UN Counter-Terrorism Negotiations During COVID: Time for a Rethink

As COVID-19 continues its spread around the world, United Nations headquarters has been shuttered and business as usual suspended. The U.N. Security Council is operating through private video calls, and important events, like the 2020 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), have been cancelled. Most negotiations have been halted or cancelled, but there is still potential for a few major policy decisions to be taken. However, the risk is that those major decisions could be made without adequate debate or sufficient consultation with States and civil society. 

The seventh review of the U.N.’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review (GCTS) is one such process. The U.N. GCTS, which is reviewed every two years, structures the policy and practice of the U.N.’s ever-expanding counter-terrorism architecture, as well as that of States around the world. At the time of writing, the review is still slated to move forward this year. Some member States want the U.N. General Assembly to adopt a new resolution on it in late June, which would reaffirm the approach the U.N. and member States are taking to counter-terrorism around the world. But as the full impact of COVID-19 remains to be seen, it would be smart to consider hitting the pause button on such an important, institution-shaping negotiation. 

Over the past few years, a growing chorus of peace, rights, development, and humanitarian experts and agencies have expressed the belief that the U.N. needs to rethink its approach to counter-terrorism, assome member States have used counter-terrorism as a cover to quash dissent and disregard human rights. Even without the restrictions in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, there have been significant hurdles for civil society to overcome to have its voice be included in the debate. Now, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, it is even more urgent that the U.N. and its member States ensure meaningful civil society consultation and inclusion in the process. 

What is wrong with the Global Counter-terrorism Strategy now? 

The GCTS has four pillars: two focus on combating terrorism and strengthening capacity to do so; the other two focus on addressing root causes (or “conditions conducive”) and ensuring respect for human rights. In theory, all four pillars carry equal weight, but in practice, States and U.N. institutions have badly neglected work on “conditions conducive” and human rights. As U.N. Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has recently argued, “the human rights and rule of law pillar is weak, profoundly under-resourced, and lacks the kind of institutional capacity to deliver its objectives within the global counter-terrorism architecture.”

This imbalance is not just a talking point, it is a fact. The 2020 Secretary-General report shows that the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Compact is implementing 314 projects, but just 7 percent of these focus on the human rights pillar. Meanwhile, the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism’s Multi-Year Appeal for funding included just 7 potential projects on human rights, with a budget of just $1.7 million, while requesting $114 million for other projects. 

In fact, civil society organizations, together with the Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, have highlighted the dangers of the U.N system embracing counter-terrorism without giving adequate attention to human rights for years, and have flagged States’ disregard for human rights when it comes to counter-terrorism. With U.N. funding being focused this way, agencies and programs on counter-terrorism are increasingly at risk of “blue washing” States’ use of the agenda to crack down on civic space, restrict humanitarian agencies, and attack human rights defenders. In this sense, the U.N.’s increasing enthusiasm for counter-terrorism engagement fundamentally contradicts its unique responsbility to advance peace, rights, and development. 

What are the dangers of continuing with the negotiation?

Over the past few weeks, some States have pushed for negotiations to continue – without creating the space for full consultation, while others have simply called for a “technical rollover” – which in essence means an extension of a resolution with a largely unchanged mandate. With the stakes as high as they are, both of these plans seem to be a bad idea. For several reasons, now is not the time to allow U.N. counter-terrorism engagement to continue as usual. Here’s why: 

  1. Checks and balances are not keeping pace with the expansion of the U.N.’s sprawling counter-terrorism architecture. There is an urgent need to establish an independent, adequately funded and sufficiently empowered human rights oversight office for U.N. counter-terrorism and preventing violent extremism engagements. The goal should be to have a full-time, fully staffed and adequately supported independent entity capable of consistently advancing compliance with and oversight of international law and human rights obligations by U.N. entities. Human rights capacity to deal with issues related to terrorism and counter-terrorism is urgently needed, and should cover several U.N. entities beyond the U.N. Office of Counter Terrorism. This should include a stronger presence for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York to enable systematic human rights assessment of all U.N. counter-terrorism projects at time of conceptualization, staffing, implementation, and review.
  2. U.N. backing for counter-terror operations could prove all the more dangerous in a COVID world. There is growing evidence that current counter-terrorism and preventing violent extremism approaches are undermining trust in State authorities. The U.N.’s embrace of these agendas has implications for its role as a peacemaker. Some U.N. counter-terrorism and preventing violent extremism efforts put the U.N. on the side of States who are playing an abusive role in complex conflict environments in which civilians bear the brunt of the violence. Too many U.N. peace operations are being asked to materially support counter-terrorism operations, risking the impartiality of the U.N. and exposing blue helmets and other agencies to reprisals. Add to this the International Crisis Group’s prediction that COVID-19 will place “great stress on societies and political systems, creating the potential for new outbreaks of violence,” and it is clear that U.N. counter-terrorism engagement should be undertaken with even greater care for potential blowback on the U.N. as an institution.  
  3. Counter-terror measures were already choking civil society voices before repressive responses to COVID began to emerge. As highlighted by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, civil society organizations are often at the receiving end of abusive counter-terrorism practices. Many U.N. member States have vocally supported civil society access at the U.N. and some have tried to push back on the repressive efforts of some to shrink civic space. But too often, rhetoric has not been matched by action, and civil society concerns have been little more than bargaining chips in diplomatic negotiations. The seventh GCTS review needs to be different: States need to match their rhetoric with proactivity and political capital.

Press pause?

A pause in negotiations, which would allow for an inclusive process once we have returned to some semblance of normalcy, seems to be the best strategic decision. If States insist on pursuing the negotiation now, or at a moment when in-person meetings are still not possible, co-facilitators should commit to two simple actions to ensure that U.N. counter-terrorism activity for the coming two years is not shaped by a flawed and exclusionary process: 

  1. Create an equal playing field for U.N. Member States to negotiate the resolution. Some missions are not set-up yet for an online negotiation, and some will face language barriers if the process is rushed through. More importantly, some will be facing delayed responses from their capital, at a moment when government attention is and should be on pandemic response and careful oversight of national emergency measures. A global strategy needs to include the experiences of all States, not just the most powerful ones or those best equipped to work remotely. All States must be able to participate, and any rushed process will not be representative of the U.N. General Assembly.
  2. Guarantee opportunities for civil society access. At the conclusion of the first High Level Conference on Counter-Terrorism in 2018, following the sixth GCTS review, the UN secretary general emphasized the importance of civil society participation in this area of the U.N.’s work. Many of our organizations had identified serious shortcomings in civil society participation prior to the review. While there has since been some limited progress on transparency within the U.N. counter-terrorism architecture, COVID-19 cannot be used as a license to backslide. On the contrary, engaging civil society — many of whom are providing services to people in crisis around the world in imaginative and creative ways — is now all the more vital.

Rolling over the same GCTS resolution for a further two years would postpone a pressing reckoning for the U.N. system on how its stance on counter-terrorism contradicts the values and mission it exists to champion. A post-COVID-19 world will require a U.N. system that is able to react and respond to the new challenges threatening international security. There is a chance we are entering a post-post 9/11 world, a world where national security will start to mean different things for many governments. Perhaps its best to hit the pause button on the Global Counter-terrorism Strategy Review, as the rest of the world suspends most activities, so that we can have the proper, much-needed review somewhere later down the line. 

About the Author(s)

Jordan Street

Policy and Advocacy Adviser at Saferworld. He is the co-author of the June 2020 discussion paper "A fourth pillar for the United Nations? The rise of counter-terrorism." Follow him on Twitter (@jordan_street07).

Christopher Rogers

Senior program officer with the Open Society Human Rights Initiative leading its work on Security and Rights. Follow him on Twitter (@ChristphrRogers).