Canada and the US: Efforts to counter terrorism must protect human rights defenders


Legislative and other measures to counter terrorism being developed by countries including Canada and the United States must not result, whether deliberately or inadvertently, in the suppression of dissent or the criminalisation of human rights defenders, ISHR said today.

(Geneva) - Legislative and other measures to counter terrorism being developed by countries including Canada and the United States must not result, whether deliberately or inadvertently, in the suppression of dissent or the criminalisation of human rights defenders, the International Service for Human Rights said today.

The call came as concerns surfaced both as to the potential for proposed amendments to Canada's anti-terror laws to criminalise legitimate free speech and enable the monitoring and surveillance of activists, and the potential for US efforts to combat extremism to be used as a pretext by repressive governments for cracking down on civil society and dissent.

Canada’s Anti-Terror Act 2015, or Bill C-51, which is currently before the House of Commons, would amend Canada's Criminal Code to provide for a new offense of 'advocating or promoting the commission of terrorism offences in general'. It would also introduce a Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, enabling monitoring and information-sharing regarding any ‘activity that undermines the security of Canada’, including interference with the financial, economic and diplomatic capabilities of Canada.

'The proposed amendments to the Criminal Code are so vague and broad as to have the potential to criminalise legitimate free speech guaranteed both by international human rights law and Canada’s own Charter of Rights and Freedoms” said Ms Pooja Patel of ISHR.

'Similarly, proposed legislation enabling surveillance and information sharing regarding "any activity" that undermines the economic or diplomatic capabilities of Canda is so broad as to clearly have the potential to interfere with the important work of human rights defenders and environmental activists. The vital work of human rights defenders to expose and seek accountability for human rights violations that are committed or acquiesced in either by either Canada or Canadian companies will often have economic and diplomatic ramifications. That doesn't make such vital work a legitimate target of surveillance and information sharing,' Ms Patel said.

Concerns in relation to the Canadian legislation came as Amnesty International and others expressed concern that renewed US efforts to combat extremism do not contain adequate human rights safeguards and that the imperative to counter-terrorism is being used by repressive regimes in States such as Bahrain, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to further restrict civil society. In the lead up to President Obama's recent global summit on countering extremism, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid warned that, 'the space for dissent in many countries is collapsing under the weight of either poorly-thought out, or indeed exploitative, counter-terrorism strategies … [placing] human rights defenders under enormous pressure in many parts of the world today … [where] they risk imprisonment or worse in the peaceful defence of basic rights’. Organisations including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Human Rights First have urged the US and President Obama to ensure that 'advancing human rights, accountability and the rule of law is at the heart of any sustainable and effective strategy to combat violent extremism'.

'The work of human rights defenders and other civil society actors is crucial to address inequality and to promote good governance and inclusive development, all of which contribute to national security and combating extremism,' said Ms Patel. UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly, Maina Kiai, expressed similar views recently when he said, 'the rights to peaceful assembly and of association do not encourage extremism, chaos, or violence but are, in fact, the best antidotes we have against all of these ills'.

'It is both concerning and counter-productive that, despite the positive relationship between an enabling environment for civil society and the interests of national security, counter-terrorism measures are increasingly being developed and used to target, restrict and criminalise the work of human rights defenders, in countries from China to Chile, and from the United Kingdom to the United Arab Emirates,' said Ms Patel.

Such regressive developments come despite the Human Rights Council’s calls in Resolutions 22/6 and 25/18 for States to ensure that ‘measures to combat terrorism and preserve national security … do not hinder the work and safety of individuals, groups and organs of society engaged in promoting and defending human rights’. 

'It is incumbent on States such as Canada and the US - both of which are strong and committed supporters of the work of human rights defenders at the international level - to ensure that their own efforts to counter terrorism do not lead directly or indirectly to the closing of civil society space, whether at home or abroad. They can do this both by ensuring that their own counter-terror laws and policies are specific, targeted, safeguarded and proportionate, and by encouraging other States to recognise and respect the vital role of human rights defenders, independent journalists and other civil society actors in promoting peace and security,' Ms Patel said.

Together with Article 19, FIDH, the International Commission of Jurists and the World Organisation against Torture, ISHR will host a major high-level event on the relationship between human rights defenders and national security at the Palais des Nations in Geneva from 15h00 on 10 March 2015.

Contact: Pooja Patel, ISHR, on


  • North America
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • China
  • United Arab Emirates
  • United Kingdom
  • United States