Counter-Terrorism Committee: Addressing the Role of Women in Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism

The UN Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS) has become the dominant discourse framing women’s engagement in international affairs over the past fifteen years.  It has also marshalled the ways in which women are both made visible by and remain invisible in security conversations by key institutional actors such as the United Nations.

In this same period, following the events of 9/11, states have brought new urgency and vibrancy to their action in the realm of counterterrorism. Indeed, creating and bolstering new international security regimes constitutes the bulwark of states’ normative actions in the international sphere. This international security system was ushered in by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 and the creation of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), in conjunction with European Union Regulations on Combatting Terrorism. Both the EU and UN’s approaches had antecedents during prior decades of patchwork multilateral terrorism conventions and resolutions but their scope, content, and institutional power has risen considerably in the world we inhabit after 9/11.

State momentum stemming from the priority accorded to addressing international terrorism is illustrated by both the response of national legal systems and by more concerted efforts to achieve multilateral and multilevel counterterrorism efforts on the international plane. The central institutional legacy of that urgency is the CTC. Yet, by and large, the WPS agenda has been excluded from any meaningful engagement with the CTC since its creation. The result is that the WPS agenda has been not only normatively limited in its reach, but distinctly and institutionally peripheral in some of the key security and conflict discussions of the past decade plus.

It is in this context, that I report on an open session held by the CTC on September 9th, briefing member states on the role of women in countering terrorism and violent extremism. The stated goal of the session was to report on how the CTC is encouraging states to integrate gender in to the UN’s programming on counter-terrorism. The session comes on the heels of UNSCR 2129 which renewed the mandate of the Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) and for the first time made a link between the Council’s work, counter-terrorism and the WPS agenda. The briefing addressed the use of sexual violence by terrorist groups, and the relationship between sex trafficking, slave trading, ransoms and women’s safety. In parallel, it also identified the role that women, particularly mothers might play in preventing radicalization of their children, an issue I have previously reported on here addressing the problematic and compromised policies of engaging mothers as the frontline of preventing radicalism.  Given the often marginal status of women in the contexts where they are expected to become the “minders and informers” of their sons and daughters for the state, the potential harms to the women themselves have been grossly underestimated or ignored.  This rather naive view of women’s capacity, in highly fraught communities and societies, where as a practical matter their status is limited, and their equality not guaranteed, also permeates last week’s debates at the CTC and the position papers offered by various states including Spain and Norway.

This is a dangerous continuation of a long-held status quo.  Security Council resolutions on terrorism and counter-terrorism show the continued dominance of a masculine paradigm in the arenas intersecting international security and terrorism— where the heart of the international peace and security agenda currently lies. The invocation of women and their experiences is rare in fora addressing terrorism and counter-terrorism, no matter whether the discussion includes female terrorism, the mobilization of women to support extremist violence, or the effects and harms experienced by women as a result of counter-terrorism strategies.  I conducted a recent survey (forthcoming in International Affairs) of 139 Security Council Resolutions broadly addressing terrorism and counter-terrorism between January 2013- May 2015, and the results demonstrate a dearth of gender awareness and no systematic attempt to address the interface of gender and terrorism. Only a handful of resolutions make references to women and frequently only stress the prohibitions against sexual violence in situations of violence and terrorism. Moreover, when the Security Council has included reference to women the specificity can generally be explained by the particular geo-political context of the countries under scrutiny (for example Mali, Somalia and Libya).

Terrorism focused resolutions not only constitute a particular form of condemnation politics, but they are critical to enabling the use of force and the resources of multiple states to target phenomena labeled, sometime with controversy, as terrorism in their own and other states. In explaining the lack of reference to women in such resolutions, we should understand that security partnerships with key countries are at play, along with the corollary sensibilities of partner countries (read culturally relativist positions) regarding gender issues. The result has been the consistent marginalization of women’s issues in the name of advancing broader geo-political interests – all while ignoring and cloaking partner countries’ nefarious culturally relativist positions on women’s rights.

Moreover, the lack of gender mainstreaming in the terrorism and counter-terrorism arena underscores a yawning gap between the invocation of WPS in classic interstate wars (or neatly categorized internal armed conflict) and the lack of attention to women in the “new” counterterrorism-focused  wars of our times that are at the heart of state preoccupations about security, use of force, and extremism.  To ignore gender in these contexts is to leave out a huge part of the war and peace arenas in which women’s lives are affected in macro and micro ways.

Some might view recognition (finally) by the CTC of the gender dimensions of terrorism as a welcome addition to the scope and mandate of the WPS agenda. But, there are reasons to be wary. One reason is the dismal track record of the CTC in addressing human rights issues broadly defined in relationship with counter-terrorism, as well as a structural unwillingness to engage in broader conversations about the positive balance to be stuck between counter-terrorism measures and those which violate and undermine human rights. Given that track record, we might have some cause for concern that the legitimacy of the WPS agenda is being used instrumentally without a broader commitment to the totality of the WPS, including addressing issues of equality, autonomy, and discrimination against women.  Moreover, the invocation of women in this highly fraught area of countering violent extremism, chooses to fundamentally ignore women’s engagement in violence in multiple societies (see my earlier posts here and here) and the agency choices they make to support extremist and violent organizations. The CTC’s gender essentialism does little to address the underlying causalities of extremist violence, and fails to bring about the kind of holistic societal responses that might address radicalism successfully.  Moreover, there is the prescient danger that the focus on countering violent extremism by the P5 and the same powerful states within the CTC framework becomes a means to appropriate the liberal space of protecting and supporting women but actually and practically avoids enforcing the commitments made in UNSCR 1325. This is because states now understand that enforcement requires dealing with the issues of inequality and autonomy, and ensuring the meaningful participation of women in the making of peace and security policy.  Violent Extremism clearly affects women worldwide and in many dimensions, but viewing it as the mainstay of the work that needs to be done for women in the peace and security area is a convenient distraction. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).