Just Security is pleased to host a timely symposium addressing the international law, human rights, and rule of law dimensions of the ongoing 7th Review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS). The Strategy, first adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006, is a unique global instrument intended to enhance national, regional, and international efforts to counter terrorism. The General Assembly reviews the Strategy every two years, making it a living document, which should be fine-tuned to member States’ counterterrorism priorities and be able to remain sensitive to changing needs in global, national, and regional counterterrorism and security contexts. The negotiation of the Strategy is taking place now, but was delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, negotiations were suspended and then re-started with vigor in January.

The review of the Strategy comes at a critical time as we move toward the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In the intervening years, individuals and communities across the world have profoundly felt the impact of terrorism on their lives. From the methodical killing of mothers and babies in a maternity ward in Kabul, to lives lost in suicide bombings in Brussels, to the kidnapping of hundreds of teenage girls in Nigeria, the costs to the victims of terrorism have been unrelenting.

During the past 20 years of global, regional, and national counterterrorism practice, the abuse and misuse of counterterrorism law and practice has been sustained, endemic, and structural. Misuse of counterterrorism is threatening the very foundations of the U.N. Charter’s principles, which are at the heart of ensuring lasting security and sustainable peace. Effective counterterrorism for the next decade requires a values-led approach that indisputably holds the U.N. Charter and the rules of international law at its core.

The negotiation process that’s taking place now has proven to be unique in notable ways. Co-chaired by the exceptional leadership of Spain and Oman, there has been innovation and openness to this process, particularly compared to previous GCTS negotiations. This would be a feat at any time, but it has been especially notable given the extraordinary challenges imposed by the global pandemic. In particular, both ambassadors leading the process have shown a clear and distinctive approach to engaging civil society actors in the global counterterrorism conversation. This departure affirms a growing acknowledgment from States that civil society actors are central to preventing terrorism. They are essential to producing the kind of policy and practice that can undermine the conditions conducive to terrorism. It is now understood that much can be learnt from proactively engaging and listening to civil society about what has worked and what has not worked in counterterrorism for the last 20 years. That noted, it is imperative that these new baselines for civil society engagement, openness, and transparency in U.N. counterterrorism continue to be strengthened, using, for example, the negotiation of the United Nations Peacebuilding architecture as a model for future strategy reviews.

There are tough issues yet to be agreed on in these negotiations. They include:

  • the thorny question of budget, specifically whether the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism should be placed within the regular U.N. budget (it is now primarily financed by extra-budgetary contributions);
  • how to address the human rights deficits that are evident in global counterterrorism practice, underscored by the weakness of the 4th pillar of the existing Strategy;
  • how much oversight, monitoring, and evaluation of U.N. counterterrorism can be advanced in this resolution;
  • whether and how complex issues such as repatriation (encouraged by the existing Strategy) should be advanced and strengthened;
  • how to protect the rights of the child in countering terrorism;
  • addressing how expansive counterterrorism should be, as there are intense debates in play about the costs of having counterterrorism as the “home” for all forms of undesirable and egregious violence, from misogyny to xenophobia to hate speech and right-wing violence;
  • defining the scope of new technologies and their use in counterterrorism and holding counterterrorism expansions on rights in check even as we struggle to stay pace with technological developments.

Underpinning all these specific issues is a broader and contentious debate about the role of the United Nations counterterrorism architecture within the system a whole. This architecture is made up of the multiple and expanding U.N. entities that engage on counterterrorism, from the Office of Counter-Terrorism to the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UNCTED), to the extensive programming on extremism being carried out by UNDP, UNESCO, and others. At the heart of this debate is a profound interrogation focused on balance in the system, and the challenges posed when the most complex of matters from development to fragile states are led or framed by counterterrorism interventions. None of these matters make for an easy conclusion to the months of negotiation that have already taken place. Last Friday, the draft resolution was issued, and States are now in silent procedure, with the resolution to be adopted by the General Assembly on June 21.

This Just Security symposium extends the space that has been opened up in this process to hear more from diverse civil society actors as the negotiations conclude. The various contributions over the coming weeks will reveal multiple perspectives on the GCTS negotiations from a human rights and humanitarian standpoint. Its goal is to offer an outsider/insider perspective on what key issues are being watched in the final throes of these important negotiations and what’s at stake as closing agreements are reached.

Published pieces in the series:

Opening Pandora’s Box: New “Threats” in the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy by Marc Batac and Jordan Street

Time for a Course Correction on Counterterrorism and Civic Space by Katerina Hadzi-Miceva Evans and Nicholas Miller

Foreign ISIS Suspects, Families: Why a Single “R” Word Matters at the UN by Letta Tayler and Alison Huyghe

UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy and Humanitarian Action: A Case for Saving Lives by David Andrés Viñas

Why UN Counterterrorism Needs Human Rights Oversight Now by Chris Rogers and Mutuma Ruteere

What the Review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Tells Us About How Far We Have Come Since 9/11

by Eelco Kessels and Melissa Lefas

Image: A wide view of the official launch of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, adopted by the General Assembly in September 2006. U.N. Photos.