Q&A: Jean-Paul Laborde on counter-terrorism

Can human rights be protected in the fight against “terror”? We ask the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee chief.

Jean-Paul Laborde
Laborde at the 13th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice [UN/DPI]

The fight against terrorism has been a major theme at the 13th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice – and in the five years since the last congress was held, the face and tactics of such armed groups have changed drastically. Consider ISIL’s recruiting tactics, social media savvy and multinational tactics on the ground in Syria and Iraq, as well as its development of ties with groups such as the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria and Boko Haram.

UN Assistant Secretary-General Jean-Paul Laborde, who is also the executive director at the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee, spoke to Al Jazeera about the new challenges and new approaches being taken on by the CTED in engaging the global judiciary, defining terrorism and seeing effective law enforcement that does not violate human rights in the quest to fight terrorism.

Al Jazeera:  So what is the approach now?

Laborde: The multi-faceted response to terrorism – this Congress is on the prevention of crime, not only on the rule of law. This is really an interesting, new trend in the Security Council … according to what we see now, there are all these elements concerning education, human development in general and countering violent extremism that are integral parts of countering terrorism…if the law enforcement and all the penal machinery were able to counter terrorism alone, by itself, it could have been known before, and it would be known now.

How would this work on a state level?

It’s the link between counter-terrorism and the rule of law…Up until now, we have dealt with the training of judges and prosecutors and law enforcement, but we have never tried to put together the judges of supreme courts. You know, we don’t even have a definition of terrorism on a global level, only the acts of terrorism.

Do you have any recommendations on how to define it?

No. That will be with the judges.

There is a concern that the global fight against terrorism has lead to excessive use of force by law enforcement and infringement on human rights, including privacy in the face of mass surveillance. How can an international the rule of law work such that it guarantees basic human rights while effectively fighting terrorism?

You need an ethical, independent and professional judiciary. Otherwise rule of law does not exist. And if you don’t define rule of law with concrete action, it remains only theoretical…we need to say that we respect human rights, we need to have a body that gives a definition of crimes, and you need a fair trial procedure. But that’s not what we can do here.

Even the definition of a fair trial differs from state to state…

The concept of a fair trial should be conceived on the covenant of civil rights in the UN…You know that terrorism isn’t defeated only by military action – we know that.  We know that military actions can be seen by countries as necessary. But we need to have a rule of law.

What’s the biggest obstacle in getting this done?

The judges in the supreme courts need to be aware of international instruments. As a former judge of a supreme court, I can tell you that very often we look only into our national body of law.

But then isn’t there also an issue of sovereignty in asking that judges look to international law over national law?

Yes! Penal law is one of the most visible instruments of sovereignty.  However now, if you look at terrorist organizations, they are just laughing at sovereignty. They ignore it…so if we don’t involve the judiciary, you’re going to have national reactions to solving international problems and you’re never achieve a solution.

To what extent does this new mandate that you’re working on apply to law enforcement? Because there are concerns, in many countries, that this new emphasis on counter-terrorism is used as a justification to stifle dissent. How do you prevent that kind of overreach?

Our mandate is mainly to assess the counter-terrorism capacity of member states…on the law, on the judiciary, on the law enforcement and on prevention. What we always recommend is that every action that is undertaken to counter terrorism is undertaken under the international standards…it’s proven that if you go another way, it won’t work – not in the long term.