(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the ongoing 7th Review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.)
Ismael is a 24-year-old community and youth organizer working to protect Indigenous people’s rights in Mindanao. (We have changed his name and age here to protect his identity.) He has been included on the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ unofficial list of “terrorist” members of the National People’s Army, an armed group waging the longest ongoing communist insurgency in the world. On four occasions he has been summoned to military bases to prove that he is not a “terrorist.” His crime? Speaking up about human rights.
Ismael’s story is not unique. For many years, authorities in the Philippines have used overbroad definitions of what constitutes “terrorism” to target minorities, political opposition and civil society activities. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, human rights defenders, journalists, labour group members, Indigenous people, environmental rights activists, lawyers, doctors, and priests have been executed, or have died in security operations after being “red-tagged” or labeled “terrorists” by the government for their alleged political sympathies.
This is not only happening in the Philippines. In every continent on the globe, authorities are using counterterrorism (CT) as an excuse to attack human rights and fundamental freedoms. In Hong Kong, a vague and overbroad National Security Law has conflated terrorism, secession, and subversion. Egypt has arrested human rights defenders on phony terrorism charges. Hungary has used counterterrorism laws against refugees and migrants. The El Salvador government has branded environmental protesters as “extremists.” Nigerian authorities have justified a crackdown on political protests as “counter-terrorism.” Belarus has branded journalist Roman Protasevich a terrorist for criticising the government. And, in Cambodia, critics of the government pandemic response are labeled “terrorists.”
Why does this matter for the review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS), which is taking place this month? Well, one of the big debates that diplomats are currently having is how the U.N.’s strategy should respond to “new threats” of “terrorism.”
In the 2021 review, there is a significant push – across the geopolitical spectrum – to add references to “right-wing” or “far-right” terrorism to the focus of the GCTS. Some delegations have also advocated the inclusion of concepts such as the “far-left,” “violent nationalism” and “xenophobic violence” in the Strategy.
This issue has emerged as a priority for many delegations given the political impetus to respond to a worrying trend of terror attacks perpetrated by individuals said to hold hateful, right-wing and ethnic supremacist ideologies. Many States have also asserted the belief that for too long global counterterrorism efforts have focused only on violence from individuals or groups professing an attachment to Islam.
States do have an obligation to develop responses to these new trends of violence – and prevention strategies will require regional and global cooperation rooted in the respect for human rights and international humanitarian law to respond to any transnational activity. But bringing these new “threats” into a multilateral framework like the GCTS needs very careful consideration. Broadening the scope of what constitutes “terrorism” or “terrorist” violence has real-world consequences that are already playing out in countries like the Philippines. Adding over-broad references to “new threats” in the GCTS could open up Pandora’s box, unleashing serious harms at a national level.
Many States will seize on the inclusion of new definitions in a U.N. strategy as justification to change domestic legislation and national counterterrorism practice. Authorities would gain cover to label a wider spectrum of behaviors, ideologies, or political beliefs as evidence of an individual’s or group’s “extremism” or links to “terrorism.” As in the case of the Philippines, this would hand authoritarian governments yet more license to target civil society and human rights activists – and misuse the U.N.’s name while doing so.
Hastily expanding the concept and definition of terrorism within a narrowly framed strategy negotiation that has been limited further by the COVID emergency could aggravate existing confusion over definitions of terrorism and violent extremism within the U.N. It could serve to politicize in-country U.N. programming – where authorities use countering or preventing “violent extremism” (PVE) projects as cover to target political opponents or human rights defenders. It could further the rise of “PVE-ization” at the U.N. – where development, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding programming is rebranded as “preventing violent extremism,” targeting these “new threats.”
Legal analysis has also shown that the suggested additions of concepts such as “violent nationalism,” or “anti-authority,” and political concepts of the “far right” and “far left,” which are inserted without further definition, pose a serious risk of justifying or enabling States’ violations of human rights, and could undermine the objectives of the entire GCTS. Inserting these concepts into a U.N. counterterrorism strategy risks further muddying already murky waters, and the case of the Philippines demonstrates the risks attached to this lack of clarity.
Those negotiating the Strategy should therefore heed these warnings and avoid the precipitous addition to the GCTS of a laundry list of new threats. The human rights pillar of the U.N. Global Counter-terrorism Strategy has been much neglected for 15 years; to avoid undermining it further, the Strategy should remain precise and targeted, with no room for misuse.
As Canadian Ambassador to the U.N. Bob Rae noted in a recent U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism conference, “in the world we live in there are states that are taking advantage of the concept of terrorism to limit freedoms much too widely, much too broadly and much too oppressively.” Diplomats should heed his words, or individuals like Ismael will be the ones who suffer the consequences.