Counter-Terrorism and Crackdowns on Civil Society

As countries around the globe contend with the threat of terrorism, the challenges to civil liberties and civil society have never been greater. Acknowledging the threat posed by violent actors in many parts of the world is not a carte blanche to crackdowns on legitimate dissent, on protest, on the freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Civil society remains at risk in many places, and human rights’ defenders are increasingly being targeted by states who abuse the legitimate basis for counter-terrorism as a shortcut to targeting democratic protest and dissent. Human rights activists, writers, academics, and reformers of various hues are at risk of arrest, detention, expedited trials and ill-treatment.

A critical cause of this kind of abuse of exceptional powers are the vague and ill-defined definitions of terrorism that abound in national legislation. Precisely because of the lack of agreed global treaty definition of terrorism, and varying definitions in policy and guidance from UN organs, states have been given extraordinary latitude to define terrorism as they please. The result is a plethora of vague phrases in national legislation that are deemed to amount to terrorism including “disrespect to the state”, “threats to national unity”, “exposing the safety and security of society to danger”, “impairing national unity or social peace”, and “the aim of disturbing public order” to mention but some of the most egregious examples.

In parallel, enabled by such permissive and widely enabling terrorism definitions, human rights defenders have been charged with various offenses including; tarnishing a country’s reputation, defaming the state, undermining national security, casting aspirations, disseminating statements and views that tarnish the reputation of the state, falsehoods in public affairs, contestation of the independence of the judiciary to name but some of the vaguer assertions of terrorist activity by civil society actors. In some country contexts, any criticism of the state is taken as providing support for terrorism groups, and the per se adoption of critical stances perceived as providing support to terrorism. Targeting minority groups and indigenous representatives using counter-terrorism legislation is emerging as another worrying pattern of state behavior.

Increasingly for some states, any form of expression that articulates a view contrary to state positioning, addresses human rights violations and opines on ways to do things better in accordance with international human rights obligations constitutes a form of terrorist activity. This week in my role as Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism I and others have identified patterns of targeting independent civil society actors using counter-terrorism laws in ways that are simply not consistent with the requirements of international law and ought to concern all states by Human Rights Council member Saudi Arabia. According to the available reports, up to sixty prominent civil society activists have been arrested and detained, and there is also reliable information about reprisals against family members who have made inquiries about or sought to question the legal basis for their detention. When writers, moderate religious leaders, and human rights defenders are locked up simply for expressing a contrary point of view, under counter-terrorism legislation – the object and purpose of such legislation is being abused in ways that rightly concern the international community.

By any stretch of the imagination targeting civil society actors is wholly inconsistent with meaningfully attending to genuine terrorist threats. State practices that misuse anti-terrorism legislation as a means to covertly attack civil society need to be systematically called out, and state behaviour named as inconsistent with basic standards of human rights protection. Moreover, as we are now increasingly attuned to addressing the causes of terrorism, states better understand that providing cover to other states abusing counter-terrorism norms weakens the security of all states. State invocation of vague terrorism threats as a form of protective charm for any form of domestic repression is simply unacceptable. Such repression must be understood as undermining the broader basis for preventing terrorism and violent extremism, which feeds off inadequacies in the rule of law, and perpetuates alienation, violence and exclusion in our societies. The chimera of terrorism cloaking repressive action by governments, calls for greater attention to the domestic legislation of many states which is usually justified by reference to Security Council mandates to legislate against terrorism. This means that the Security Council itself cannot sit back and ignore the obvious implications of its permissive stance regarding state legislation on terrorism.  Moreover, observers of human rights practice are encouraged to pay more attention to the misuse of counter-terrorism measures, and we move towards assessing the empirical scale of these practices and call greater attention to state malfeasance in this context. 

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).