A Closer Look at Seventh Review of the United Nations Global Counterterrorism Strategy

Plenary meeting on the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, February 12, 2016. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

Since its adoption by the General Assembly in 2006, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS) has set the norms for building comprehensive approaches to multilateral counterterrorism. As two of the four pillars of the GCTS—addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism and ensuring human rights and the rule of law—place emphasis on prevention and human rights protection, for many, adoption of the GCTS was seen as an important step to counterbalance and replace counterproductive hard security approaches associated with the global war on terror.

While the GCTS has yet to provide a non-militarized and rights-respecting approach to the global war on terror, previous GCTS review processes did eventually become one of the vehicles for the rise of counterterrorism engagement of the UN system. This rapid expansion of counterterrorism activities has undermined the integrity and effectiveness of the three core pillars of the UN: peace, justice, and development, and these dynamics continue to shape the ongoing seventh review.

The GCTS is reviewed biannually, and through the review process, UN member states recalibrate multilateral counterterrorism norms to the evolving forms of threats, assess progress, and refine their shared vision for the way forward. A number of complex issues are currently being discussed in the seventh review process, including, but not limited to, countering financing of terrorism; budgetary considerations; humanitarian access; repatriation of women and children; and the impact of communication technologies. While each of these topics requires lengthy analysis, there are three important issues concerning the future of the GCTS and UN counterterrorism architecture.

Process Determines Results

The seventh review of the GCTS was supposed to take place in 2020, but due to conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was postponed to the 75th session of the UN General Assembly in 2021. Postponement of the GCTS brought some positive developments. The president of the General Assembly appointed the Sultanate of Oman as a co-facilitator alongside Spain. This appointment created fairly conducive conditions for civil society organizations to be heard by member states.

Deferral also allowed the UN Secretariat, particularly the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), to improve the conditions for civil society inclusion. UNOCT, the entity that claimed responsibility for the engagement of civil society organizations, provided more time to civil society organizations for input to the secretary-general’s report on the implementation of GCTS. According to the report, this enabled 53 civil society organizations to provide feedback.

Nonetheless, the report does not specify whether and how the views of independent civil society organizations informed the analysis and key findings. The report does not provide any tangible information regarding the views and opinions of independent civil society organizations. Instead, the report summarizes voluntary input shared by member states, UN entities, and other organizations, and thereby presents the number of meetings, trainings, and workshops as the central measure of the implementation of the GCTS. The updated report does not properly assess the implementation progress of the GCTS, nor does it provides any comprehensive analysis of the negative downstream impact of counterterrorism, countering the financing of terrorism, and the prevention of violent extremism efforts.

Since public meetings during the seventh review of GCTS moved from in-person to online platforms, it has been easier for civil society actors to access and follow public events on the review process. However, negotiation over revisions of the GCTS resolution is an exclusive space for member states. The GCTS review does not provide any formal avenues for civil society actors to influence the negotiations. There are a few organizations that fill this gap, notably the Global Center, that publishes its Blue Sky Report ahead of negotiations and establishes civil society–focused dialogue sessions during negotiations.

As the review processes mainly aim to refine the previous version of the resolution, any space for creative thinking and critical assessment of the overall direction of GCTS remains quite limited. The technical nature of the review process still impedes the meaningful participation of civil society actors. Discussions over negotiations get highly technical, jargony, and abbreviation-heavy. This makes the GCTS review processes incomprehensible for most civil society actors working at the national or community level.

It is clear that member states and the UN, particularly UNOCT, need to improve and restructure the design of the review process to fulfill the guiding principles for civil society inclusion. For the GCTS review process to be more civil society–inclusive and transparent, the UN and member states should learn from the methodologies used in the review of the UN Peacebuilding architecture. Building partnerships with nongovernmental civil society organizations for the organization of regional and thematic consultations; engaging multiple UN agencies in drafting the secretary-general’s reports; and working with independent experts, could assist in improving the quality of the GCTS review process. As a civil society–inclusive process has been built for the UN peacebuilding architecture review, there is no excuse for UN counterterrorism architecture to remain an exclusive terrain for states, especially considering the dramatic increase in the budget and number of staff working at the UNOCT.

Limiting the Scope of Counterterrorism Measures

The GCTS review encourages member states to approach negotiations as a one-stop shop to interpret diverse forms of violence through the lens of counterterrorism. This is not so surprising considering that the GCTS review processes seek consensus on recalibrating multilateral counterterrorism approaches to tackle evolving forms of “terrorism threats” when there is not any universal definition of the term “terrorism” agreed upon by member states, and when the definition of violent extremism “remains opaque and deeply contested.” In particular, operative paragraph 27 of the seventh review raises red flags by suggesting that the GCTS counter and prevent attacks that are motivated by race, ethnicity, and ideology. Yes, we should prevent violent attacks motivated by race, ethnicity, and ideology, but not through the lens of counterterrorism.

As negotiations in the seventh review will soon end with the adoption of a new resolution, member states should refrain from broadening the scope of counterterrorism measures through the GCTS review process. Any potential expansion of counterterrorism measures to include ethnic, racial, or ideological motivations may lead to more worrisome results for communities experiencing violence, injustice, and discrimination perpetuated by racialized counterterrorism measures. Broadening the scope of counterterrorism measures through GCTS resolutions may also enable authoritarian governments with ethno-nationalist tendencies to use global counterterrorism frameworks as pretexts to crack down on minority groups, facilitate citizenship stripping processes, and securitize ethnic, racial, and ideological differences between communities.

Thus, member states should not reinvent the wheel by trying to address different forms of violence through counterterrorism measures. From the prevention perspective, countering the violence of exclusion and reducing inequalities between social groups are the most effective tools for transforming conflicts fueled by grievances. The GCTS should therefore incentivize governments to reduce horizontal inequalities among social groups through building just and more inclusive governance systems, while proactively enforcing human rights protection in every aspect of counterterrorism measures.

Human Rights Ombudsperson

GCTS was initially presented by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to integrate human rights protection into multilateral counterterrorism cooperation. Fifteen years since the adoption of the GCTS, member states have invested very little financial capital into building the necessary structure for the human rights protection pillar of the GCTS. Despite the UN counterterrorism architecture rapidly growing in recent years, human rights has remained a marginal component, which has led to an unbalanced implementation of the GCTS. This chronic problem has also paved the way for the uncontrolled growth of UNCT architecture through donations.

Fortunately, the seventh GCTS Resolution may finally introduce some structural adjustments through the introduction of an independent and financially resourced human rights ombudsperson. Considering the unbalanced implementation of the GCTS, there is no question that the creation of a human rights ombudsperson will help UN entities hardwire human rights protection into counterterrorism work.

However, the human rights ombudsperson should not be seen or interpreted as a monitoring and evaluation mechanism to assess the impact of the UN’s programmatic counterterrorism engagement. Assessing the impact of UN counterterrorism programs requires participatory approaches that can capture lived experiences of young people, women, and human rights defenders. The creation of an ombudsperson should not lead to pigeonholing human rights protection within the UN counterterrorism architecture. The entire UN counterterrorism architecture is obliged to protect and promote human rights.

A human rights ombudsperson should rather be seen as an oversight mechanism “to hold the United Nations and Member States mutually accountable for commitments on human rights [and encourage] transparency among the United Nations entities.” From accountability and transparency perspectives, a human rights ombudsperson should be authorized to operate independently from any UN entity or office, as the zero draft suggests. While states are currently discussing the seventh revision of the GCTS, keeping this important new structure in the final text as stated in the zero draft will be crucial to improve the effectiveness of UN counterterrorism, but also protect the UN from reputational risks associated with counterterrorism.

The Way Forward

For the past five years, there has been rapid growth in the counterterrorism architecture as a result of the past two GCTS review processes. In the meantime, the significance of terrorism has continuously diminished in the global risk landscape. “Risk of terrorism” has also been the penultimate concern of the respondents who participated in the survey conducted by the UN on its 75th anniversary. These surveys suggest that it is time for member states to rethink and restructure the GCTS review processes to end the global war on terror, rather than pulling UN programs, funds, and agencies further into it. In moving forward, three things should be done.

First, member states and the UN should develop stronger review processes for more thorough, inclusive, and strategic reflections on the role of the UN in counterterrorism including, but not limited to, the biannual GCTS review. This should examine the downstream impact of counterterrorism and prevention of violent extremism programming. Second, the UN should refocus its strategy on peace, rights, and development. This can be done by appointing human rights and peace and development advisers with the mandate to safeguard UN peace, development, and human rights work from the risks of securitization through counterterrorism. Third, the multilateral system should shift its approach to security policies. Instead of expanding UN counterterrorism architecture as a reaction to the fear and panic caused by violent acts, the multilateral system should invest in comprehensive violence prevention and harm reduction approaches informed by evidence.

This article is part of a series on the role of the UN system in preventing violent extremism and countering terrorism (PVE/CT), done in collaboration with the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations.

Ali Altiok is an independent researcher, advocate, and consultant who focuses on youth, peacebuilding, and securitization. He tweets at @atomicsentences.