Independent Engagement on Counterterrorism with the United Nations: Is the Risk Worth the Reward for Civil Society?

The African-Regional High-Level Conference on Counter-terrorism, July 10, 2019. (Photo credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images)

The United Nations (UN) has long recognized that sustainable peace and security can only be achieved through state security measures and active, meaningful engagement by a diverse community of civil society actors. Yet around the world, states are using UN resolutions, policy guidance, and technical assistance to justify mounting human rights violations, frequently targeting activists and civil society groups.

Is more robust and meaningful civil society engagement with the UN a beneficial strategy to both achieve better violence prevention outcomes and demand accountability for state misuse of counterterrorism measures? Perhaps. But whether and how this can be achieved remains unclear.

Based on consultations with 174 civil society groups in 2023, the Global Center on Cooperative Security (Global Center) and Rights & Security International (RSI), in collaboration with a project advisory committee of 15 civil society experts, found in their Scoping Report that the UN is failing to sufficiently engage with, promote, and protect civil society in the context of its  expanding UN counterterrorism agenda. As echoed during the report’s launch in May 2024, while there is a common desire to see the UN correct its course, for many in civil society, the risks and costs of such engagement currently may not be worth the benefits on offer.

Impunity as a Feature, Not a Flaw of Counterterrorism Measures

In part because states have not agreed on universal definitions of “terrorism” and  “violent extremism,” they have enjoyed expansive latitude in deciding what and whom they will deploy counterterrorism-related measures against, leaving those targeted with little remedy or recourse. As states proliferated more and more measures to ostensibly fight terror over the past two decades, millions have been killed, injured, and displaced as a result of violence perpetrated by states in the name of countering terrorism.

Regardless of the original intent behind such measures, human rights defenders, journalists, justice campaigners, queer activists, Muslim communities, communities of color, political dissidents, academics, and many other groups, have been, and continue to be, among the primary targets of abusive counterterrorism and related measures worldwide. In Europe, for example, counterterrorism measures in the region have overwhelmingly targeted Muslim communities and reinforced violent and exclusionary anti-immigration regimes. In some cases, these measures are bound up with notions of conformity with deeply racialized and highly subjective definitions of national identity encapsulated, for example, in France, under the offense of separatism, and notions of “British values” in the United Kingdom’s PREVENT program.

Alongside direct attacks against civil society, anti-terrorism measures serve as the basis for governments to impose invasive regulatory measures that undermine civil society’s independence and ability to operate. This is a serious obstacle to meaningful civil society engagement on counterterrorism in eastern Africa, where civil society groups working on human rights, social justice, and governance challenges also face substantial risk of state repression. Even in regions where counterterrorism may not seem to be high on the international agenda, for example in Latin America, the repercussions of state misuse of counterterrorism measures nevertheless are still felt across civil society.

With the mainstreaming of counterterrorism across wider peace and development agendas, civil society groups are rightfully concerned about the implications of the global counterterrorism agenda on prospects for peacebuilding and human security. For the past two decades, the proliferation of counterterrorism-related responses to political violence have been displacing holistic, locally legitimate, and effective community-led approaches to conflict transformation around the world. Some civil society organizations working to address drivers of conflict in Southeast Asia, for example, have resisted global pressures to adopt vague and discriminatory countering violent extremism frameworks which they view as contradicting decades of learning and good practice in peacebuilding, governance, and human rights.

Ultimately, despite the incredible expertise, local legitimacy, and effectiveness of non-governmental experts and community groups in addressing the root causes of violence, civil society remains among the primary targets of counterterrorism measures worldwide. Yet, in western Africa, for example, civil society groups struggling to maintain their independence against government restrictions often find themselves in direct competition with UN agencies for donor resources for peacebuilding and community support work. To many civil society activists and organizations, the UN is far from being viewed as a reliable defender of civic space. This, perhaps, should not come as a surprise. As highlighted by the MENA Rights Group, the largest government funders of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism are also among the world’s most hostile to activists and rights defenders.

In her landmark report on the impact of counterterrorism on civil society and civic space, the then-UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, concluded that the widespread and systematic misuse of counterterrorism and related measures against civil society from country to country “demonstrate that security is not the goal of abusive State practice but rather its opposite, namely, the continuance of instability, insecurity and cultures of impunity and violence.”

“For the People”

The preamble of the UN Charter declares that the UN was established on the very promise to operate “for the people.” Yet, many in civil society are deeply concerned about how UN approaches and language are being used by states to justify discrimination and repression, with civil society activists increasingly unable to operate without fear of reprisals. In 2022, for example, the UN documented that at least 350 people in 42 countries have faced reprisals and intimidation for cooperating with the UN on human rights.

The consensus among civil society groups that participated in the Global Center-RSI consultation process was that UN engagement with civil society on counterterrorism currently lacks any avenues to address these trends.  It will require a serious commitment of time, political will, and resources by the UN and its member states to make the protection of and meaningful engagement with civil society a priority. Improving the UN’s response or lack thereof to repression by states, its willingness to acknowledge and alter power dynamics, and its ability to demonstrate that civil society can have a substantive impact on UN decision-making and action, are all urgent priorities.

Engagement between the UN and civil society should not be an end in itself but a means to an end: ensuring that UN resolutions and other measures adhere to human rights standards and that international violence prevention efforts address the “complex and compounding” negative impacts of counterterrorism efforts on human rights and civic space. First and foremost, civil society needs to see entities in the UN counterterrorism architecture prioritize efforts to reverse the global assault on human rights and civic space, in which the global counterterrorism agenda has played such a prominent role.

Civil society groups want the UN to treat them as equals and as agents of change, not as passive subjects subordinated to the decisions of policymakers. To effectively defend human rights while addressing conflict and violence, the UN counterterrorism architecture should recognize civil society as an indispensable contributor to and valuable critic of the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of UN peacebuilding and violence prevention efforts, including counterterrorism.

Reciprocity is a fundamental attribute of meaningful engagement. Civil society-UN on counterterrorism-related issues must not just meet the needs of the UN and its member states, but also must align with, and address, the needs, interests, and risks of civil society.  If there is to be any prospect of meaningful engagement, civil society also needs a clear sense that their participation won’t be tokenized and treated as mere box-ticking exercise.

While these programmatic, structural, and cultural shifts for the UN may seem like a daunting undertaking for its counterterrorism architecture, long siloed and set apart from the UN wider peacebuilding and human rights agenda. The experience, resources and guidance from these other parts of the UN system may offer a constructive starting point. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, even incremental progress could improve engagement and advance the mutual goals of civil society–UN engagement: reigning in the disturbing patterns of abuse and repression justified under counterterrorism and related national security measures.

Matt Schwartz is the Global Center on Cooperative Security’s Director of Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning.

Franziska Praxl-Tabuchi is the Global Center on Cooperative Security’s Director of Multilateral Relations.

The authors are grateful to the government of Canada for their generous support for this component of the Civil Society-UN Counterterrorism Engagement Scoping Study. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center, RSI, their respective boards and sponsors, the project advisory committee for the Scoping Report, or the government of Canada.