Only a few weeks into his tenure as UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has been under pressure to fix the UN’s efforts to deal with terrorism and violent extremism. The programs he inherited are badly disorganized, while the threats are increasingly undermining not only international peace and security, but also the development goals at the top of his agenda. Guterres is trying, but he is hindered by a clutch of UN Member States who are clinging to outmoded and heavy-handed counterterrorism methods. These countries are unwilling to take necessary action and pursue the strategic course corrections needed to get ahead of the problem. While some of these problems – like radicalization — start at the community level, many are fueled by security institutions, which will only be emboldened further if the efforts remain narrowly focused on counterterrorism.

Guterres laid out part of his plan earlier this month when he presented a new report, titled, “Capability of the United Nations system to assist Member states in implementing the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy” to the General Assembly (UNGA). The report highlights how the UN’s role in both counterterrorism and now preventing violent extremism (PVE) has expanded over the past 15 years as a result of increased demands from national capitals. The report also included his much-anticipated recommendations to the UNGA on ways to strengthen the UN’s hydra-headed, increasingly sprawling counterterrorism and PVE architecture. Currently, counterterrorism and PVE at the UN involve more than 35 UN entities spread out across peace and security, development, and human rights silos within the organization. Some are mandated by the UNGA, others by the Security Council, and still others report to independent governing boards. There is no recognized senior UN official whose full-time job is to coordinate the UN’s labyrinthine system. The head of the UN’s interagency, Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, is also the Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, which means he can only dedicate a fraction of his time to this area of work.

The new proposal from Guterres focuses on the creation of a “office of counterterrorism” to be headed by an Under-Secretary General for counterterrorism, with five main objectives: 1) more leadership; 2) more coordination, coherence, and collaboration among the alphabet soup of relevant UN entities; 3) more effective UN capacity-building assistance to Member States; 4) more resources for the UN in this area; and 5) more attention to counterterrorism across the UN system and that UN PVE efforts are “firmly rooted” in the UN Global Strategy. The ball is now in the General Assembly’s court to decide what action to take on these proposals. The decisions are expected later this spring.

There is a lot to applaud here, but there is bad news too. The good news is that despite the long-standing, and well-publicized, inability of UN Member States to agree on a definition of terrorism, there now appears to be broad support for the steps the UN should take to enhance collaboration and cooperation among its many entities working to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism. There is also general consensus regarding the need for a senior full-time UN official to spearhead the institution’s efforts in this area. 

There are a number of reasons for this emerging consensus. First and foremost, terrorism and rising violent extremism is no longer viewed as a Western-imposed priority or agenda, but as a global threat and concern. Few can deny that the threats have metastasized over the past decade to the point where over 100 countries can say their citizens have traveled to join the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. As a Syrian human rights activist from Raqaa recently said, his city was not known as a tourist destination in the past, but these days, every imaginable language is heard on the streets of his hometown.

Rather than simply viewing the UN as the venue for litigating definitional difference, countries from virtually every region, including the Middle East and North Africa, are now seeking support and assistance from the UN system to address the threats within their borders.

The Secretary-General deserves credit for trying to bring long-overdue order and focus to the UN counterterrorism system and enhance the capabilities and credibility of the organization in this field. Guterres also deserves credit for being consultative in his process. Over 20 states and regional organizations provided their input to the proposal and they are included in the annex to the April report.

But the good news inevitably comes with fundamental concerns. Yet again, despite the opportunity that existed, in typical UN fashion, the institution failed to reach out and listen to the solutions and recommendations that civil society had to offer.

Why does that matter? 

  1. Civil society, including women’s organizations, has often been the first to identify and warn against the rising threat of violent extremism. In communities across the world, it’s local organizations, community groups, academia, and the media that have led the way in identifying and tackling the drivers of this phenomenon. They see how the dynamics of recruitment change. By virtue of being trusted local intermediaries they have access and are able to offer viable solutions. More importantly, they care. Spreading violence and intolerance are shredding their communities, and affecting their own families. Neither the UN nor any state or international organization can afford to sideline or ignore this depth of expertise, commitment, and the practical solutions that civil society globally has to offer.
  2. Strong, open, and vibrant civil societies are themselves essential to the prevention of violent extremism and terrorism. But countries, including those strongly allied with Western governments are using the fight against terror and violent extremism to suppress legitimate NGOs, media, opposition political groups, and individuals who criticize state policies and actions. Authoritarian states that prohibit dissent and pluralism in expression and actions, only helpturn angry radicalization into violence. It is imperative that the UN’s new counterterrorism office, with its PVE component, recognizes and elevates its partnership with civil society.

To help fill this lacuna, international NGOs, grassroots civil society organizations (CSO), civil society networks, and representatives of CSOs from around the globe wrote to the Secretary-General to share their concerns and ways they could be mitigated.  More than 40 organizations, including many members of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL) and international NGOs that work closely with community-based partners, and individuals signed the letter.

While welcoming the Secretary General’s initiative, it concludes that his proposal falls short in a number of ways:

  • Whither civil society? The letter points out how Guterres’ report and proposal devote insufficient attention to the important role that civil society plays in both PVE and counter-terrorism and the need for the UN to continue to champion a “whole-of-society” approach to address these challenges. Despite the global attention being given to the role of youth and women in PVE, and the multitude of UNGA and Security Council resolutions that reinforce this point, these critical stakeholders are largely ignored in the report and proposal. In fact, the words “women” and “youth” are only mentioned as part of the title of the relevant UN entity.
  • Whither human rights? The report and accompanying proposal fail to emphasize sufficiently the centrality of protecting human rights when it comes to addressing the threats of violent extremism and terrorism. Data shows that support for terrorism and violent extremism is strongly correlated with violence perpetrated by states against their own populations, in certain cases as part of counter-terrorism operations. Excessive and routine police brutality, and overly strong security measures that are perceived to target particular communities, are among the key sources of grievance within communities that violent extremist propaganda exploits.
  • Too much respect for state sovereignty/non-interference? The letter points out how the proposal seems to prioritize the need to respect the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference – principles that are already enshrined in the UN Charter – rather than underscore the importance of ensuring the UN’s counterterrorism efforts are informed by evidence-based research and rigorous monitoring and evaluation efforts to ensure that any UN assistance efforts in this area are effective and not doing inadvertent harm.

Mitigating the Concerns

 While the concerns are significant, there are a number of ways to mitigate them, as outlined in the letter, and again building on what some UN counterterrorism watchers have already put forward.

  • Appoint an Under-Secretary General with the right background and temperament, following a transparent process: The Under-Secretary General to head the proposed new counter-terrorism office should have experience in both development and security – as a number of Western governments have argued — as well as demonstrated the ability to work inclusively and cooperate effectively with a range of stakeholders, including civil society actors. Although there is reporting to suggest that the job has been promised to the Russians, the position should in fact be advertised publicly to ensure access to the widest range of candidates, including those currently working outside of government and multilateral organizations.
  • Don’t forget about prevention and youth and women in particular: With the importance that Guterres attaches to prevention, and the priority his predecessor gave to PVE, the proposal appears to downgrade its significance. It makes no mention of the increasing global push to get countries to develop national PVE plans of action and to include all segments of society in not only addressing terrorism and violent extremism, but offering positive viable alternatives that address the root conditions that make communities and individuals susceptible to the lure of violent extremist messaging and ideology. To address this shortcoming, the new counter-terrorism office should include a dedicated team of PVE experts, committed to pursuing a “whole-of-society” approach based on evidence-based research and assessments.
  • Exert moral leadership on human rights and counterterrorism: Research increasingly shows that excessive and routine police brutality, and overly strong security measures that are perceived to target particular communities, are among the key sources of grievance within communities that violent extremist propaganda exploits. Member States must be regularly reminded that effective community policing, rooted in service and protection of rights, plus strong ethical standards of practice in the treatment of prisoners that protect the basic rights and freedoms of their citizens, are not just a matter of human rights compliance, but are actually the most effective security strategy. To help ensure the credibility of the UN among communities around the globe, a new UN counter-terrorism office and coordinator must exert their moral leadership in this area.
  • Walk-the-walk when it comes to engagement with civil society: Guterres and his new Under-Secretary General should prioritize meaningful engagement between the new counter-terrorism office and civil society, including for the purpose of ensuring that the views of local, grassroots CSOs are heard in New York and at the regional and national levels. The letter calls for the UN to lead by example and develop its own mechanism or cooperate with existing civil society platforms to support the sustained engagement between the UN and civil society on this agenda. One such existing mechanism is the Global Solutions Exchange (GSX – our organizations currently serve as co-chairs of the GSX steering group), which was launched in September at the 2016 UNGA, to serve as a dedicated platform for sustained, structured engagement among civil society, the UN, and national governments around PVE and promoting peace, rights and pluralism.

Looking Beyond Civil Society and Human Rights – Is this “reform” or “REFORM”?

Although not addressed in the letter, there are two additional, significant shortcomings in the reform proposal.

First, it leaves untouched the separation between the UNGA-mandated and Security Council-mandated counterterrorism bodies. Pragmatically speaking, we need a single office within the UN that supports countries’ efforts to implement the mutually reinforcing, and increasingly similar, counterterrorism and PVE mandates. Such an office would house the resources and expertise that is currently split between the UNGA- and Security Council-mandated bodies –notably UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) – together. But the current proposal does not tackle this issue. It still leaves in place two parallel structures of roughly equal size, one supporting implementation of the UN Global Strategy and the other implementation of relevant UNSC resolutions.

Second, and related, by retaining the fire-wall between the UNGA and Security Council sides of the counterterrorism house, the new UN “office of counterterrorism’ will have difficulties accessing the country-specific information being gathered and the analysis being undertaken by the UNSC-mandated groups, principally CTED. This is significant because CTED has perhaps the largest data set on countries’ counterterrorism capabilities and needs, and analysis on countries’ gaps and priorities. Currently, much of this information is deemed “confidential” to the Security Council and there are high hurdles to sharing it with other UN entities. In order for the UN counterterrorism system to be operating effectively and for Member States to be getting maximum benefit from the system, the capacity-building and coordination work on the UNGA-side of the house needs to be informed by the information-gathering and analytical work being done by the Security Council.

Despite these shortcomings, the new Secretary-General deserves credit for trying to enhance the effectiveness of the UN’s counterterrorism and PVE program. While what he has proposed will not be a panacea, it is a step in the right direction. If he takes up the offer of including and engaging civil society more systematically, his commitment to ending violent extremism and promoting sustainable peace would have a much greater chance of success.

Image: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas