Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

Human Rights and Civil Liberties

In the years following 9/11, human rights and civil liberties activists have voiced major concerns about the United States government and its allies’ treatment of terror suspects and ordinary US citizens.

The US detained hundreds of thousands of people, domestically, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in dozens of other countries, many of which have lax human rights standards. Many terror suspects were detained without trial, with no effective way to challenge their detention, and without the International Red Cross site visits required under international law. And 122 detainees remain at Guantánamo Bay without trial, conviction, or repatriation, even though 55 were cleared for release under President Obama's Guantánamo Review Task Force.

An unknown number of persons around the world seized by the US were tortured or mistreated by the CIA, military forces, contractors, and US allies.

In the US, numerous Muslims and people of Arab and South Asian descent have experienced government practices that amount to racial profiling and public animosity in the form of hate crimes and discrimination. 

Additionally, the events of 9/11 have been used as pretext to dramatically expand the US government’s electronic surveillance and data collection powers, including the authority to gather information on Americans who have done nothing wrong.

Key Findings

  • The War on Terror has involved major human rights and civil liberties violations, including detention without trial, torture, expanded US government surveillance, and racial profiling.
  • The US transported terror suspects to dozens of countries with more lax human rights standards, where they have faced torture or mistreatment.


  • The US government should appoint a non-partisan commission to assess the cost of the War on Terror to human rights, in the US and globally.

(Page updated as of March 2015)