As Donald Trump seized on others’ branding of nonviolent protesters in the United States as “terrorists,” lawmakers in the Philippines approved President Rodrigo Duterte’s draconian Anti-Terrorism Act that similarly asserts a dangerous, overbroad definition of what constitutes terrorism.
Here were two leaders, separated by an ocean, using the same abusive counterterrorism playbook in a way that has become so common over the past two decades: legislate or brand your political opposition “terrorists,” delegitimize their grievances, and simultaneously legitimize a heavy-handed, militarized response. We see – yet again – the significant drawbacks of embracing a “counterterrorism” agenda that is so often weaponized against pluralism, fundamental freedoms, and any form of dissent.
Such cases are fresh examples of how counterterrorism is undermining democracy and human rights around the world. It is a powerful illustration of why the United Nations and its member states should be questioning counterterrorism practices rather than embracing and encouraging them.
A report released last week by the U.K. peacebuilding organization Saferworld, documents how the counterterror agenda has been spreading rapidly throughout the United Nations system over the past few years, despite growing evidence that the war on terror is making the world neither safer nor more secure. In fact, the embrace of counterterrorism by the U.N. is already having a harmful impact on the institution itself, and could lead to a number of dangerous threats in the future.
In recent years, with the birth of the Office of Counter-Terrorism, the UN system has seen a dramatic increase in resources, personnel and attention spent on countering terrorism or preventing violent extremism. This growth added to the U.N.’s three core pillars of peace and security, human rights and development, a fourth, potentially damaging, counterterrorism pillar.
The spread of counterterrorism within the U.N. is undermining its founding three pillars. This growing U.N. buy-in to war on terrorism makes it easier for states to crack down on civil society and civic activism or to ‘blue-wash’ their human rights abuses. It enables terror threats to become inflated to justify further counterterrorism work and funding, and risks allowing U.N. support to be manipulated to crush dissent. It also stymies the U.N.’s vital role in conflict resolution, puts peacekeepers in the firing line, and compromises its vital humanitarian and development work.
Worryingly, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating the conditions for these trends to worsen. From the indefinite rule-by-decree power-grab in Hungary, to Cambodia’s branding of critics of the government’s pandemic response as ‘terrorists,’ to the excessive use of force by security units to enforce the lockdown in countries like Nigeria, governments across the world are responding to the pandemic using the counterterrorism playbook.
In this environment, there is a risk that the U.N. will find itself drawn into greater support for these approaches. This is not the role it can or should be playing in the more authoritarian world that may emerge in the aftermath of the pandemic.
While repressive responses to protest movements combined with the repercussions from the pandemic could weaken the U.N.’s resolve to check hard security trends, it could equally prove a turning point. With mounting evidence that counterterrorism is harming the U.N., can its leaders, together with member States who believe in multilateralism, stand up to stop a fourth counterterrorism pillar coming to dominate the U.N. system?
They can – but they need to act fast. First, they should require the U.N.’s counterterrorism work to demonstrate that it is both effective and not doing harm. In the face of a similar degree of reputational risk, chief executives the world over would already be doing this. U.N. leaders have not yet taken bold enough steps to make sure this happens, which is a big gap, given the known risks and problems presented by the global war on terror. UN leaders should start by using the U.N. Global Counterterrorism Strategy Review as a vehicle to rethink and reform.
Next, the organization’s leaders should insist on clearer processes and oversight mechanisms to assess when the U.N. can contribute to counterterrorism work and when the risk is too high. Creating this firewall – to minimize harm done under the guise of counterterrorism – is long overdue. As repression worsens around the world post-coronavirus, the U.N. wants to ensure it is always pushing in the right direction. Close association with counterterrorism campaigns jeopardizes this. Instead, as civil society is doing at a high-level convening with states and U.N. officials today, it is time to re-engage local non-governmental leaders and communities in these critical discussions and decisions, especially those most affected.
The appetite for reform among some increasingly authoritarian world leaders might be lacking. As much as some might like to tear down the entire counterterrorism pillar, Riyadh, Moscow, and indeed Washington, D.C. will not let that happen. But if the Secretary-General and his executive team were to support these realistic, practical steps, the U.N. could chart a much more responsible way forward.
Why does this have to happen now? Well, in the Philippines, the U.N. supported the government with a national action plan on preventing violent extremism. That same government is now weaponizing this very same agenda to target religious minorities, civil society leaders, and opposition parties. Whether U.N. leaders like it or not, this puts U.N. credibility and legitimacy on the line. Unless U.N. leaders choose now to change course, they risk the U.N. itself becoming a vehicle not for peace and rights, but for hyper-security-driven policies and the authoritarianism that drives them.