Did September 11 mark the end of a period of the expansion of the human rights idea and the beginning of a process of retrenchment? Leading human rights organizations - Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists - fear that this might indeed be the case, and they have been steeling themselves to oppose any attempt to push back their hard-won conquests.
Ever since its inception in the early sixties, the international human rights movement had been steadily gaining ground. It campaigned with increasing effectiveness against political killings, torture and arbitrary imprisonment. It mobilized public opinion against the abuse of State power; in the process, it got the sympathetic attention of the international media and enlisted the support of democratic governments. In the years since the end of the Cold War, the movement gathered further impetus. The global agenda began to be dominated by novel initiatives for the advancement of international justice and for the protection of human rights: international criminal courts, new forms of universal jurisdiction, humanitarian intervention.
Yet in the wake of September 11, the focus of the debate has suddenly shifted, and it now revolves around the extent to which it may be justified to suspend or restrict certain rights - starting with immigration rights and the rights to due process, freedom of expression and privacy - so as to fight the so-called "War on Terror" more effectively. Many opinion makers, especially in the United States, have begun to argue openly that unorthodox wars like the battle against Al Qaeda cannot be won by adhering to the fine print of human rights law or the laws of armed conflict.
In the face of this trend, human rights veterans can hardly be blamed for going on the alert. They sense that they have been though this before. They can well imagine how somewhere in distant Chile, for example, a bunch of retired Pinochet associates are muttering to themselves that finally they are being vindicated by history. ("Didn't we always say that you cannot fight a dirty war without dirtying your hands?").