Comment & analysis

Starting bell rings for UN counter-terrorism negotiations with big questions unanswered

1 March 2023 Beth Alexion, Nicholas Miller and Jordan Street Starting bell rings for UN counter-terrorism negotiations with big questions unanswered

This article was originally published on Just Security.

Yesterday, United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General António Guterres released the biannual report on the “Activities of the United Nations system in implementing the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.” This report is intended to inform U.N. Member States and other stakeholders on the United Nation’s counterterrorism work – both what it has done and how much it has achieved – and marks the start of a three-month negotiation period to update the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS) for the next two years.

An updated set of policy responses to transnational terrorism is long overdue. But the report is also crucial for ensuring that the United Nations’ practices are not contributing to growing counterterrorism abuses. Ultimately, bad counterterrorism practices at the United Nations contribute to bad practices and outcomes at the national level, compounding civilian harm.

But while the report touches on the right issues, it does not fully address important questions concerning oversight, impact and effectiveness, and the role of technology in U.N. counterterrorism operations.

Strengthening oversight

Chief among these unanswered questions is how to address the issue of oversight of U.N. counterterrorism systems and programming. The previous GCTS asked the Secretary-General to assess the need for an internal advisory or monitoring and evaluation capacity to further integrate the rule of law, human rights, and gender across the counterterrorism system. This represented a step back from an earlier, more ambitious proposal – supported by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism and many civil society groups – for an independent and impartial Human Rights Ombudsperson with a mandate to review the activities of U.N. entities implementing the GCTS.

This call for independent oversight emerged for two reasons. First, Member States, civil society, and even some U.N. entities perceived there was a lack of transparency within the U.N. counterterrorism architecture. This was a particular concern for states that were unable to assess the effectiveness of their financial contributions to counterterrorism programs. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the lack of effective oversight generated significant reputational risks for the United Nations itself. The risk of potential human rights violations and civilian harm resulting from counterterrorism operations is high; the United Nations’ failure to establish a mechanism to guard against such abuses is a serious oversight.

The report, to its credit, notes the support of the Special Rapporteur and other stakeholders for an independent oversight body (para 38, Annex II), but beyond that makes no effort to offer states a reasonable option to implement this recommendation. On the contrary, much of its analysis focuses on existing (and fairly dated) approaches to oversight across a range of U.N. entities. There is no mention at all of the reputational risk to the United Nations. The report unsurprisingly concludes with a proposal for the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT) to “strengthen existing internal accountability frameworks” (para 38, Annex II) to deliver effective oversight – frameworks that have failed to deliver meaningful accountability for nearly two decades. For Member States and others desiring a more effective and accountable U.N. counterterrorism system, this recommendation falls short.

A results-based culture?

In the current political climate, many Member States are no longer willing to allow the U.N. counterterrorism architecture to consume increasing resources without metrics or evidence-based results. While the report’s section on results goes to great lengths to outline the approach the U.N. OCT has taken to develop a “results-based culture,” it falls short of providing concrete evidence that there has been meaningful improvement. The report references a new “Results Framework,” but provides no information on what the framework entails or how it has been used. Despite the recent approval of a three-fold budget increase for U.N. OCT, the report maintains that “substantial investments may be required to address a lack of dedicated resources for monitoring and evaluation” (para 18, Annex III).

The omissions, meanwhile, are more glaring than the text itself. The report usefully highlights the 2021 ‘Learn Better, Together’ meta-synthesis of evaluation and other oversight reports from U.N. OCT and the U.N. Office on Crime and Drugs (UNODC). Yet it falls to mention the meta-synthesis’ most crucial finding, which is that most of the available evidence to the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact was “inadequate to assess (not to mention quantify) the extent to which…outcomes were being achieved” (page XVI). The meta-synthesis notes this as not concerning just “second-order outcomes with complex causal chains such as behavioural changes, but even with respect to the first-order outcomes such as change in knowledge and awareness” (page XVI).

Adapting to Technological Change

The nexus between technology and terrorism is an area of increasing focus for the United Nations and Member States, but to date the United Nations has embraced a “human rights-lite” approach to the use of technology in counterterrorism efforts. Human rights standards that exist elsewhere are referenced, yet insufficient care is taken to articulate how these obligations apply to use of technology in counterterrorism. The Secretary-General’s report continues this trend. The human rights risks of this approach, as well as the reputational risk to the United Nations, are significant.

The report devotes three paragraphs to the “challenges and opportunities of new technologies.” The first two paragraphs (paras 74-5), after a brief nod to the rule of law and human rights, present a variety of ways that technology might be used by terror groups. Not all of the technologies mentioned are new (i.e., the internet and social media), nor are all widely available (i.e., self-driving cars). More troubling, while there is no doubt that the technologies mentioned might be used in such a manner, no analysis is done of the precise nature or scale of the risk. The implicit argument is that listing technologies that could be misused alone is enough to justify new or expanded counterterrorism efforts.

Does it? The final paragraph of the report’s section on technology demonstrates why the answer to that question is not as obvious as the report seems to imply. This paragraph contains another list: in this case, it is an accurate but incomplete list of the documented human rights harms associated with states’ use of technology for counterterrorism purposes. These include violations of the rights to privacy and fair trial; undue restrictions on the freedoms of association, expression, religion or belief, and non-discrimination; internet shutdowns; and mass surveillance.

To its credit, the report concludes that “[i]ncreased transparency and oversight of measures taken by both Member States and private service providers should…be prioritized” (para 73). Unfortunately, it goes no further. This is consistent with past U.N. statements on the need to respect human rights when employing technology to counter terrorism, including in the 7th GCTS and, notably, in the “Delhi Declaration on countering the use of new and emerging technologies for terrorist purposes,” adopted by the U.N. Security Council Counter-terrorism Committee in December 2022. But like those references, this reference is cursory and general. There are real costs to the lack of deeper consideration of how to prioritize transparency and oversight. States are rapidly expanding their use of technology to counterterrorism and failing to provide meaningful human rights guidance will lead to real human rights harms. What is lacking in the report and is needed, if not here, then in the 8th GCTS itself, is a fulsome articulation of the human rights responsibilities of counterterrorism actors – Member States, the U.N., and private – when employing technology to counter terrorism. The Secretary-General’s report could have contributed to this, but did not.

Human rights, civic space, and gender

While the Secretary General’s report fails to satisfactorily answer the above questions, it does reiterate and strengthen existing precedent on human rights, civic space, gender, and civil society inclusion. The report acknowledges both the intentional misapplication of overly-broad definitions of terrorism and laws against human rights defenders, and the need for justice for victims of misapplied counterterrorism measures. It references the risk of reprisal measures against civil society actors for their engagement with the United Nations and criticizes countering the financing of terrorism (CFT) measures that restrict civil society’s access to funding and financial services.

There is an explicit call for the protection and preservation of open civic space, while the need to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society to engage in public affairs is noted as a necessary condition for transparent, effective, and accountable civil society participation. A study on counterterrorism’s effects on civil society, to be released by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights later this year, should further elaborate on this point. On gender, the report repeats previous calls for the integration of specific and contextualized gender-analysis across counterterrorism measures, including on the roles of conceptualizations of masculinities, structural inequalities, and gendered stereotypes.

While clear language on human rights and civil society participation is welcome, the continued gap between exhortation and implementation has only grown more stark. Without oversight, accountability, and transparency, there is unlikely to be meaningful improvements in these areas.

Ultimately, while the Secretary-General’s implementation reports inform GCTS reviews, they do not – and should not – set the boundaries for what is possible. Those who wished to see a clearer presentation of options for how the United Nations can respond to pressing challenges, prevent the proliferation of future bad counterterrorism practices, and protect the United Nations against reputational risk will be disappointed. Yet this should not deter Member States from thinking about solutions beyond those in the report. The starting bell may have rung, but we still have a long way to go yet.

Photo: António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations during opening session of the High Level Segment at the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council. 27 February 2023. Credit: UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré.

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