(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.)
Diplomats at the United Nations in New York are accustomed to verbal interventions in debates and dialogues. Delegates make them all the time. We would like to make a different kind of intervention. The kind that involves friends pulling aside another friend to tell them a hard but too-long-unspoken truth: The United Nations counterterrorism system is hostile to civil society participation, is harming civic space, and needs to change direction.
The hard truth
It has been 20 years since the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1373. That resolution, drafted in the days after 9/11, initiated a period of rapid growth for the U.N.’s counterterrorism system, which has grown so large that its size and complexity are now among its defining features. The U.N.’s Global Counter-Terrorism Compact – a framework for coordination among various entities doing counterterrorism work – now counts 43 members and observers. Even those working in this system have difficulty mastering its complex structure.
Another defining feature of the U.N. Counterterrorism eco-system is its lack of openness to outside expertise and civil society voices. While some States are making efforts to bring in civil society, other States rigorously police and maintain the overly State-centric and formalized approach to decision-making.
Ultimately, the complexity of the U.N.’s counterterrorism system and its lack of openness to non-State participation have two adverse effects. First, they deprive the U.N. system of input from civil society counterterrorism practitioners and human rights experts and the benefit of healthy open debate. This exacerbates a shortage of independent and evidence-based oversight inside the U.N. and leaves diplomats with little access to alternative points of view and critical narratives – a situation that unsurprisingly is not fertile ground for course corrections.
Perhaps most troubling of all, the counterterrorism system’s weaknesses have created a “safe space” for some governments to misuse the global counterterrorism system, including to silence civil society voices inside their countries. These States are enabled by the vague definitions common in U.N. counterterrorism resolutions and the lack of accountability and oversight in the counterterrorism system. Indeed, the same States that misuse counterterrorism measures have also successfully fended off calls for greater openness and oversight.
Repeating the mistakes of the past
The General Assembly is currently negotiating its seventh biannual Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS), which may be adopted as early as next week. Unfortunately, it appears likely that many of these mistakes of the past will be repeated. In the current negotiations, some States have pushed to include language reminding other States of their duty to criminalize terrorism – a duty that no one has forgotten. Others have called for further broadening the mandate of the U.N. counterterrorism system and particular agencies within it. These proposals would likely lead to further misuse of the counterterrorism system against civil society.
Unsurprisingly, many of the same States advancing these proposals stridently oppose calls to permit greater civil society participation in the U.N.’s counterterrorism decision-making. They fail to admit the harm that vague definitions cause to human rights and civic space. The same States refuse to acknowledge that counterterrorism measures have been and continue to be misused to silence opposition and undermine democratic governance.
What’s a friend to do?
States and U.N. officials now frequently recognize the important role of civil society in countering the conditions conducive to terrorism. The time has come for these same voices to speak up for greater inclusion of civil society in U.N. counterterrorism policymaking. This should start with a call in the seventh GCTS for a broader role for civil society, followed by clear planning of how to meaningfully fulfil this commitment by the time of the next GCTS review.
The second step is to acknowledge that the current system is not wholly benign. Too often, counterterrorism measures, through insufficient attention to human rights impact or deliberate misuse, lead to human rights harms. They have frequently been used to deprive individuals of their rights to associate, assemble, express themselves, and participate in policymaking. The U.N. system cannot remain neutral on an agenda that harms civic space and human rights. The GCTS should call clearly for all States to protect and promote open civic space.
Actions speak louder than words
What we call for here is achievable and necessary both for the health of the U.N. counterterrorism system and for the wellbeing of the U.N. as a whole. A closed counterterrorism system that does harm to civic space runs counter to the U.N.’s ideals. It also risks the credibility of the U.N. and faith in its ability to “promot[e] and encourag[e] respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.” It is time for those States and U.N. bodies that are committed to these broader aims to acknowledge this hard truth and take action to correct course.