Last week was counterterrorism week at United Nations headquarters in New York. Conference rooms and the General Assembly hall were abuzz as national intelligence and security chiefs from around the globe met with UN officials on how to confront the scourge of transnational extremist armed groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab.
In one room, delegates from the African Union, France and Peru discussed freezing terrorist finances. In another, UN officials unveiled their action plan for imams to preach against violence. In a third, European Union and Saudi counterterrorism directors compared notes on prosecuting, rehabilitating and reintegrating nationals who had returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Distressingly, however, few discussions delved into a core element of the UN’s official guide to member countries for countering terrorism. That guide, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, lists human rights as its “fourth pillar.” Not only are violations of human rights unlawful, they can backfire and fuel further terrorism, according to the strategy, which entered into force in 2006 and was reaffirmed by the General Assembly just last week.
To his credit, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted the strategy in a keynote speech Thursday, which kicked off a two-day summit of national security and intelligence directors that capped last week’s proceedings.
“No one is born a terrorist, but we know that factors such as prolonged unresolved conflicts, lack of the rule of law, human rights abuses, poverty, lack of opportunities and socioeconomic marginalization can all play a part in transforming ideas and grievances into acts of terrorism,” Guterres said. “So, preventing and resolving conflicts and promoting the rule of law and social and economic progress are our first lines of defense.”
But there is an enormous disconnect between those lofty words and the reality on the ground. Around the world, countries are routinely rolling back human rights protections in the name of countering terrorism. Victims of heavy-handed policies include bloggers, peaceful protesters, civil society activists, and people targeted because of their religion, ethnicity or nationality.
In Australia, the government can strip citizenship from dual nationals as young as 14, without requiring a criminal conviction, if they are suspected of carrying out serious terrorism crimes abroad. In Spain and France, musicians, journalists and others have been prosecuted for “glorification of terrorism” or “apology for terrorism” even if their comments are not intended to incite violence or support an extremist armed group. In Europe, governments are citing terrorism concerns to justify closing borders to immigrants and refugees.
In Iraq, thousands of suspects are being prosecuted in deeply flawed trials for membership in the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Even cooks, cleaners or supporters not involved in combat are receiving sentences of life in prison, or death.
In Syria, Iraq and Libya, some 3,000 foreign wives and children of ISIS members have been crowded into jails or cordoned into de-facto detention camps for months. The children are victims of their parents’ decisions and many wives claim they unwillingly accompanied their husbands. Yet most of their governments aren’t lifting a finger to ensure fair trials or, if they aren’t being prosecuted, to help retrieve them from foreign detention.
In Somalia, security agents are in some cases holding children incommunicado or physically abusing them to extract confessions when they suspect them of links to al-Shabaab. In Nigeria, women and girls who survived the brutality of Boko Haram have reportedly been raped by security forces who claimed to be rescuing them.
Clearly, governments face enormous challenges in confronting terrorism. Rarely a week goes by without an armed extremist attack on ordinary people in one or more parts of the world, and governments have a responsibility to protect everyone under their jurisdiction from harm. But as the gatekeeper of world peace and security, the UN should be intervening to prevent serious counterterrorism violations of rights with the same urgency that it seeks to stem extremist attacks. Instead, if anything, the UN has been enabling member countries’ heavy-handed tactics in the 17 years since September 11, 2001.
The Security Council in particular has issued a string of binding resolutions that require UN member countries to criminalize an array of potentially terrorist activities but that largely fail to describe what constitutes a terrorist act. This gives governments a green light to concoct definitions that can be broadly used to designate individuals or groups as terrorists simply because they don’t like them or because they’re political opponents.
Much of the UN infrastructure to monitor member states’ compliance with these mandates has been dominated by countries with terrible human rights records, including Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—although mature democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which have their own histories of counterterrorism abuses, also have played influential roles.
Over at the General Assembly last week, delegates from human rights-respecting countries had to fight hard to keep protective language from being weakened in the June 26 resolution that reviewed and reaffirmed the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
In one positive development, the June 26 statement calls for greater transparency from the UN’s year-old Office of Counterterrorism (OCT), which was established to bring coherence to the efforts of more than three dozen UN entities involved in counterterrorism efforts. The call was timely: the OCT’s dealings remain largely opaque.
The review also calls for the secretary-general to assess the OCT’s work, including its efforts to increase transparency, and to report on its progress next year. The aim is to start a meaningful review of the UN’s counterterrorism architecture. Guterres should take this task seriously.
Member states, in turn, should heed new guidelines drafted by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on responses to the phenomenon of foreign fighters. The guidelines were unveiled in one of last week’s few rights-related sessions. They fill in the blanks in overly broad Security Council mandates by spelling out what member countries need to do to ensure their laws and measures don’t sidestep human rights. As for the Security Council, it should define terrorism narrowly to make it harder for states to infringe on fundamental rights and target dissidents and political opponents.
Absent these efforts, last week’s flurry of UN meetings will end up being just another missed opportunity to transform respect for human rights from a rhetorical pillar into a national security imperative.