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Civil Society Engagement with the United Nations on Counterterrorism–A Perilous, Uphill Challenge

Seventeen years after the adoption of the UN General Assembly’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS), the United Nations negotiated the eighth biennial GCTS review, which was adopted on June 22, 2023.

The review negotiations provide an opportunity for member states to reflect on the changing security landscape and set priorities for the coming two years. At the time of its adoption, the GCTS recognized that a sustained response to terrorism requires preventive measures and cannot rely on hard security responses alone.

While the UN has a role to play in facilitating and providing support to member states, it remains the primary responsibility of member states to implement the GCTS.

The review took place at a time when civic space has been shrinking steadily, and basic human rights essential to civic engagement—including freedom of expression and association—have been deteriorating worldwide.

CIVICUS estimates that only 3.2 percent of the world’s population currently live in countries with open civic space—a trend that is expected to worsen. Civil society actors who speak out against governments’ human rights violations continue to face intimidation, imprisonment, the freezing of bank accounts, and various forms of reprisals.

The lack of an international definition of terrorism and the proliferation of repressive security measures further contribute to counterterrorism having played an outsized role in this troubling civic environment.

Civil society engagement on counterterrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) issues has been a recurring point of tension within the UN, especially since the 2006 General Assembly resolution first adopted the GCTS, which “encourage[d] non-governmental organizations and civil society to engage, as appropriate, on how to enhance efforts to implement the Strategy.”

This reference recognized the essential contributions civil society makes to building peaceful and inclusive societies and addressing not only the root causes but also manifestations of violence—including terrorism and violent extremism.

The secretary-general’s 2015 plan of action to prevent violent extremism similarly acknowledges the contributions of civil society to counterterrorism and preventing violent extremism (PVE), as do several relevant General Assembly and Security Council resolutions.

These UN documents underscore the importance of civil society engagement as a normative and practical responsibility of states, with a particular emphasis on national governments and domestic contexts.

The documents also underscore the UN’s recognition of the value of civil society to help ensure that counterterrorism policy and programs are proportionate, fair, and accountable. However, the reality is that the UN’s actions have not caught up with this rhetoric, including in the most recent GCTS review.

While this year’s review reused general language from previous reviews acknowledging the “important roles of civil society” in the implementation of the GCTS, it failed to address the role of the counterterrorism agenda in state repression and the steady closing of civic space over the past two decades.

Counterterrorism laws and policies proliferated in 2001 and beyond in response to a series of UN Security Council resolutions following the September 11 attacks, and in the intervening years, civil society and other actors such as the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders have repeatedly called out states for using these laws and policies to justify warrantless surveillance, prolonged arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, and the use of extrajudicial executions.

The short-sightedness of these counterterrorism measures has created barriers for civil society organizations (CSOs), impeded financial access for non-profits, and hindered or even criminalized the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Last year’s Security Council resolution creating a humanitarian carve-out was a first step in recognizing the negative impact of sanctions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance. But the consequences have been far-reaching and particularly acute for women-led and grassroots CSOs, and they have been documented by human rights organizations, the UN secretary-general, and the General Assembly.

Exceptional social control measures first justified by the COVID-19 pandemic are now perennial, and have further reinforced this trend, undermining trust among vulnerable populations and increasing grievances against governments. Counterterrorism measures are even being employed against civil society and UN personnel working under the auspices of the UN counterterrorism regime.

This was seen in February 2023 with the expulsion of the head of MINUSMA’s human rights division (Mali alleged that the decision to expel Guillaume Ngefa-Atondoko Andali was connected to his biased choice of civil society witnesses for UN Security Council briefings on the country). It has also been seen in the pressure placed on the civil society briefers at UN Security Council meetings.

In 2019 alone, at least three civil society briefers faced negative consequences subsequent to their briefings to the Security Council due to their discussion of matters concerning assaults on civil society, forced disappearances, violence based on gender, and the deliberate marginalization of women from public and political spheres.

The UN has documented that at least 350 people in 42 countries have faced reprisals and intimidation for cooperating with the UN on human rights in 2022. In addition, serious concerns are being raised about the proliferation of national security laws and their application establishing criminal liability for sharing information with international actors.

Such laws appear designed to trigger criminal liability for reporting on human rights abuses and other matters of substantial public concern and can lead to detention, restrictive legislation, and acute surveillance both online and offline.

Ironically, the UN secretary-general and the UN’s human rights office (OHCHR) are reporting a rise in the abuse of national security laws as a form of reprisal against defenders seeking to access the United Nations—when in some instances these laws were enacted pursuant to Security Council resolutions.

Even though civil society has been impacted by the UN counterterrorism architecture, opportunities for a broad range of civil society actors to meaningfully engage with (let alone influence) UN counterterrorism programming and policy-making remain limited at best.

Take for example the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Committee on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), where member states have increasingly employed accusations of terrorist sympathies or affiliations against accredited or applicant NGOs. ECOSOC is a key entity within the UN to ensure that civil society actors are invited to contribute to global policy discussions and influence decision-making processes on matters related to economic and social development.

It fosters inclusivity, ensuring that diverse perspectives and expertise are considered when addressing global challenges. The accusations have not only led to stalled or denied ECOSOC accreditation, but limit civil society’s ability to engage with the UN counterterrorism architecture.

The lack of ECOSOC accreditation not only restricts civil society organizations’ participation in UN processes and events but also hampers their ability to influence global policy discussions, impeding inclusive and diverse engagement at the UN.

In March 2022, a report raised concerns regarding the inadequate, piecemeal, and opaque nature of UN counterterrorism entities’ engagement with civil society. The UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) is an entity responsible for policy leadership and coordination efforts across UN counterterrorism actors through the Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact.

In January 2020, there were efforts to create a UNOCT civil society engagement strategy funded through a member state donation, but it has been published only partially, and was not developed in partnership with nor under the leadership of civil society and thus requires a thorough update. (UNOCT has said additional funding is needed to continue).

CSOs have historically been engaged with various UN entities, including UN Women, the UN Development Programme, and OHCHR, among others. However, UNOCT’s role as coordinator of the UN Global Counter-terrorism Coordination Compact, and thus as an entry point on UN counterterrorism, gives it some influence over other compact entities’ engagement with civil society.

A strategy could have addressed UNOCT’s ad-hoc approach to civil society engagement; however, the entity continues to limit its engagement to inviting CSOs to be one-off speakers or as part of separate CSO panels or asking CSOs to participate in roundtables with the Deputy to the Under-secretary-general.

Within these forums, civil society representation is pulled from a limited number of organizations that are highly regarded, well-funded, and possess wide political acceptance, which means that other representatives—often the most impacted and sometimes more knowledgeable—are not part of the discussions.

This suggests that civil society engagement is being looked at as a box to check instead of a way of working consultatively, and it is far from being mainstreamed across various programs and thematic areas of work. In addition, CSO participation as implementers in limited programs developed by UNOCT and others is often kept to areas such as sports and PVE.

These persistent patterns—the limited and select inclusion of certain civil society representation in UN counterterrorism efforts and the dangers faced by those who do speak out—have led to a sidelining of those speaking out and engaging with the UN that is as effective as if it had been a coordinated effort, and is counter to the foundations of the international legal framework UN Security Council resolutions seek to uphold.

The lack of information, transparency, and accountability in UN processes has led to a lack of trust and undermines the effectiveness of diverse civil society engagement with the UN counterterrorism architecture.

This phenomenon leads civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and advocates to exercise self-censorship out of fear of reprisal from national governments. This has a profound effect on UN operations that would benefit from civil society input, and contributes to a wider trend of closing civic space globally.

To counter this, a growing number of civil society organizations have demonstrated an interest in engaging with the UN counterterrorism architecture through self-organization. Multiple civil society consultation processes are taking place in 2023, including the Special Rapporteur’s global study on the negative impact of counterterrorism measures on civic space, which provided an important opportunity to hear from civil society most impacted by terrorism and counterterrorism measures.

In addition, a scoping project is taking place to assess civil society needs and interests as well as obstacles and practical requirements for establishing more regular and sustained engagement with the UN counterterrorism architecture, organized by the Global Center on Cooperative Security in partnership with Rights & Security International.

The resulting report will explore avenues for diversifying civil society engagement with the UN counterterrorism architecture and preconditions for sustained and safe engagement of civil society with the UN system. Other more institutionalized or coordinated efforts include the NGO Working Group on WPS, the NPO Coalition on FATF, and the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism.

Civil society has also advocated to make policy negotiations open to a wider range of civil society actors. During a hybrid High-Level Event on 9 March 2023 at UN Headquarters in New York, a diverse group of civil society actors had the opportunity to contribute their expertise to the strategy review process by sharing their reflections on the 2023 report of the secretary-general.

Such engagements are a first step and should become a standing feature in the review process requiring transparent policies and adequate resources, but also a mainstreaming of an open, inclusive culture of partnership, information sharing, and monitoring, evaluation, and learning. The UN has already created best practices on how entities should act with civil society, published in the UN Guidance Note on Protection and Promotion of Civic Space.

It would go a long way to ensuring meaningful civil society participation if counterterrorism entities were to implement these recommendations, as it provides provisions to protect those at risk of persecution and retaliation as a precondition for a vibrant civic space, and measures to promote inclusive participation channels and fundamental freedoms.

It contains concrete guiding principles and milestones which provide a clear roadmap for engagement activities with diverse civil society and facilitate the measurement of progress. It also outlines regular assessments to track progress, identify challenges, and make necessary adjustments to improve the effectiveness of the engagement efforts.

It is up to member states to ensure that the UN system adheres to established requirements and guidance as laid out in the UN Guidance Note on Protection and Promotion of Civic Space. This necessitates implementing procedural and cultural changes to foster continuous and meaningful engagement with diverse civil society.

It entails more than simply widening the scope; it involves actively eliminating obstacles for participation, particularly for civil society organizations that are most vulnerable to repression and retaliation, such as human rights defenders, journalists, women’s organizations, and social justice advocates.

The do-no-harm principles should be at the center of all these efforts undertaken by the UN to ensure that it serves the broader objectives of the UN Charter. Furthermore, the extent and level of involvement of civil society actors may significantly vary based on the timing and location of activities, meetings, and consultations.

For instance, crucial factors in ensuring individuals’ participation include considering their physical and mental safety, assessing the risk of reprisals, facilitating access to transportation, and addressing the need for childcare and associated expenses where need be. The UN can ensure adequate preconditions for engagement are in place for a diverse civil society to partner safely with member states.

A set of recommendations put forward in August 2022 by over 90 civil society organizations from 43 countries convened by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism is clear: “The United Nations must hold itself to greater levels of accountability to civil society, many of whom assume great risk, including threats of reprisal, to share their expertise and recommendations.” This is the most basic and important precondition required to support more engagement between a diverse civil society and the United Nations.

Annabelle Bonnefont is a Senior Legal Analyst for the Global Center on Cooperative Security. Franziska Praxl-Tabuchi is the Director of Multilateral Relations at the Global Center on Cooperative Security.


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