When the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) was created back in 2011, its main purpose was to streamline counterterrorism policy amongst its members without being held up by lengthy United Nations bureaucratic processes. Now, a decade later, the Forum sits at a crossroads: It is time to take stock of what the Forum has become and acknowledge what are the critical inflection points for its future development.
The GCTF brands itself as an informal, apolitical, multilateral counterterrorism platform designed to strengthen the international architecture for addressing global terror-related violence. However, precisely because of its informal nature, the Forum has also been regarded as a tool for circumventing international law, increasing exclusionary practices, and building an opaque institutional structure that does not provide any transparency about how human rights law is interpreted and implemented.
When the Forum was created 10 years ago, some regarded it as a “silver bullet,” which would allow members to break away from U.N.-related restrictions and enable quick action and results. Because of its simplified structure and ability to streamline consistent debates, the GCTF was thought to be able to address issues and move them forward more quickly.
Yet, 10 years on, as the Forum prepares for its first significant strategic review, this panacea seems to have been a mirage. A recent report we did for the NGO Saferworld argues that the Forum is failing to achieve a number of goals for which it was designed and, instead, is replicating many of the shortcomings that were observed in the U.N. system. The report’s findings were informed by both a review of GCTF and U.N. counterterrorism-related documents and interviews with more than 20 GCTF member State representatives, scholars, legal experts, representatives of civil society, and officials from international organizations.
What’s going wrong at the GCTF?
The plethora of counterterror recommendations that have been produced without appropriate follow-up have been viewed as major challenges by those familiar with the work of the GCTF. The unwillingness and over-bureaucratization of national justice systems make implementation processes even more difficult. Beyond these challenges, we identified a set of critical inflection points for the GCTF Secretariat and its member States to address if they wish to keep this body relevant in the future.
First of all, there is a membership and inclusion problem. Member States that joined in 2011, which, to this day, are the Forum’s 30 members, are not necessarily the same ones that would choose to join today, making entire regions affected by terror attacks from violent groups (such as the Sahel or Central Africa, for example) severely underrepresented. In addition, we witnessed a number of instances in which the GCTF’s consensus-based operational procedures have proved restrictive for the inclusion of civil society organizations (CSOs). There is currently not much willingness to cast the inclusion net wider. “If you are a new organisation to the GCTF space or an organization which has been excluded in the past […] it will be hard for you to get an invite,” one technical expert told us. The most likely to be excluded are CSOs that report on States’ abuse of counterterror practices. The Forum – in terms of its civil society inclusion – becomes a place only for the “right” type of civil society organizations, those that will not ruffle State feathers.
Secondly, there is a problem of legal influence. The implementation of informal guidelines in formal legal frameworks, also referred to as soft-law, is proven to be rather controversial. Despite the non-binding nature of GCTF’s good practices, the U.N. Security Council frequently refers to the standards developed within the Forum. One such example is Resolution 2178, known as the “foreign terrorist resolution” and adopted only one day after the GCTF issued the Hague – Marrakesh Memorandum on Good Practices for a More Effective Response to the Foreign Terrorist Fighters Phenomenon. This hybridization is made possible by a “revolving door” scenario: the communication channels that exist between GCTF representatives and Security Council resolutions are hard to pin down. “It certainly is a matter of Gentlemen Agreements, it is certainly not transparent nor easy to describe” one interviewee told us. By mimicking the law, Forums such as the GCTF contribute to making the law.
This side-stepping of U.N. institutions is exclusionary for the 163 member States that are not part of the GCTF and often exclusionary in terms of human rights standards and norms – as these good practices have not always been grounded in agreed international standards or produced with the necessary human rights expertise. All in all, it should be acknowledged that the ultimate danger here is that the reputation of the U.N. itself is on the line when joint U.N.-GCTF “products” emerge that override certain redlines on already agreed human rights standards and norms.
Thirdly, there is a problem of the lowest common denominator. By having yet another body that would allow multilateral consensus to be bypassed, counterterrorism practices approved by global bodies become defused, thus usually allowing for the lowest standards to prevail. This idea of an ever-expanding counterterrorism architecture was described by a legal expert as a “whack-a-mole” modus operandi. States can engage whichever forum fits clearest with their narrow interest to provide legitimization for their approach – and dismiss the rest. As international standards are dependent on the spread of norms and informal rules, we can see how some States will use this ever-expanding architecture to find a way to validate their potentially illiberal approaches.
Finally, perhaps the most potentially harmful element of this process is the often inadvertent, but sometimes deliberate, circumvention of human rights-compliant law. The opaque institutional structure of the GCTF poses a challenge for assessing how human rights law is met or integrated into all relevant institutional activities and programs, and whether contributions from independent civil society organizations are incorporated into their work.
What next – a rebirth or the beginning of the end?
Certainly, these four issues combined with the increasing politicization of the Forum ultimately calls into question its original reason for existence. One practitioner mentioned that “[t]he Forum should […] do something more practical with all the expertise it has built in the past decade.” A number of technical experts believed that had the GCTF remained what it was initially – a technical consulting body for the U.N. system, which provided advice on matters where the U.N. was at a loss – its value would be harder to question. But this has not been the case.
The stakeholders who designed the GCTF didn’t set out to create an opaque body that circumvents and deformalizes legal standards, that excludes certain States and civil society, or that merely represents a “production line” churning out policy documents. This leads to the question of what the added value of the GCTF is today despite of its multiple critical inflection points and identified shortcomings. Ten years after the birth of the GCTF, it is important for the Forum to remember its roots and adapt to making its contribution to U.N. bodies more transparent and inclusive. The raison d’être of the GCTF is to be operational and technical – this is why it was created after all.
It is vital that the upcoming strategic review (foreseen for the autumn) provides a course correction for the GCTF, so that it can play a valuable future role in preventing violent terror attacks. If the GCTF cannot respond to these concerns and change its practices, then those States that are in favor of protecting civic space, defending human rights norms, and promoting multilateralism should re-evaluate their diplomatic, political and material investment in the Forum.
This article is drawn from a Saferworld policy paper Generation of Law through Silence: the Global Counterterrorism Forum and its Practices, by Delina Goxho and Selina Daugalies.