On 22 June, member states prioritized consensus adoption of the United Nations’ (UN) eighth biennial Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy review resolution over furthering the promotion of human rights and protection of civic space.
The negotiations were heated, with some member states threatening to revise existing language in an attempt to deprioritize human rights and civil society engagement, while promoting their own interests and agendas.
The resulting document is largely a technical roll-over with minimal changes, raising questions about whether international consensus on the counterterrorism agenda has reached its limits. But even after the adoption, one member state spoke scathingly of the process and dissociated itself from its result.
With the twentieth anniversary of the Strategy review coming up in 2026, member states must find ways to demand an approach to UN counterterrorism efforts that is more inclusive, rights-compliant, and gender-responsive. While many issues at the United Nations are polarizing, the counterterrorism agenda has long benefited from a high degree of consensus among member states.
Although the consensus adoption of the Strategy and all its biennial review resolutions sent an important message of unity, it also forces a more political than strategic process for determining substance and priorities, arriving at the lowest common denominator among states.
This has resulted in an extremely broad document covering a variety of different issues, rather than a strategic guide for achieving rights-compliant counterterrorism. The root of these abuses can partially be explained by the lack of an internationally agreed upon definition of terrorism.
As a result, governments handed themselves carte blanche in General Assembly and Security Council resolutions to define terrorism and violent extremism as they wished in their national legislation and corresponding measures.
On ostensible national security grounds, governments have applied exceptional powers without sunset clauses, infringed systematically on privacy rights, violated the right to due process, criminalized expression and peaceful assembly and held minority groups in detention facilities en masse.
The misuse and abuse of measures to prevent violent extremism, counterterrorism, and address its financing have contributed to these significant human rights abuses. Among the consequences are a severe shrinking of civic space and reprisals directed at human rights defenders, women’s organizations, and journalists.
But many member states turn a blind eye to counterterrorism abuses due to a reluctance to constrain their own freedom of action. In response, there has been growing momentum within civil society to develop and demand more inclusive, rights-based, and gender-responsive global counterterrorism standards.
This momentum, championed by the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism helped, secure the first ever references to the negative effects of counterterrorism measures and the promotion and protection of civic space in the Strategy’s seventh resolution.
This progress, however, was mostly halted in the Strategy’s eighth review. The review, facilitated by the Permanent Representatives of Canada and Tunisia, went through several intense, pendulum-swinging rounds.
While earlier versions pressed the proposal to establish an independent human rights oversight mechanism forward (again), others included divisive additions such as criminalizing Koran burning and removing previously-agreed upon gender and human rights language. In the end, consensus was reached on the final eighth review resolution by largely rolling over the text of the seventh review with minimal changes.
One promising advancement is the request to the Secretary-General to report on the United Nation’s activities based on a “results framework”— a rudimentary, but until now absent, component of UN counterterrorism efforts that should allow member states to better monitor and evaluate impact of their investments at the UN.
The extension of the Strategy review cycle from two to three years should theoretically provide more time to implement activities according to new priorities and to monitor and evaluate progress more thoroughly.
This extension must not, however, prevent regular scrutiny of UN counterterrorism entities, activities, and commitments. Persistent engagement and pressure are necessary to advance human rights, gender-responsive approaches, and civil society inclusion at the UN and reinforce these as global norms.
Adopting the eighth review resolution by consensus without significant substantive setbacks was no mean feat in this political climate. The co-facilitators are to be commended for this, as well as for building out a more inclusive approach to civil society engagement in the review process.
Nevertheless, the consensus-building process has prevented the kind of structural change needed to promote and protect human rights and the rule of law, meaningfully engage with diverse civil societies, and mainstream gender across UN counterterrorism efforts.The next Strategy review process will mark its twentieth anniversary. Its original, unanimous adoption in 2006 was in many ways a landmark event.
The Strategy outlined a comprehensive approach to preventing and countering terrorism through addressing the conditions conducive to its spread and defining the relationship between counterterrorism and the protection of human rights as “complementary and mutually reinforcing.”
Much like the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the Strategy’s anniversary provides an opportunity to soberly assess the shortcomings of its promise to normatively reset counterterrorism efforts and prevent future abuses. Member states must also seriously analyze and address the size, scope, and focus of UN counterterrorism efforts given other violence prevention and sustainable development priorities.
As we elaborated in the Global Center on Cooperative Security’s recent Blue Sky VI report, this requires, among other things, a thorough accounting of both the positive and negative impacts of counterterrorism measures through more consistent monitoring and evaluation efforts, ensuring diverse and meaningful civil society participation, mainstreaming gender-responsive approaches, holding UN counterterrorism actors and efforts accountable for the promotion and protection of human rights, and optimizing the Strategy review process to retain the Strategy’s relevance and more fully realize its promise.