World Health Assembly

Lessons from the Global Counterterrorism Forum for International Cooperation on Pandemics

Delegates attend the 73rd World Health Assembly via video link in Beijing on May 18, 2020. Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic the meeting was held virtually. (Xinhua/Zhang Yuwei via Getty Images)

With the novel coronavirus now present across globe, governments are struggling to contain its spread and to provide adequate healthcare to all those infected. While some governments have bilaterally supported other countries by providing medical or protective equipment, there is yet to be a globally-coordinated strategy to manage the pandemic. Preliminary findings from the largest-ever United Nations effort to “gather public opinion and crowdsource solutions to global challenges” should come as little surprise: 95 percent of respondents said countries need to work together to better manage global challenges and health risks.

Yet, while these results were being collected and analyzed, the struggles of the multilateral system—from the UN Security Council, to the World Health Organization (WHO), to the G7 and G20—to respond to the unprecedented multi-dimensional challenge of the global pandemic, were all too apparent. Although the WHO has developed guidelines for how countries should prepare for and respond to pandemics, and its 196 member countries have agreed upon International Health Regulations, many states have not implemented them.

Moreover, a number of global health initiatives have emerged over the past two decades, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Gavi, the vaccine alliance; PEPFAR, the United States-led emergency plan for AIDS relief; and the Gates Foundation. All this has contributed to an overall fragmentation of international cooperation on health matters, which is manifest in the present COVID-19 crisis.

This has led to calls for a “fundamental re-think of our global architecture for anticipating, planning, managing, and mitigating” pandemics. Some recently pointed to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS as a potential model.  Although less high-profile, another recent initiative to enhance international counterterrorism cooperation—one specifically designed to plug gaps in the multilateral counterterrorism architecture and ensure it is “fit for purpose”—may be a more relevant model from which to draw lessons, namely, the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF).

Origins of the GCTF

A decade ago, with the multilateral architecture being perceived as inadequate for addressing evolving terrorism challenges, the US led an effort to plug the gaps in counterterrorism by joining with 28 other countries and the European Union to create the GCTF. These gaps centered on two areas.

First, there was lagging implementation of global counterterrorism norms. All countries had endorsed the UN’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in 2006, but action at the national level was suffering due to flagging political will and/or limited capacities.

Second, there was no central, reliable intergovernmental platform that would allow counterterrorism policymakers and practitioners from different fields and regions to engage on a sustained basis on a variety of policies, strategies, and practices. The UN was too big and slow-moving and viewed by many as overly focused on process and stymied by political divisions; the G7 (then G8) too exclusive; and regional organizations too limited in geographic scope. Filling this gap became more urgent in a world where the terrorist threats were increasingly transcending borders and regions and requiring multi-dimensional solutions, and the existing multilateral system seen as outdated.

The GCTF was designed to be an “action-oriented, informal” platform to complement and reinforce (and, in many cases, energize) the work of the UN and regional bodies. Yet, contrasting the generally overly rigid and opaque approach of traditional multilateral bodies, the GCTF was “to operate in a flexible and inclusive manner,” “evolve with the terrorist threat,” and be driven by the members themselves.

As a result of its flexible format, the Forum has been able to convene the diversity of stakeholders relevant to the particular issue being discussed, whether police officers, prison officials, prosecutors, social workers, community leaders, mental health professionals, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It has been able to move beyond an overly siloed approach to problem solving in a field where multi-disciplinary solutions are increasingly in demand. Beyond this, it developed the concepts and mobilized political and financial support for three independent, international institutions—the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law, the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, and Hedayah—which are largely dedicated to building the capacities of governments and practitioners to implement GCTF priorities and the UN counterterrorism framework.

How Can the GCTF Model Help With Pandemics?

The GCTF model is a potentially feasible and effective remedy to address the current global pandemic and prevent future ones for three main reasons.

First, existing multilateral health institutions may lack the mandate and/or capacity to engage in or manage the vast array of health security issues which have been revealed by the current COVID-19 pandemic. This requires a platform that extends beyond public health officials and is sufficiently flexible to allow practitioners and experts from a different sectors and disciplines to convene and share their expertise and experiences in order to develop the multi-dimensional solutions that will likely be required. These issues include disinformation; balancing the need for health surveillance with personal privacy, safeguarding hospitals and public health workers; managing the impacts on migration, refugee flows, border management, elections, and the readiness of armed forces; and the need for closer collaboration between intelligence agencies and the global health and scientific communities.

A GCTF-like global pandemic preparedness and response platform would provide opportunities to practitioners, policymakers, and researchers from relevant fields to interact on a regular basis and develop—in a more timely fashion than a more formal multilateral body may allow—guidance and other tools to help countries navigate these challenges. The practitioner-to-practitioner networks that could emerge around different issues could support ongoing training, sharing information, developing and sharing practice innovations, monitoring and evaluation, and dissemination.

Second, a GCTF-like platform would allow for more focused attention on addressing the resource and other capacity limitations countries are confronting as they try to manage the global pandemic. Much like the GCTF has done for counterterrorism, it could help identify these pandemic preparedness challenges, overcome obstacles, and catalyze a more coordinated effort to distribute resources and equipment from high-income countries to lower- and middle-income countries to support preparedness and response.

And finally, rather than being seen as a competitor to the WHO or other parts of the existing multilateral architecture, a GCTF-like platform would emphasize collaboration and partnership with the existing institutions, and likely result in a more dynamic ecosystem. Mobilizing resources, expertise, and political will to support implementation of the existing multilateral frameworks and tools for strengthening pandemic preparedness and response would be a priority. This could be achieved through the above-mentioned activities and, by following the GCTF example, quickly incubate initiatives that the WHO or other traditional multilateral bodies could then take forward, or help where action in more formal settings is stymied.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the needs for international cooperation on health have never been greater. A GCTF-like global pandemic preparedness and response platform could fill gaps in the current architecture and enable the kind of nimble, action-oriented multilateralism for addressing international health challenges related to the current crisis that the Forum catalyzed for dealing with terrorism.

With the G7 leaders set to meet (including possibly in person) next month at Camp David, the next step could be for that group, which played an important role in helping launch the GCTF, to set aside differences surrounding the WHO and commit to undertake a similar effort to strengthen the multilateral architecture for dealing with the current global crisis. As was the case for multilateral terrorism cooperation in 2010, calls for “fixing” existing global health institutions are unlikely to suffice in 2020. Instead, a new, built-for-purpose platform is likely needed.

Eric Rosand is the Director of the Prevention Project and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He designed and helped launch the Global Counterterrorism Forum. Stevan Weine is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, where he also is the director of Global Medicine and the director of the Center for Global Health.