The United Nations is holding its first-ever virtual ”Counterterrorism Week” (CT Week) focused on the “strategic and practical challenges of countering terrorism in a global pandemic era.” This is the right time to be having this conversation. Evidence indicates terrorist groups are taking advantage of the disruption caused by the coronavirus – ISIS, for example, was just caught smuggling over $1 billion worth of synthetic street drugs into Europe, where production of amphetamines has been low during the lockdown and demand is high. Authoritarian regimes are using the spread of the disease as a further excuse to tighten their grip at home, exacerbating one of the drivers of violent extremism. With those factors in play, security services distracted, and government funding and equipment diverted to address the pandemic, there is no shortage of ways the coronavirus is having an impact on counterterrorism efforts around the globe.
But as much as the U.N. event this week offers the international community an opportunity to take stock of the terrorism and counterterrorism impacts of the pandemic, it also lays bare two striking limitations of the U.N. in this field.
The first centers around the funding of the U.N. counterterrorism system and how the exponential growth in U.N. counterterrorism activities over the past few years can largely be attributed to contributions from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, countries with checkered counterterrorism and human rights histories.
The U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), created in 2017 as a result of a reform process led by Secretary-General António Guterres to streamline the hydra-headed U.N. counterterrorism structures, has expanded rapidly, to more than 150 staff in New York, with additional personnel in six field offices around the globe. Yet, only eight of these positions are funded out of the regular U.N. budget, which accounts for less than 5 percent of UNOCT’s resources.
The rest comes from the UN Trust Fund for Counter-Terrorism, which has collected some $250 million since it was established in 2009. The fund consists of voluntary contributions from some 30 countries and organizations. Although in his opening remarks during CT Week, U.N. Under-Secretary General for Counter-Terrrism, Vladimir Voronkov, a former Russian diplomat, thanked UNOCT’s five top funders for their generous support, in fact, contributions from Saudi Arabia and Qatar account for more than 80 percent of UNOCT resources.
Such heavy reliance on this money might go some way to explaining why the office tends to be reticent to speak out on issues of human rights (more on that later). In addition, the rivalry and animosity between these two countries has forced UNOCT to ensure that their resources are not comingled, leading to redundancies and inefficiencies. Take, for example, the largely Saudi-funded U.N. Center for Counter-Terrorism (UNCCT), which predates the creation of UNOCT but now sits uncomfortably within it, and the largely Qatari-funded Special Projects and Innovation Branch. Both focus on developing and delivering capacity-building projects related to implementing the U.N. Global Counterterrorism Strategy.
The role of the UNCCT features prominently during CT Week. Saudi Ambassador to the U.N. Abdallah Al-Mouallimi and Voronkov lead a session to showcase UNCCT projects. Missing from the agenda is any mention of the fact that all such projects need to pass muster with a UNCCT advisory board that has had only one chair since it was created in 2011: the Saudi Ambassador. It goes without saying that this is not a governance practice the U.N. would encourage its member states to follow.
The second U.N. shortcoming on counterterrorism concerns human rights. The human rights session during CT Week repeats an all too familiar pattern for U.N. counterterrorism conferences: The session is chaired by a senior U.N. human rights official and is bereft any voices of counterterrorism practitioners who could speak to how counterterrorism efforts that fail to adhere to human rights norms are not only violations of international obligations but also less effective. The session also lacks human rights defenders who could share their first-hand experiences of how the heavy-handed response of security forces risks both exacerbating the global pandemic and the drivers of violent extremism.
There was some hope 17 years ago, when the U.N. Security Council, thanks to a Mexican-led push, first allowed mention of the need to respect human rights while countering terrorism in one of its counterterrorism resolutions. The subject of human rights is now on the agenda of virtually every U.N. counterterrorism conference and regularly featured in U.N. counterterrorism capacity-building projects.
But the extent to which the U.N. counterterrorism system is willing or able to actually call out countries when their counterterrorism practices blatantly violating human rights norms remains in question. With UNOCT heavily reliant on large donations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, there is little appetite for properly addressing human rights violations that arise from a member state’s counterterrorism laws and operations.
Thus, while U.N. human rights officials speak out about abuses committed in the name of countering terrorism, their counterterrorism counterparts are typically silent – at least publicly. This gives governments and the wider public the impression that this is merely a human rights issue, when in fact there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that counterterrorism measures that violate human rights generate or exacerbate grievances that can fuel extremist violence and that such practices stoke, rather than reduce, terrorist recruitment.
Worse, the same silence from U.N. counterterrorism officials can be perceived as legitimizing repression. This is precisely what happened when Voronkov was silent following his visit to the detention centers in China’s Xinjiang province.
Similarly, U.N. counterterrorism officials have typically said nothing publicly when countries adopt overly broad counterterrorism legislation that targets political opponents and stifles dissent. The silence following President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent signing of an anti-terrorism law in the Philippines that gives “security forces the power to arrest activists, journalists and social media users by simply saying that they are suspected of terrorist activities” is just the latest example.
Last year was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedoms, but with fewer and fewer member states prioritizing human rights, particularly in counterterrorism dialogues, the incentives for U.N. counterterrorism officials to do so are decreasing. Moreover, based on the recent announcement by Voronkov that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam – all poor human rights performers — are the three countries that have volunteered so far to host U.N. regional counterterrorism conferences in 2021, one shouldn’t expect any changes in the near term.
Although the U.N. is not, and never will be, the largest player on the frontlines of tackling terrorism, the global organization has an essential role as the moral authority promoting and protecting human rights without exception. Allowing two wealthy member states with questionable counterterrorism and human rights records to foot the vast majority of the bill for the world body’s counterterrorism activities, including this week’s event, perpetuates a troubling trend at an already challenging time.