Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

Human Rights and Civil Liberties

Former U.S. Army interpreter Qismat Amin conducts an interview after arriving from Afghanistan, at San Francisco International Airport, Feb. 8, 2017. Amin waited nearly four years for his special immigrant visa. He lived in hiding after receiving death threats from the Taliban for helping American troops. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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 U.S. citizens.

The U.S. 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. As of January 2022, 39 detainees remain at Guantánamo Bay.

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

Immigrant contractors from countries like Nepal working for the U.S. in the warzones of Afghanistan and Iraq have faced abysmal labor conditions and human rights abuses. Afghans and Iraqis who worked with the U.S. as translators and in other roles have been endangered by a broken Special Immigrant Visa process.

In the U.S., 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 mass surveillance by a complex grouping of federal agencies, local police, private companies, and even members of the public. The government has the authority to gather information on Americans who have done nothing wrong. Mass surveillance infrastructure has intensified the criminalization of marginalized and racialized groups, particularly Muslims, immigrants, and protesters for racial and labor justice, and cost untold dollars, normalized an erosion of privacy and freedom, and entrenched an expanding surveillance infrastructure that grows ever more difficult to control.

Key Findings

  • The post-9/11 wars have involved major human rights and civil liberties violations, including detention without trial, torture, expanded U.S. government surveillance and racial profiling.
  • The U.S. transported terror suspects to dozens of countries with more lax human rights standards, where they have faced torture or mistreatment.
  • Afghans, Iraqis and immigrants from other countries have been endangered and have faced abysmal labor conditions while working for the U.S. military and defense contractors.


  • The U.S. government should appoint a non-partisan commission to assess the cost of the post-9/11 wars to human rights, in the U.S. and globally.

Page updated as of September 2023