Across the world, we see a sustained practice of abusing counterterrorism language and laws to target, silence, and harm civil society and human rights defenders. The misuse of counterterrorism rhetoric and authorities are emboldening authoritarian states, contributing to democratic backsliding, and decreasing our collective security. Two striking examples from Saudi Arabia and Israel last week underscore the scale of the challenges and the urgent need to directly confront states whose flagrant abuse of terrorism rhetoric and practice undermines both security and rights in tandem.

Saudi Arabia’s Sentencing of Salma al-Shebab

Last week, a terrorism court in Saudi Arabia sentenced Salma al-Shebab, a mother of two and a doctoral student in dentistry, to a 34-year prison sentence following a 34-year travel ban. Her acts of “terrorism” involved simply tweeting and retweeting messages which appear to voice support for Saudi dissidents arguing for political reform and basic human rights in the Kingdom. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights rightly and harshly responded to this wholly disproportionate and harsh sentence by urging “the Saudi authorities to quash her conviction and release her immediately and unconditionally. She should never have been arrested and charged in the first place for such conduct.”

The Kingdom maintains an unacceptably wide definition of terrorism in its domestic counterterrorism law, wholly inconsistent with international law requirements including the U.N. Security Council Counter-Terrorism resolutions that mandate states must implement their counterterrorism obligations consistent with international law, international humanitarian law, and their human rights obligations. The Saudi 2017 Law on Combating Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing (amended in June 2020) is a deeply problematic piece of national legislation, enabling substantive abuses of human rights, undermining any autonomous capacity for individuals to exercise fundamental rights such as freedom of assembly, speech and political participation without running afoul of the massively broad range of ordinary acts described as “terrorism” by the government. It is worth quoting the legislation at some length to illustrate how unbelievably wide the range of acts described the government as “terrorism” are:

…. Any act committed, individually or collectively, directly or indirectly, by a perpetrator, with the intention to disturb public order, destabilize national security or state stability, endanger national unity, suspend the Basic Law of Governance or some of its articles, undermine state reputation or status, cause damage to state facilities or natural resources, attempt to coerce any of its authorities into a particular action or inaction or threaten to carry out acts that would lead to of the aforementioned objectives or instigate such acts; or any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or any other person, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act…

Salma al-Shebab’s “crime” in using twitter to “cause public unrest and destabilise civil and national security” makes a mockery of any kind of serious discourse about counterterrorism and underscores a more profound point: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is systematically abusing counterterrorism laws to target human rights defenders, women who speak their mind, journalists, and anyone who seems to step out of line no matter how minor the infraction might be.

All this would be regrettable, but when the same state which is imprisoning young mothers for their twitter use under counterterrorism law, is also one of the primary funders of the global counterterrorism architecture at the United Nations, these actions have other implications. Most specifically, they underscore that states that “pay to play” in counterterrorism and gain an outsize influence on global counterterrorism policies as a result, cannot be given a free pass on their own systematic counterterrorism abuses.

It is not enough for the strongest human rights voices to be heard on this abuse, it is time for the U.N. system as a whole to speak in one voice about the consistent, sustained, and pervasive misuse of counterterrorism abuses across the globe and take action. Specifically, the scale of the problem behoves the Secretary-General’s office and the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism to unequivocally address such abuses head-on.

Israel’s Crackdown on Palestinian Human Rights Organizations

Another government in the region, Israel, has long been playing by a similarly unconscionable playbook in its systematic and unequivocal attempts to destroy Palestinian civil society through abusive “counterterrorism” rhetoric and operations. This past weekend, the Israeli government authorized military raids on the offices of seven leading Palestinian organizations and interrogated or sought to interrogate their members. The raids were carried out akin to a military operation, telegraphing that human rights organizations would engage in violence and respond by force to the ongoing human rights violations against them.

The military raids follow the deeply discredited action by the Israeli government of proscribing these organizations in April 2022. Again, using a highly flawed domestic counter-terrorism legislation (Counter-Terrorism Law 5776-2016 and related regulations and orders) one can observe counter-terrorism practice instrumentalized to undo human rights and humanitarian law protection in a highly cynical and politically motivated move. A group of UN Special Rapporteurs (including myself) said of this law in May 2020:

We are concerned that the present legal and regulatory framework for designating terrorist organizations lacks precision in key respects, infringes on critically important rights, and may not meet the required thresholds of legality, necessity, proportionality, and non-discrimination under international law.

No meaningful or robust evidence has been offered by the Israel government for its designation and the actions of recent months. Unsurprisingly, the Israeli courts have been reliably deferential when “terrorism” is invoked, and unwilling to create even a level playing field for any reliable legal challenge to the application of these measures. While the underlying “dossier” is secret (another affront to fair procedure under law), a leaked version underscores the ludicrous nature of the claims and the actions that have followed. It is critical to note that a review conducted by OLAF (the Anti-Fraud Office of the European Union) has confirmed that “no suspicions of irregularities and/or fraud affecting EU funds” have been found, and multiple European governments have affirmed their profound concern at the proscription and the military closure of these organizations over the weekend. U.S. intelligence agencies similarly have been unable to corroborate Israeli claims that these human rights organizations are engaged in or support terrorism.

Counterterrorism Abuses Threaten Us All and Undermine our Collective Security

Reflecting on these troubling trends, it is clear that some states are systematically abusing counterterrorism powers and laws to target civil society and silence those who dare to speak out against their repressive policies. In the context of the Israeli occupation, it is precisely the effectiveness and sustained advocacy of Palestinian human rights organizations that have criticized both Israel and the Palestinian authority that makes them a direct target. It is past time to put a stop to such misuse, and for all states, particularly leading democracies, to call it out for what it is.

This misuse of counterterrorism and security measures is intimately linked to democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation. One of the reasons counterterrorism abuses have proven to be so pernicious is because to date the international community has been unwilling to call it out and sanction states unequivocally for their abuses. Indeed, counterterrorism abusers understand that invoking the rhetoric of the terrorism gives them cover for unacceptable breaches of international law. Failing to call out these violations enables authoritarians, weakens democracies, and undermines broader conflict resolution goals contained in the U.N. Charter.

The international community is at a critical juncture. Now is the time to acknowledge the scale of counterterrorism abuses worldwide, which represent a direct attack on civil society in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and beyond. States should reject counterterrorism abuses as fundamental breaches of international law, enact sanctions and other specific consequences against those who engage in such abuses, and reaffirm a global commitment to upholding human rights everywhere.

Abusive counterterrorism practices—whether in Saudi Arabia, Israel, or elsewhere—threaten fundamental norms, unforgivably target those who speak for the marginalized, and undermine the rule of law. We ignore such abuse at our peril.

Image: Officers shooting while crossing a red smoke wall (photo via Getty Images).