This Tuesday marked an historic occasion for the United Nations Security Council. Under Norway’s presidency, the United Nations Security Council hosted its first-ever Open Debate on the issue of violence and reprisals against women in the context of peace and security processes. It follows a February 2020 Arria formula meeting co-hosted by Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It is troubling that the women and peace and security (WPS) agenda has reached 22 years of implementation without a dedicated debate on the issue of reprisals against women. But the WPS community made the most of the belated opportunity, ensuring that the council’s debate centered on the deeply-evidenced fact that women peacebuilders, rights defenders, and negotiators have operated and continue to operate in untenable circumstances with “unprecedently high” levels of reprisals and violence.

Positively, member States acknowledged women’s front-line work, urged accountability for perpetrators, and underscored the importance of preventive measures to support women to carry out their work without interference. But, troublingly and conspicuously, the council overlooked the disquieting connection between reprisals and counterterrorism practices. This trend is amply documented by the U.N. Secretary-General in his latest report on Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.

By the end of 2021, however,  many human rights stakeholders were left doubting the long-term and meaningful commitment of governments to the promotion and protection of human rights and rule of law, including gender equality and women’s empowerment in counterterrorism. This pessimism is deeply-rooted in the realities on the ground despite progress in the review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy on human rights, civil society engagement, and women’s rights, including language emphasizing preventing the instrumentalization of women rights defenders and their work.

The scale of human rights violations caused by counterterrorism measures at the national level are showing no sign of abating. In particular, the ongoing fall-out from the U.S. and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves many observers painfully questioning the genuineness of member States’ commitment to the WPS agenda and women’s equality in conflict and fragile settings. Reprisals are a daily fact of life for human rights defenders working on counterterrorism or in geographies deemed to have counterterrorism dimensions.

Civil society, rights defenders, media workers, and activists are reporting globally – from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen, Iraq, Colombia and elsewhere – that they are facing increased instability and increased direct targeting, with near-zero resources available to help them to cope with shrinking safe space for their work. Rhetorically, the willingness and ability of governments to protect women rights defenders is at the heart of the WPS agenda, yet, in practice, governments are frequently the actors targeting women rights defenders for their work. For 22 years, States have been making pledges in support of the WPS agenda while simultaneously consolidating their security and counterterrorism infrastructures, building multilateral institutions that decentralize sharing of security technology, and using counterterrorism against human rights defenders, media workers, activists, and others.

This begs the question: how do we move beyond a rhetoric of protection to a practice of prevention, protection, and empowerment in national settings, particularly for human rights defenders calling out governmental abuses in counterterrorism and conflict contexts? If the international community will not advance the WPS protection agenda meaningfully, and if States continue on the current trajectory of talking about protection while building up a counterterrorism infrastructure that can be – and often is – turned against human rights defenders, then the WPS agenda really means little in practice.

This reality leads us to the role of the United Nations.

The U.N. counterterrorism architecture is now at the helm of large-scale proliferation of counterterrorism technical assistance, capacity building, and technology transfer. This work has grown with little to no investment in human rights oversight and architecture, or complementary investments in the critical work of the OHCHR. Given the regular use of counterterrorism measures to conduct reprisals, further support and investment in human rights protections are a necessity to balance the lived experience of harm from counterterrorism practices on the ground.

Since 2019, the Special Rapporteur has intervened in over 119 cases in 20 countries on behalf of women human rights defenders targeted under the guise of counterterrorism. More broadly, 66 percent of all communications sent by Special Procedure mandate-holders since 2005 have dealt with the use of counterterrorism measures against civil society actors. And, despite evidence that legal restrictions on civil society undermine long-term counterterrorism and prevention strategies, between 2001 and 2018, 140 countries adopted counterterrorism legislation. Fifty-eight per cent of cases against rights defenders in those countries were charged under security legislation.

The dark truth is that the international community knows without a doubt that counterterrorism and related policies and practices have negatively and disproportionately impacted civil society organizations and rights defenders, including their rights to life, assembly, opinion and expression, association, and more. As the WPS community tracks the Secretary-General’s  2021 commitment to focus his forthcoming 2022 WPS report on this issue, the existing work on demilitarization and reducing military spending must be translated to the terms of the day – counterterrorism. Today, States have turned towards amorphous “security” or counterterrorism spending and are engaging in robust campaigns that proliferate and diffuse counterterrorism norms that only cement State practices of targeting human rights defenders, women and men alike. Reform of counterterrorism practices, protection from its misuse, and independent oversight of the U.N.’s counterterrorism work is sorely needed and long overdue.

The United Nations urgently needs to increase political and financial support to document the pervasive use of reprisals, including through misuse of counterterrorism against rights defenders and civil society. To date, the data have captured only a fraction of the problem and the full extent of the issue continues to fly under the radar. As a result, the U.N. continues to provide technical and capacity building assistance to States engaged in gross violations of human rights under the mantle of counterterrorism.

Tuesday’s debate was an achievement for Norway as current President of the Security Council and a commendable step in highlighting reprisals against women in peace and security. But it occurred in parallel with a continued failure to name the demonstrated connection between counterterrorism, reprisals, and the ability of women to participate in peace and security processes safely. Counterterrorism reprisals must be named, and the U.N. and member States need to address the conditions, structures, and norms that provide cover for such acts. This includes increasing the coalition of actors – from supportive States to human rights experts to civil society actors – who are supporting the call to establish and consistently implement a legally binding definition of terrorism as a prerequisite to curbing such misuse against rights defenders.

Protecting women, including women in peace negotiations, and advancing women’s rights have become mantras of U.N. WPS-speak in the past two decades. But the mantras mean little when women are targeted, killed, surveilled, detained, and denied the safety and security they need to do human rights work. And while Tuesday’s debate opened the possibility of naming the abuse of counterterrorism in reprisals against women human rights defenders, it will not be enough to address the root causes of such abuses and prevent their recurrence. Concrete action must be taken to define terrorism precisely, to put in place protections for women HRDs and to ensure that States do not have the cover of counterterrorism to target women advocating for equality and rights. The root causes of violence must be addressed, and preventive measures implemented. Until States are ready to do so, women human rights defenders will no doubt continue their critical, lifesaving, and transformative work all while trusting the international community less each year.

IMAGE: Women hold placards during a protest to demand an end to the extra-judicial killings of former officials of the previous regime, in Kabul on December 28, 2021. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP) (Photo by MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Images)