The United Nations secretary-general made public last week his report on the Activities of the United Nations system in implementing the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. This marks the start of three months of negotiations over an updated UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS).

The new report – building on a previous one from February 2020 – outlines the U.N.’s progress in implementing the current strategy. Its reflections on challenges, the impact of COVID-19, and recommendations for reform will help inform Member States’ views on the new strategy. It is the first step toward a General Assembly resolution in June that will guide the U.N.’s counterterror efforts for the next two years.

The strategy renewal takes place in the context of growing recognition that the counterterrorism work of the U.N. has far-reaching impact, but equally concerning negative effects. Much has been made of the extraordinary funding arrangements of the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT), the imbalance between funds allocated to U.N. counterterror efforts ($522 million in 2019) and those dedicated to human rights protection and promotion ($284 million in 2019), and the continuing lack of meaningful civil society engagement in counterterrorism policymaking and implementation.

Work by the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (also an executive editor at Just Security), has highlighted the downstream harms counterterrorism policy is having on civic space, women and girls, and human rights. We and others have recently argued that at times the U.N.’s emphasis on counterterrorism has helped some states blue-wash repressive practices, while also helping to embolden authoritarian governments. COVID-19 has added another layer of complexity to accountability and transparency. In response to the pandemic, many States have restricted freedoms and civic space, sometimes using the global health emergency as a pretext for repression. Some have also seized upon the pandemic as a convenient excuse to neglect their international legal obligations to repatriate their citizens from conflict zones.

With this backdrop, many hoped the secretary-general’s report would offer a robust call for much-needed changes. Here is what the report says on some critical issues – and what this should mean for a new GCTS:

  1. Protecting Civic space

In the context of unprecedented attacks on civic space around the world, the secretary-general’s report speaks clearly on the protection of civic space as “intrinsic to the human rights-based approach provided by the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.” It also acknowledges the need for greater partnership with civil society in the U.N.’s counterterrorism efforts, noting the prominent role played by civil society in supporting victims of terrorism; and the vital contributions of civil society in preventing the conditions conducive to terror attacks. This is all welcome rhetoric and builds upon some positive U.N. system developments, such as the secretary-general’s 2020 guidance note on protecting civic space. The report cites OCT’s new civil society engagement strategy as evidence that an effort to partner with civil society has begun. Yet, this has not always been meaningful, nor has the OCT done nearly enough to prevent States from misusing counterterrorism measures to attack civic freedoms.

More deliberate and specific efforts to include civil society and push back on harms to civic space are needed. OCT needs to step up engagement – and, where appropriate, partnership — with civil society organizations, including with organizations that raise concerns over counterterrorism as currently practiced. Expanded attention to civic space should not stop there. The new GCTS should recognize the potential counterproductive impacts of arbitrarily applied counterterrorism measures on civic space and should mandate the U.N. system to work proactively to mitigate these harms. This could follow the lead of the Financial Action Task Force, which recently opened a new work stream exploring where negative downstream harms were occurring so they could be rectified. This would move the U.N. system beyond rhetoric and toward needed action.

  1. Meaningful integration of gender considerations

In paragraph 34 of the new report, the secretary-general goes further than before on issues related to gender and counterterrorism. The report notes that “counter-terrorism efforts have to uphold women’s rights and enable their meaningful participation, while avoiding their instrumentalisation.” This is the first time that the secretary-general has mentioned instrumentalization in relation to gender and counterterrorism in such a report, and follows recent analysis that warns that this is becoming commonplace.

It took five reviews of the GCTS before gender was referenced in any meaningful way, but now there appears to be momentum to mainstream gender throughout the strategy and include language that calls for protecting women and girls’ rights in preventing or countering violent extremism (P/CVE) programming and counterterrorism efforts. This is welcome, but the new GCTS should go further. The harms experienced by women, girls, and families in the name of counterterrorism have been severe. States should use the GCTS to instruct U.N. counterterrorism agencies clearly and unambiguously to monitor the gendered impacts of counterterrorism measures and put in place a process to halt actions harming women and girls in the name of counterterrorism. Ultimately, the aim must be to move the U.N. toward a more holistic and intersectional approach to addressing the relationship between gender equality, women’s rights, peace, security, and counterterrorism – one that is fundamentally based on respect for women’s human rights.

  1. Enabling humanitarian access

The secretary-general makes multiple references to the unintended negative downstream effects of counterterrorism on conflict, development and humanitarian access. On principled humanitarian action in particular, paragraphs 37 and 38 lay the groundwork for stronger language in the 2021 GCTS to ensure that “effective delivery of principled humanitarian aid to [populations in need], in full respect of international law” is not prevented by counterterrorism efforts. The GCTS already includes strong language urging Member States to ensure that “counter-terrorism legislation and measures do not impede humanitarian and medical activities or engagement with all relevant actors.” The reality, however, is that counterterrorism measures are increasingly hindering humanitarian action. This was recognized in U.N. Security Council resolution 2462 (2019) for the first time with language included in a counterterrorism Chapter VII resolution calling for States to safeguard humanitarian action. However, this statement was much weaker than previously adopted language in the GCTS, as it only urged States to “take into account the potential effect of counterterrorism measures on exclusively humanitarian activities.” In recognition of continued barriers, the updated GCTS’s should retain this previous language and go further to reaffirm Member States legal obligations to facilitate principled humanitarian action and mandate U.N. counterterrorism agencies to work with humanitarian actors, financial institutions, and States to find ways to help them fulfill their obligations.

  1. Delivering human rights oversight

The final paragraph of the secretary-general’s report calls for the new strategy to “ensure the allocation of adequate resources” for the U.N.’s counterterror system. While the report simultaneously calls for expanded attention, action, and additional resources for human rights — the “adequate resources” reference could be read as support for proposals to replace some of OCT’s vast extra-budgetary resources with an allocation from the central U.N. budget. Budgetary decisions need to be thought through carefully – and with one eye on fixing the historic neglect of the GCTS’ human rights pillar.

Increasing OCT’s regular budget support could set an unhelpful precedent. The Office’s recent growth has been enabled by extraordinarily large contributions from just two States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Rewarding those contributions by permanently increasing OCT’s allocation from assessed funds could lead to other States attempting to use extra-budgetary funds to influence U.N. budgetary priorities. This concern might be less had OCT demonstrated a strong commitment to full integration of human rights in its counterterrorism programming, but despite some moves in the right direction, that commitment is still not clear.

For these reasons, if Member States choose to strengthen OCT’s financial footing, they should simultaneously endorse the resourcing and empowerment of an independent human rights oversight office for all U.N. counterterrorism programming. The secretary-general recognizes the need for such reform, with the proposition that human rights should guide the “development, implementation, oversight, monitoring and evaluation of policies and measures to prevent and counter-terrorism.” This can best be done by creating an independent human rights oversight office that sits outside of OCT structures. This oversight office should be resourced with dedicated staff and tasked with ensuring compliance with international law and human rights obligations in all U.N. counterterrorism programming. This will be the single most important change that Member States can make this year in the GCTS – and one that should be a central platform for all who wish to see the U.N. system live up to its commitments to protect human rights of all.

What does this mean for the new resolution in June?

The secretary-general’s report provides a launchpad for addressing many shortcomings with the U.N.’s counterterror approach. The need for consensus resolution by all 193 Member States will require some compromises to be made, but this should not stop the strategy from being strengthened in urgent ways. All Member States and the whole U.N. system stand to benefit from a bold U.N. counterterrorism strategy that promotes civic space, avoids the instrumentalization of gender, ensures humanitarian access, and institutes human rights oversight. It is past time to make that happen.

Image: U.N. Security Council Meets on Countering Terrorism and Extremism in Africa on March 11, 2020. UN Photo/Manuel Elías