Many observers think the United Nations’ directionless and underperforming counter-terrorism architecture needs an overhaul. Yet its Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) wants a seven-fold budget increase and grant-making powers. In a new report, “Function before form: optimising the UN’s counter-terror architecture,” prepared for a coalition of non-governmental organizations, I unpack the challenges confronting the U.N. on counterterrorism, and provide recommendations on three issues flagged for the attention of Secretary-General António Guterres in the U.N.’s latest counterterrorism strategy. The report warns that failure to act now could expose the U.N. to damaging reinforcement of repression on the road ahead, and instead urges member States to insist on reforms that guarantee better performance, proper risk management, and a balanced focus on prevention and human rights across the U.N.’s counter-terror work before any further investment in an already well-funded area.
Consolidating a Rudderless Approach?
The U.N. has enormous potential to assist in tackling the persistent threat of terrorism and its causes, as an integral part of its response to the pressing challenges of economic turmoil, environmental disaster, inequality, repression and conflict – all compellingly flagged by Guterres in his “Common Agenda” for moving forward. Yet its siloed, rudderless approach to counter-terrorism risks dragging it off course. Corroded by the undue influence of undemocratic states with deep pockets, U.N. counter-terrorism efforts are marred by their deep neglect for prevention and human rights, and their indifference to the results achieved.
Despite this, UNOCT is quietly moving to consolidate its position and approach. Its proposed seven-fold increase to its regular budget over 2023-2024 would increase its permanent staff numbers from eight to 57. It also wishes to extend its powers by seeking authority to make grants. Having mushroomed in size based on voluntary donations from repressive states, it now claims that additional funds could lessen its dependence on these donors’ whims, and would cover the staff it needs for effective leadership and integrating gender and human rights into its work (another oft-cited failure). Yet for several reasons, such consolidation of the status quo could prove problematic.
Undue Influence and Anti-Democratic Agendas
According to a 2019 funding appeal, 83 percent of UNOCT’s funds had been provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Russia – all autocratic states with poor records on respect for human rights. They have played a key role in the breakneck growth of UNOCT, which is now more than five times the size it was in 2017. They are keen to back programs that reinforce states’ security capacities, despite limited evidence that such programs work, but much less ready to back the socially empowering and rights-based approaches required to implement the U.N.’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS) effectively.
In this way, opponents of democracy and human rights have been able to exploit counterterrorism as an entry point for consolidating the power of their authoritarian governments while undermining multilateral support for peace and human rights. Absent reforms, fresh investments could well institutionalize such agendas.
Indifference to Impact
Oversight and management of performance and risk are very weak across the U.N.’s counterterrorism efforts. Despite lip service to “results-orientation,” 16 years since its Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy was adopted, the U.N. is struggling, as Guterres himself has acknowledged, to demonstrate “quantifiable progress.” In recent years, audits and evaluations have consistently flagged the absence of formal project evaluations, the “need for more systematic measurement” of results, and “large gaps in availability of evidence” on outcomes and impacts. Monitoring and evaluation are further weakened by conflicts of interest and keeping civil society at arm’s length.
All this stymies effective strategy development, program design, and troubleshooting. Member States find themselves flooded with reports on activities but often still scratching their heads over meaningful impacts. Because of this, during biennial GCTS reviews, member States lack any evidentiary basis for improving the strategy, making it a mere vehicle for tense political horse-trading over the wording of an ever-more-bloated and less effective U.N. resolution. These problems can be solved – but not by handing UNOCT extra funds and powers and hoping for the best.
Sustained Lack of Effort on Human Rights
Pillar IV of the global strategy focuses on human rights and the rule of law as the “fundamental basis” of counterterrorism. Here again, the U.N. is gathering only “limited information” on whether human rights outcomes are being achieved. And this reflects a longstanding failure to integrate human rights and prevention into U.N. responses to terrorism and its causes. Neglect for Pillar IV was highlighted by Secretary Generals Ban Ki Moon in 2015 and Guterres in 2020, as well as by an internal hard-hitting synthesis of counterterrorism evaluations last year, which called for “special attention to human rights issues,” and criticized in detail the failure to integrate human rights into U.N. counterterrorism programs.
Yet today, just as member States fail to fund programs in this vital area, so the U.N. fails to design and fundraise for them. Thus, as one U.N. official I interviewed lamented, “We’ve fallen far short of having the impact the U.N. might have in that area.”
When it comes to the additional funds and powers UNOCT is requesting, member States and officials are growing increasingly concerned. Many see UNOCT as already better funded than other U.N. entities that are better placed to tackle terrorism by virtue of their field presence, their stronger track record in program design and in monitoring and evaluation, and their expertise on core issues underlying terrorism and other violence such as development, rights, equality, and the rule of law. Adding staff to UNOCT would mean cutting them elsewhere. This could further corrode the U.N.’s focus on peace, rights, and development, especially if UNOCT’s new staff fails to raise its game on gender and human rights to address known weaknesses in these areas. Most of those I consulted for the report also saw handing grant-making powers to UNOCT as a non-starter, fearing that it could prove costly, worsen collaboration within the U.N., embolden a flawed approach to civil society engagement, and escalate human rights risks.
Options for Getting Back on Track
Given these concerns, there are policy options for successfully integrating counterterrorism back into the U.N.’s Common Agenda. The first step should be a strategic review and reset, followed by a significant process of change management, across the U.N.’s fast-emerging counterterrorism architecture. This should strengthen leadership, culture, and inclusive approaches. It should restore balance between counterterrorism and other U.N. priorities, to enable a refocus on peace, rights, and development solutions, backed by stronger guidance, standards, oversight, risk management, and results-orientation.
In particular, as an essential pre-condition to considering any additional resource investment, the U.N. requires a step change in results-orientation, oversight, and risk-management across its counterterrorism work. An independent reviewer or panel of experts appointed by the secretary-general should head up a new oversight mechanism to ensure the GCTS is succeeding and with the clout to stop any U.N. counterterrorism activity that could undermine human rights. The new approach must meaningfully include civil society and focus on independently monitoring a balanced, well-articulated results framework for the GCTS.
Finally, member States should reject UNOCT’s 2022 request for a seven-fold regular budget increase and pursue other viable options. These include setting more robust rules on composition of voluntary contributions, ensuring better cost-recovery within project budgets, and improving the orientation and quality of consolidated counterterrorism funding appeals. They should seek to invest in the best-performing U.N. entities involved in GCTS delivery, looking well beyond UNOCT to consider the likes of UN Women, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, the U.N. Development Program, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, among others. Member States should also oppose providing UNOCT with grant-making authority and instead encourage it to work more cooperatively with the best-performing U.N. entities.
Only by confronting known problems rather than ignoring them can the U.N. and member States get counterterrorism efforts back on the UN’s common path forward. Reforms that guarantee better performance, proper risk management, and a balanced focus on prevention and human rights can help avoid a damaging collision with underperformance and poor risk management that is already foreseeable on the road ahead.
(The report “Function before form: optimising the UN’s counter-terrorism architecture” is available to download here.)