Engagement With Civil Society: The Missing Piece in UN Counterterrorism Efforts

A townhall meeting with civil society representatives, held as part of the sixty-third session of the Commission on the Status of Women. (UN Photo/Ryan Brown)

It has become a truism to say that engaging civil society is essential to effectively counter terrorism and prevent the spread of violent extremism. Civil society organizations (CSOs) are often more knowledgeable, experienced, and trusted by local communities than governments, and their contributions have been well documented across various aspects of counterterrorism and prevention.

However, twenty years after the adoption of the seminal UN Security Council Resolution 1373, and fifteen years after the adoption of the UN General Assembly’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS), there remains a concerning mismatch between, on the one hand, the UN’s rhetorical acknowledgment of civil society’s importance in shaping policy and programs, and, on the other, the growing difficulties civil society experience in operating at the national level and in participating and accessing the UN’s counterterrorism architecture.

The important role of civil society in countering terrorism and preventing violent extremism has been recognized by the United Nations and stressed in the initial 2006 resolution adopting the strategy, which “encourage[s] nongovernmental organizations and civil society to engage, as appropriate, on how to enhance efforts to implement the Strategy.” In adopting the strategy, member states also resolved to “foster the involvement of civil society in a global campaign against terrorism and for its condemnation.” The 2015 report containing the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism similarly acknowledges the contributions of civil society to preventing violent extremism and counterterrorism, as do a number of relevant General Assembly and Security Council resolutions.

Since the strategy’s first adoption, there have been incremental improvements in the practices of certain UN bodies. These include civil society consultations during national assessment visits by the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (when approved by the assessed member state), efforts to engage researcher organizations, the development of a civil society strategy by the Office of Counter-Terrorism, and efforts to solicit input from civil society to inform the Secretary-General’s report on the GCTS implementation. Despite these improvements, comparatively little attention has been directed towards solving practical issues related to accessibility, capacity development, technical assistance, and collaboration methods, and the few opportunities to meaningfully engage in policymaking, program deliberations, development of guidance and setting agenda priorities.

Merely talking about the contributions of civil society or inviting them to the table does not amount to meaningful “engagement.” What does engagement mean, and is the term applicable in the context of UN counterterrorism work? What is the ability for the United Nations to establish and maintain an open, interactive relationship with civil society in the counterterrorism context? To be “engaged” in a particular activity, the mere “involvement” of an organization or person is not sufficient. Instead, their involvement must be grounded in reciprocity and mutual benefit. Engagement should be understood as a mutually beneficial interaction that results in all stakeholders feeling valued for their contributions and gaining something from the collaboration. By this measure, the UN is surely failing civil society.

Equally concerning as the UN’s failure to live up to its own rhetoric on engagement is its failure to protect civil society from harm wrought by the international counterterrorism agenda which it has served to advance. The lack of an international definition of terrorism and the proliferation of security measures to counter terrorism and its financing, and to prevent violent extremism, has given way to measures that restrict civic space, i.e. national legal provisions that restrict rights that are key to civil society, such as freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion, as well as measures limiting civil society access to financial services, refusal to open or arbitrary closure of bank accounts, inordinate delays or termination of transactions, and onerous administrative requirements. Civic space is shrinking and under sustained pressure in many parts of the world, with 87% of the world’s population living in countries where there are adverse civic space conditions. With the primacy of security imperatives, the instrumentalization of counterterrorism, the prevention of violent extremism, and protection of national security, sustained measures to silence civil society have been taken at the national level and reflected at the international level.

With the exception of human rights-specific mandate holders like the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations has largely failed to speak up against the misapplication of counterterrorism measures. This was most notably on display when the Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism completed a visit to China’s Xinjiang region with no mention of the ongoing human rights abuses, often undertaken under the guise of countering terrorism. The United Nations must do more to defend civil society and condemn abuse. By remaining silent, the organization legitimizes states’ conduct towards civil society, failing its mission to pursue the common good and address common interests.

The United Nation’s ability to protect and meaningfully engage with civil society, however, must be assessed against the realities of the organization and its members. The United Nations is a multilateral organization of, by, and for independent sovereign states. UN counterterrorism mandates are therefore state-centric, prioritizing engagement with political elites and national authorities over engagement with local communities. UN offices often prioritize managing their relationships with national governments to ensure funding and mandate continuity at the expense of fostering more fruitful state-society relations or strengthening the role of civil society in counterterrorism. Therefore, where civil society actors are mentioned in mandates, it is often implicitly through references to “participatory or inclusive processes” or “facilitation of social cohesion”—and more of an afterthought than an imperative.

The UN’s counterterrorism efforts reflect the interests and views of its member states— particularly members of the Security Council, a number of whom are overtly hostile to civil society. Some of the largest voluntary contributors to the UN’s counterterrorism work are also no friends of civil society. The lack of engagement of civil society is not an oversight that needs to be rectified; it is the direct expression of this ambivalence among the UN’s membership and funders.  

At its best, the United Nations can represent common goods that transcend the sum of individual state interests. Indeed, the United Nations serves two constituencies: member state governments and the people of the world. As former Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar argued, the framers of the United Nations saw the need for an institution which “could speak for the wider international interest, an interest greater than the sum of the interests of the member states.” The UN Secretariat, along with other UN agencies and bodies, has a responsibility to act above and beyond the national positions of the membership and embrace its Charter’s “we the people” to promote humanity as a whole.

 The Secretary-General Guterres has called for “broad and sustained” engagement with civil society and a United Nations-wide strategy on civic space in his 2020 Call to Action for Human Rights. The call, and its subsequent Guidance Note on the Promotion and Protection of Civic Space, set out to achieve a relationship between civil society and the United Nations by establishing mechanisms to “(i) positively engage with interlocutors to promote and protect civic space; (ii) respond to undue restrictions on civic space; and (iii) protect the space for different stakeholders to express their views.” Guided by the principles of the UN Charter, the UN counterterrosim effort must uphold the broader UN agenda and priorities.

The United Nations has a positive obligation to engage civil society and a negative obligation to do no harm. It must lead the way in putting into concrete action the level of engagement envisioned by the Secretary-General and the steps outlined in the UN Guidance Note on Protection and Promotion of Civic Space, which elevated concerns about the protection of civic space and provided essential elements for greater civil society engagement by UN entities. The UN counterterrorism agenda should be no exception to this approach.

Civil society for its part has not passively sat by and waited for states and the UN bureaucracy to involve them. Many civil society organizations have already shifted their advocacy efforts from the Human Rights Council to UN headquarters to promote and protect human rights and safeguard civic space from an agenda that has caused great harm. Self-organizing to demand a voice will continue to be crucial to filling this missing piece in the UN’s efforts to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism.  

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.  

Annabelle Bonnefont is a Legal Analyst for the Global Center on Cooperative Security looking at criminal justice and the rule of law issues in the context of preventing and countering violent extremism and countering terrorism.