made by countries of the North – the European Union, the US, Canada et al – against violations of human rights by States of the South. The North-South divide is fairly evident in the discussions. Rarely have I heard a country of the North criticising another country from Europe or the US for violations of human rights. Rarely do Governments get together to deal with a human rights issue in a non-politicised way. Part of the problem lies, of course, in the fact that, in almost all western countries, human rights at the international level are handled as a foreign policy issue rather than an issue which affects all society.

  • Secondly, flowing from this, the focus is on violation of human rights by the State and its agents. Though some countries regularly raise the issue of ‘terrorism’, the role of non-State actors is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. India has frequently raised the issue of militant groups sponsored by Pakistan, but this is seen as a part of the ongoing, perennial and to many countries rather boring Indo-Pak exchanges on Kashmir and human rights violations in others’ territories.

  • Thirdly, and perhaps, most important is the role of NGOs in the Human Rights field. There is a veritable industry of human rights organisations – not even the Centre for Human Rights is aware of the antecedents of the thousands who participate in the meetings of the Commission, the Sub-Commission and the Working Groups. These NGOs are powerful, as they are given almost equal speaking time on any subject on the agenda and there appears to be no dearth of funding for these organisations. There are, of course, some who are seriously concerned with human rights violations – if only by States – and base their charge on well documented or well researched situations. But such NGOs are few and far between. There are NGOs that are funded, directly or indirectly, by governments to project their own government’s point of view. There are NGOs who regularly brief their government representatives, before and during meetings and who sometimes act as domestic pressure groups on the government concerned to raise a particular issue about a particular country.

    Most pernicious is what I came to learn was a general practice of many NGOs accredited by ECOSOC after having been vetted by the UN Committee on NGOs, ‘lending’ and sometimes even ‘letting’ their banner to individuals and groups who have not been accepted by ECOSOC. Since the Centre itself has no control on the applications for participation, any person put forward by an accredited NGO – be he a genuine human rights activist, an expert in a particular field of human rights, or a brutal militant guilty of heinous crimes in his home country – is permitted to gain some form of international recognition with the UN offering an international platform for their complaints against the State. My observation of the human rights meetings has led me to the conclusion that the State, especially a State from the South, is automatically held less credible, less truthful, and less reliable than individuals or NGOs who make charges against them.

My own feelings were initially ambivalent. There are legitimate cases – the pro-democracy movement in Burma, Kurds in Turkish Kurdistan, the Tibetans, as also many States that are dominated by settlers (often white and of European extraction), such as in Australia, Canada, the US and much of Latin America – genuine indigenous peoples whose lives and cultures have been all but wiped out by the State. But my ambivalence was quickly corrected, when I found the effort and money put into deflecting these criticisms. Indeed I found it extremely rare that any country from the so-called North would admit to human rights violations in their home States. These nations were now even willing to share with the other members of the international community information regarding how they dealt with issues such as police brutality, custodial deaths, discrimination on the basis of colour etc.

What could, therefore, have been a forum to help States rectify and ameliorate situations of human rights violation in all societies is, I believe, in danger of becoming a sterile forum of North-South confrontation. Even, perhaps, a forum where bilateral quarrels are fought through the use of propaganda and exchanges of charges and counter-charges – for example between India and Pakistan. Not very productive, particularly if one recalls the individuals whose human rights are being violated, and who may look forward with some hope to the more than 50 mechanisms of international institutional appeal and relief created by the human rights industry and the NGOs.

Perhaps one should go back a little in history to try and trace how this degeneration occurred. How the primary human rights forum in the UN system became the politicised and rather ineffective organ it is today. And how, at the high level of elected member-States of the UN, the Human Rights Commission has become a convenient platform for known terrorists and criminals not only to air their views, but also to gain international recognition.

It was the Member States, particularly those of the Non-Aligned Movement, who took both apartheid in South Africa and Israeli practices in the occupied Arab lands to the human rights fora. Not that the activities in these fora were directly effective, but they kept the pressure on South Africa and Israel – and on racial discrimination – focused. This, I believe, established the so-called "country approach" as individual member States, with the help of the NGOs, found the fora convenient to attack the behaviour and practices of their adversaries. Human rights were introduced in the East-West talks during the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe [CSCE] in 1972-73, and human rights have, since then, become an effective foreign policy tool in the hands of the Western powers. The initial objective was to introduce the idea and standards of human rights – beginning with the freer movement of peoples, information and ideas – into interstate relations. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which became the CSCE’s first constitution, codified and established inter alia the principle of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. But in recognising "respect" for these rights as "an essential factor" in the "development of friendly relations and co-operation" among the States, it directly linked progress in human rights to the political and military dimension of international relations.1 Eventually, at the Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension at Moscow in 1991, interference in ‘internal affairs’ became a legitimate action in defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The successor to the CSCE, the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), today has as one of its priority tasks, the monitoring of "the human dimension record of OSCE States in close co-operation with NGOs. The aim is to persuade a State with problems in this area to follow the OSCE’s advice and remedy the situation"2 (Emphasis mine). Enforcement, it was recognised by the OSCE, was with the UN Security Council.

Given the success of the CSCE process, efforts were immediately set afoot to replicate this pattern globally within UN fora. But the global arena had many other players, and the impact of Western powers trying to introduce the methodologies of the CSCE process in, for example, the Commission for Human Rights had unexpected and unforeseen consequences.

Using both experiences, the "country approach" and the CSCE approach, and often depending on NGOs to bring instances of human rights violations to the international level, the focus of debate in the commission shifted.


On July 4, 1997, my nephew, Sanjoy Ghose, a development worker who was fairly well known in developmental circles in India was abducted by a militant group, the United Liberation Front of Asom [ULFA], from his base in Majuli, an island in the State of Assam in India’s North-East. The ULFA, through its ‘Commander-in-Chief’ Paresh Barua, claimed that Sanjoy had been "arrested" and would be "tried" according to ULFA "laws". This same Paresh Barua spoke on the telephone to Sanjoy’s wife, promising to release Sanjoy to a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] if the NGO Sanjoy was heading – AVARD-NE moved out of Assam.

These contacts led to a farrago of lies from ULFA, not only to the family, but also to genuine human rights NGOs concerned with Sanjoy’s fate and the ICRC. I was in Delhi for most of July, trying to work out arrangements for Sanjoy’s release with the ICRC, as instructed by ULFA. The ICRC’s own contacts seemed slim, they appeared to be relying on the BBC correspondent in Calcutta as a go-between with ULFA. The entire effort came to naught, when the Indian Army intercepted a message between ULFA cadres, which claimed that Sanjoy had been killed while trying to escape, by falling off a cliff somewhere in Arunachal Pradesh. The family has heard nothing directly from either Sanjoy or ULFA since.

I was, at that time, India’s Ambassador at Geneva. I was aware that ULFA representatives had been attending various human rights meetings, including meetings of the Commission on Human Rights. In fact, Anup Chetia, the ‘General Secretary’ and Sasha Chowdhury, the ‘Foreign Secretary’ of ULFA made statements to the 53rd (1997) session of the commission, under banners provided to them by ECOSOC accredited NGOs – the Society for Threatened People, a Germany-based organisation which works in close collaboration with the German Government, and a UK-based NGO called Liberation. It is interesting to note that the so-called ‘authorised representatives’ of Liberation frequently included representatives of various Khalistani separatist groups and of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

I was also aware that an unaccredited NGO called the Unrepresented People Organisation (UNPO), a Dutch-based organisation, had been in contact with ULFA leaders, who according to UNPO, wished to join that organisation. It was never clear to me where these ULFA representatives got their funding; staying in Geneva, one of the most expensive cities in the world, would have required considerable finance to sustain the presence of the ULFA representatives for such prolonged periods. Even Arabinda Rajkhowa, the Chairman of ULFA, stayed for several days in Geneva in July 1997, when Sanjoy had already been kidnapped, participating in a meeting of the Sub-Commission’s Working Group on Indigenous People, purporting, no doubt, to represent the ‘indigenous people’ of Assam.

I approached the diplomatic representations of those countries whose NGOs had ‘given’ their banner and sponsorship to ULFA. It soon became evident that these accredited NGOs accepted any person as a ‘representative’, provided he was from a Third World country, without checking the antecedents of the individual or the group and frequently with no knowledge of the context in which the group operated. It appeared to be enough that an individual or a group was protesting against the policies of the government of their home countries with charges, however wild, being accepted at face value. The role and responsibility of many Western governments and their NGOs in permitting the gross abuse of the system by sponsoring criminals, even from a democratic State that runs on the basis of the rule of law, is enormous.

On my return to Geneva on 13th August 1997 I found the Sub Commission on Human Rights in session, and Anup Chetia, the so called ‘General Secretary’ of ULFA slated to speak at the meeting on atrocities allegedly committed by the Indian Army in Assam. By this time, Delhi Interpol had issued a red corner alert for the ULFA leaders, including Anup Chetia, on charges of murder and extortion. Yet I found Chetia had not only free access to the UN building and the sub-commission meetings, but on one occasion was sitting at ease in the delegates’ coffee lounge, apparently quite confident of his ‘immunity’ and security within the UN premises.

The matter was immediately taken up at several levels – not because I was personally involved, but because instructions had been received by the Indian Embassy in Berne to take up the matter with the Swiss Interpol for Chetia’s arrest and repatriation. The Interpol apparently does not have the powers of arrest, and they approached the Geneva Police [the cantonal system in Switzerland requires that the cantonal police make the arrest]. The Geneva police approached the Swiss Mission in Geneva for advice and, according to the Swiss Ambassador, some church NGO as well. In the meantime, I had approached the Director of the UN offices in Geneva and the UN security immediately swung into action. On questioning Chetia, however, they found that he had a perfectly valid Bangladeshi passport under the name of John David Salomar and a perfectly valid Swiss visa to enter Switzerland. It might be noted that the British-based NGO Liberation had sponsored both names ‘Anup Chetia’ and ‘John David Salomar’.4 It was, however, common knowledge in the NGO community milling around the corridors of the UN, that the person in question was Anup Chetia, since he was introducing himself as such. After questioning by the UN Security [the Geneva police cannot enter premises unless specifically requested by the UN] Anup Chetia vanished. Not only did he not speak at the sub-commission, he stopped coming to the UN building altogether. (It is learnt that he was in Switzerland, in the outskirts of Geneva, at least till October 1997).

The legal wrangle then began between the Swiss authorities and the UN legal office and the Centre for Human Rights. The relations between the ‘host country’ [to the UN] and the UN are finalised by an agreement. According to the Centre for Human Rights, the agreement between Switzerland and the UN contained no reference to treatment of NGOs. The UN legal adviser in Geneva referred the matter to UN headquarters in New York. The latter’s reply was somewhat ambiguous, in that it drew on the host country agreement between the UN and the US, in which it was stated that the host country cannot stop any representative of an NGO from attending a UN meeting. A caveat was added, however, that this did not convey immunity of any sort on crimes which may have been committed by the individual concerned, The Swiss Permanent Mission chose to interpret this letter as giving all NGO representatives immunity from arrest and refused to take any action against Chetia. In spite of interventions from the Swiss Foreign Office and Swiss Interpol, in addition to pressure from Government of India offices, Chetia remained free in Switzerland, albeit in hiding, till he himself decided to leave.

Apart from the personal distress and overtones, this incident brought to light the anomalies that had crept into the UN human rights system. While there was sympathy and co-operation from most quarters, there appeared to be little the UN or the Governments could do to prevent a named criminal from attending a UN meeting with impunity. As I have mentioned earlier, representatives of the LTTE, the Khalistanis and other violent armed groups gained repeated access to this international platform, sometimes through the active encouragement of some ECOSOC-accredited NGOs but more often through ignorance, lack of interest in the context in which these groups operate, and the stereotyped image of Third World Governments as uniformly repressive and guilty of human rights violations.

For some time now, there have been discussions in the UN on the issue of terrorism. However, as some NGOs point out President Mandela and President Arafat have been called "terrorists" at one time. There is also ambivalence in the NGO human rights community towards armed groups who abuse human rights norms. There appears to be a cautious recognition that the violent activities of armed groups, particularly against civilians and for political ends, have placed genuine human rights groups in a quandary. To quote from a statements made by a leading human rights activist in India, Ravi Nair: "Even without arguing for a general condemnation of violence as a political strategy, or passing judgements on the ‘merits’ and ‘demerits’ of the ideologies of the armed opposition groups, it bears recognition that in the main such activities do not enjoy widespread support and legitimacy..... the ‘apparent silence’ of some human rights groups on the abuses by armed opposition groups is met with a hostile reception. The activities of the human rights groups can then be construed as partisan and unfair, if not fundamentally misplaced, leading to an increasing loss of credibility and further marginalisation, even with the victim groups.... Should abuses by armed opposition groups be classified as abuses or violations, the latter being used in the case of governments? The difference is not merely semantic but needs to be maintained in the light of the effort of the government to have the international community pay greater attention to the acts of armed opposition groups…" [Emphasis mine].

The statement continues, "Simultaneously there is a need to discuss the nature of the response by the human rights community to abuses by armed opposition groups… We must not underestimate the legitimisation function of human rights activity". Nair, after debating the possible dilution of the mandate of human rights groups by covering abuses by armed groups talks cautiously of "working out a graded response to armed opposition group abuses". He concludes that "the expansion of the mandate of human rights activity to include abuses by armed opposition groups" might overload their ‘mandate’ to the point of complete ineffectively. "If, however, the overall rationale of human rights activity is seen not just as bringing the government in line with constitutional norms and international human rights standards but contributing to a wider political discourse... then a continuous engagement with these issues is inescapable."5

This ‘cautious response’ is possibly common to the international human rights community as a whole, which would explain how, inadvertently, the UN human rights system is being used by armed groups as an international platform, in an attempt to gain legitimacy.

However, some lone voices have been raised – not in the highly politicised Commission, but in the Sub-Commission. Asbjorn Eide the Norwegian expert on the Sub-Commission called for "second generation human rights organisations... which (should seek) to bring to an end the violations carried out by non-governmental entities". He refers to "a direct cult of violence as a way of political participation... and in some cases direct support from the outside to militant groups." Eide sees the danger in not speaking out against these groups in undoing "the human rights edifice" which has been built up over the years.6 However, even Eide was not prepared to admit that some of these groups found space for themselves, and a form of legitimacy, by participating in UN human rights fora under the banner of accredited NGOs, until the events relating to Chetia’s participation in August 1997.

The situation is not under control, though efforts are being made by member States to ensure that NGOs are held accountable for their actions in these fora. There is still a long way to go before the NGOs, particularly the ones based in the West, can understand the dangers to which their actions in sponsoring militant groups in the UN can undermine the very fabric of the norms of human rights behaviour they are trying to build.



Arundhati Ghose was a career diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), and retired as India's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva. She is presently a Member of the Union Public Services Commission, Government of India.

  1. Representatives of thirty-five nations gathered in Helsinki, Finland, in 1975 for a Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. The Final Act of the Conference, known as the Helsinki Accords, sets forth a number of basic human rights:

    "The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

    "They will promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development.

    "Within this framework the participating States will recognise and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.

    "The participating States on whose territory national minorities exist will respect the right of persons belonging to such minorities to equality before the law, will afford them the full opportunity for the actual enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms and will, in this manner, protect their legitimate interests in this sphere.

    "The participating States recognise the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor for the peace, justice and well-being necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and co-operation among themselves as among all States."

  2. Hoynck, Dr. Wilhelm, From CSCE To OSCE: Statements and Speeches of Dr. Wilhelm Hoynck, Secretary General of the OSCE - 1993-96, Secretariat of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Vienna, p. 23.

  3. Vide my letter of August 22, 1997. Our Deputy Permanent Representative, H.K.Singh, had already written on the issue to Jose Bengoa, the Chairman of the Sub-Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities vide his letter of August 14, 1997.

  4. Maggie Bowden, the General Secretary of Liberation, subsequently sent an equivocal "apology" regarding the incident [Vide her Fax of June 23, 1998 to Michele Fedoroff, NGO Section/DESA]. She insisted, however, that Liberation was deceived, and did not act on any "bad motives":

    "Liberation accepts that Anup Chetia deceived us and we genuinely regret this. We obviously were not in a position to check passports or to detect forgeries, neither do we have the practical or financial facilities to vet every single individual with an application where the application is made for and on behalf of an organisation. In this case the application applied for was on behalf of Assam Watch, which is a Human Rights organisation, and has been affiliated to Liberation for the past four years."

    She does not explain, however, how or why the same individual was simultaneously sponsored under two identities. Instead, with a rare disingenuousness she "trusts that the matter can now be consigned to the past".

  5. Ravi Nair's Acceptance Speech at Thiruvananthapuram on the receiving the M A Thomas National Human Rights Award, 10th August, 1997

  6. Asbjorn, Eide, "Towards a second generation of human rights action", Intervention at the Sub-Committee for Human Rights, 14th August, 1995. The statement was highly critical of "violations carried out by non-governmental entities, some of which are more extensive than those carried out by governments." Some excerpts are of particular interest:

    "These acts of terror and indiscriminate killings are often sought to be justified by principles which in themselves sound innocent enough. One of the key words used today is that of self-determination of peoples. Used in the abstract it seems innocent, but when applied in practice it is often a basis for extreme brutality pursued with a conviction that the brutality is justified for some higher purposes….

    "…there are many transnational influences which have an impact on this [terrorist] violence, and against which the government cannot defend itself. At one end, there is in some cases direct support from the outside to militant groups…

    "Then there is a massive flow of small arms, and arms traders who make a lot of money out of these violent movements, and here drug traffic is a close associate since it is often used to fund the procurement of arms. There is an international mixture of legal and illegal traffic in arms and drugs which is given much too little attention in the human rights discourse. But beyond this is a moral and ideological support, across borders, for some of those militant movements, in recent years couched in the language of ethnic or religious self-determination. We should be very careful in our choice of language and ponder what consequences it has, unless we want to undo the human rights edifice which has painstakingly been built up over the fifty years since the United Nations was formed….."





Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.