(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.)
For years, the United Nations secretary-general has called for the upholding and mainstreaming of human rights in counterterrorism, deeming it vital to maintaining U.N. and member States’ values and essential for counterterrorism to be effective.
Yet from Kenya to the Philippines, China to El Salvador, in country after country, counterterrorism has increasingly been used to violate rights and entrench authoritarianism as much, if not more, than to protect and provide security. At the same time, in the two decades since 9/11, U.N. counterterrorism has emerged as a sprawling, highly influential domain of multilateral action and governance over security-related law and policy, from global programs to prevent violent extremism (PVE) to border controls and the regulation of online content.
There is clear evidence that this growth of U.N. counterterrorism activity has been accompanied by significant deterioration of human rights protections, the instrumentalization of gender and women’s rights, the undermining of children’s rights, and the closing of civic space. Recent examples illustrate the dangers of implementing U.N. counterterrorism or PVE programming in wholly inappropriate environments such as Rohingya refugee camps (a move that was only halted after intervention by the U.N. secretary general’s office). We don’t know how many more risky proposals or decisions on programming there may be hiding under the mantle of U.N. counterterrorism practice, but business-as-usual feels grossly inadequate given the increasing dangers that abuse of counterterrorism poses to rights today.
Since the previous review of the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS) in 2018, diverse stakeholders have stressed that the Strategy’s Fourth Pillar — human rights — suffers from profound structural and policy weaknesses. In his recent report to the General Assembly, Secretary-General António Guterres underscored that
an urgent focus […] was needed, supported by renewed political commitment and adequate resources, to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law in the implementation of all four pillars of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
It is apparent that acute institutional and resource inequities leave the U.N.’s human rights capabilities stagnant when it comes to counterterrorism. A new approach and structural reform are urgently needed that, at minimum, should include the creation of independent oversight to oversee U.N. counterterrorism. The ongoing Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy negotiations appear to be engaging with this acute need by (in current draft) tasking the secretary-general to undertake a study to explore modalities for oversight.
While not itself sufficient, we believe it is necessary if the U.N. is to have any hope of genuinely mainstreaming and respecting human rights and rule of law in counterterrorism programming—and at an absolute minimum, do no harm. Critically, this oversight must be truly impartial and independent, which means it must be housed outside of the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT). Independence of oversight not only serves member States interests but also works to preserve the integrity of the U.N. in an area that is ‘high-risk” for human rights abuses.
Truly independent oversight could take several forms. One model could include the creation of a fully independent Human Rights ombudsperson. Appointed by the secretary-general, such a role would have operational independence, free from influence from any government, as well as senior leadership of the U.N. to examine, assess, and provide advice to the U.N. on the human rights, rule of law, governance, and institutional gaps that impact the counterterrorism architecture’s ability to contribute to the overarching goals of the U.N., including the Global Compact and the Sustainable Development Goals.
With the right resources and mandate, this would not be duplicative bureaucracy. Such a role would be complementary and strengthening of the roles of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the mandate of the special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while countering terrorism. The ombudsperson’s sole purpose would be internal oversight of U.N. work on counterterrorism—not member States, as is the case for the mandate of the special rapporteur. This would help fill a critical gap at a time of explosive growth in U.N. counterterrorism programming and increasing engagement with member States on national counterterrorism laws, policies, and practice. This would complement and be different from the field presence and Geneva-led role undertaken by OHCHR. The ombudsperson would provide additional institutional capacity focused solely on the large and increasingly complex counterterrorism portfolio, bringing a “systems-level” view to counterterrorism architecture, parallel goals, and U.N. reform that would strengthen the expertise and human rights recommendations of OHCHR.
An ombudsperson would also be the best value for money. The U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism has grown from seven to 150 staff. Across the U.N., counterterrorism programming has reached over half a billion dollars—more than OHCHR’s entire 2020 operating budget. Resources for human rights have been left far, far behind. The creation of an ombudsperson is not a panacea but an improvement at the structural level, and it would multiply the human rights-focused energies of all others in the system, and do much to help redress this existing gross imbalance.
Given U.N. OCT’s proposal to secure even more funding through the regular U.N. budget under current consideration, this existing imbalance is only getting worse. At minimum, any agreement that gives U.N. OCT the allocation of regular budget resources or new grant-making authority must be accompanied by the creation of strong, independent, and impartial oversight. Providing an increase in resources or new powers within the U.N. system without including any measure to address the substantial lack of adequate oversight would be wholly inappropriate in current circumstances. Doing so would also help ensure mutual accountability between the U.N. and member States.
Existing practices on oversight also provide good models. For example, the General Assembly has regularly relied upon the Office of Internal Oversight Services to evaluate specific U.N. entities for efficiency and effectiveness, including a recent assessment of the Department of Political Affairs. The ombudsperson for the 1267 Committee, which supports the Committee on removal of individuals or entities from the UNSC Consolidated List on sanctions, provides another example of how such roles can bring needed independent expertise and support to U.N. entities and member States.
Finally, creating independent oversight at the U.N. is also in line with good practice at the national level. Contemporary counterterrorism “review” at the national level involves a variety of actors, processes, and actions that aim toward accountability beyond judicial review of counterterrorism law and beyond political oversight, which are no longer sufficient to address the full scope of counterterrorism activities, actors, and architecture. The key values of transparency, rights-protection, effectiveness, and legitimacy that underlie independent oversight at the national level are equally important for the U.N.
Looking back, and ahead, the risks posed by U.N. programming and actions related to counterterrorism are all too real—and demand greater institutional capacity and resources on rights.
The 2021 GCTS review comes at a critical inflection point in the dramatic growth of the counterterrorism architecture at the U.N., and for how counterterrorism is being used, and abused, in the real world. With a new GCTS resolution set to further expand the counterterrorism architecture at the U.N., member States should ensure that it is accompanied by structural reform to help redress a dangerous imbalance that, without action, likely renders it inevitable that the U.N. will be implicated in rights violations.