That national security policies adversely mobilize and impact families and family members is largely off the radar of policymakers. With limited exceptions, human rights advocates and academics have also paid scant attention to this issue. Nonetheless, there is an increasingly robust evidence base on how security policies treat families as allies, adversaries, and sometimes, even simultaneously, both. We identify these impacts of national security on families, explain why they have been at best downplayed and at worst ignored, and show that human rights law requires a very different approach to families under security policies. This topic is the focus of the United Nations Special Rapporteur’s recently issued report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (full disclosure: also author and Just Security executive editor) and has also been the focus of fact-finding and reporting by the Duke Law International Human Rights Clinic, which recently co-hosted an expert consultation to inform the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s report.
How does securitized targeting of families relate to other official policies toward families?
The centrality of family to national security sits in parallel with the family being at the center of recent international attention with moves to institutionalize and specify protection of the family in multiple arenas. This “protection of the family” agenda has been oft-critiqued, including as a conservative push to entrench a heterosexist definition of the family and to protect the family unit as a whole at the expense of its members, particularly women. We write this piece aware of the complexity and contestation of family as a concept, yet also recognizing the importance of family in all its multiple forms for human intimacy, meaning, and as the epicenter of life for millions. It is in that context that attention is long overdue to national security practices that undermine family and individual rights. In short, we need to understand how families are being targeting and sanctioned by national security policy and practice. Unsurprisingly, the increased centrality of the family as the site of many States’ counterterrorism regulation is distinctly at odds with the rhetoric of family stability and welfare of the family unit.
Why have family impacts been downplayed or ignored?
Many reasons account for how families have been overlooked in accounts of the human rights impacts of national security. Understanding effects both within and between families means knowing how to analyze a whole host of gendered—and racialized—hierarchies that shape how security policies differently affect different family units and their members. Yet this gender and intersectional know-how is often absent when it comes to addressing terrorism, violent extremism, and their responses.
It can also be difficult to get information about impacts because of the acute stigma that occurs when security policies intrude on the most intimate and private spaces we all inhabit. Not all families are subject to national security practices and policies, and those that are will often be more vulnerable and visible to the State than others. As well, there are often very good reasons for confidentiality in the types of family-related proceedings (e.g., child custody decisions) where security policies are increasingly being enforced. Because decisions about families and their members can also often be implemented in highly localized and de-centralized locations (e.g., by teachers or social workers), it also makes it harder to fully track and document their nature and scope. Moreover, the new actors shaping security practice for families, have traditionally not been seen as security actors at all, namely educators, social workers, and medical professionals.
We also observed that there are certain trends—particularly toward focusing on the purported role of misogyny in violent extremism and terrorism—that can create too-easy inroads into, rather than circumspection about, scrutinizing families under a security rubric. Unchecked calls for preventing or countering violent extremism (P/CVE) policies to integrate “[e]vidence on individuals perpetrating violence against women or domestic violence needs” are a case in point. We should be clear: We are not claiming that a focus on misogyny and masculinity is unnecessary. Rather, we see a one-sided and selective engagement with the masculinities of non-State, racialized, ethnic and “outsider’ men,” with little integration of the military, State, and security sector masculinities in the mix. In this context, the use of feminist perspectives to securitize rather than protect the family and its members, can create new human rights violations. There is a general failure to understand that security policies that target the family in the name of protecting women can actually in practice be antithetical to women’s rights and disproportionately impact minority families and women.
How do security policies adversely impact families and their members?
Here we provide some examples of how different types of national security measures create adverse effects both within and between families. For example, there are administrative and criminal measures that impact the family unit or members directly. Direct effects are addressed by the Special Rapporteur’s Report including interrogations and counterterrorism financing prosecutions of relatives of terrorism suspects for de minimus support, as well as States’ non-repatriation policies. Indirect effects of administrative and criminal measures include the effects for relatives of citizenship revocation or cancellation of welfare benefits of sanctioned individuals, as well as the ways in which failure to recognize birth registration or legitimate marriages by proscribed groups creates hurdles for identifying the nationality of minor children.
Increasingly there are also a range of preventive security approaches—usually under the banner of P/CVE—that mobilize care professionals (e.g., welfare officers, social workers, educators) to provide officials with unprecedented access to, and control of, families. Appointing such care professionals as the watchdogs for “radicalization” or “violent extremism” in youth or parents is often deeply problematic. This is because P/CVE practice follows from broad and/or vague definitions of violent extremism and its responses with little training on how to engage P/CVE practice in a way that is consistent with human rights. We remain troubled by the lack of purchase of agreed definition of P/CVE in international law, leaving practice in this area ripe for abuse. Even when there are welfare initiatives aimed at supporting families (e.g., group or individual-level support for relatives of terrorism suspects), these can sit in tension with other security programs that criminally target family members such as through counterterrorism financing investigations and convictions. Failure to always make transparent to beneficiaries how these family support initiatives relate to security policies themselves can create situations that threaten the stability of family relationships, as well as the well-being of individual members.
A range of national security measures that unduly target women on the basis of their familial relationships (e.g., training mothers in security tactics to watch for radicalization in their families) or undermine gender equality (e.g., the burqa ban in some countries), also necessarily impact individual family members and the family as a whole. Here, too, it is important to note how gender inequalities can intersect with discrimination on the basis of religion and/or race to mean that security policies in practice apply unequally between and within families. Custody orders that remove children from Muslim mothers because of “radicalization,” but which might also apply different, less punitive approaches to men or to different family structures or to right-wing violent extremism or terrorism, are an example. The particular targeting of Muslim families and Muslim mothers in multiple countries is of distinct concern to us both. Such adverse impacts on families, including mothers, are heightened because State national security policies also often simultaneously undermine civil society, including stakeholders such as women’s organizations that provide critical support to families, including female members.
Too often, governmental security policy simultaneously affects the integrity of the family unit as well as the status of its members. A stark example is States’ refusals to recognize birth registration by proscribed groups such as ISIS or legitimate marriages in areas under terrorists’ control, undermining recognition of the composition of the family unit with significant flow-on consequences for its members, including denials of nationality of minor children or access to assets of would-be spouses.
What is a gender-sensitive and human rights-compliant approach to families and its members?
These effects above implicate human rights that go beyond the usual scope of analysis regarding national security policies. Instead, they engage States’ obligations such as those “obligations not to interfere with the family life; obligations to ensure equality rights within the family and obligations to protect and assist the family;” the status of children as rights’ holders; economic, social, and cultural rights (e.g., with housing policies that circumscribe where families related to terrorism suspects can live); and other rights relevant to family life (e.g., the right to inheritance and sexual and reproductive rights). They require us to “see” the family as an object of counterterrorism and security regulation, and to address the scale and importance of rights within and between families.
Equally States’ security policies that either directly or indirectly impact the family unit and its members can also affect rights that are generally understood to be threatened in counterterrorism and P/CVE spaces, such as the right to privacy, freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination and equality. The guarantees of non-discrimination and equality are particularly engaged when State policies treat different family units differently (e.g., by unduly focusing on and stigmatizing Muslim families) or create or reinforce hierarchies within family structures (e.g., by administrative and criminal measures that in practice are a form of collective punishment that limit the freedoms of female relatives and children of terrorism suspects).
As international obligations on the family particularly include compliance with human rights guarantees related to gender equality, a nuanced gender and human rights-based approach to counterterrorism and P/CVE is key to addressing how security policies involve and impact families. It is important to recall that a range of “gendered security harms” related to the family can result from when States take a gender-blind approach to security policy, but even when they try to explicitly adopt a gender lens. It is also critical for us to “see” the impacts upon and harm to families from abusive counterterrorism and security policy. Opening up the harms experienced by families to greater scrutiny may be a means to hold the security state accountable, as well as to expose the paradox of affirming families in public policy while simultaneously targeting them in security practice.