Scoping Study on Independent Civil Society–UN Counterterrorism Engagement

In 2023, the Global Center on Cooperative Security and Rights & Security International consulted with nearly 200 peacebuilding and P/CVE implementers, human rights defenders, activists, lawyers, journalists, researchers, community leaders, and scholar-practitioners from around the world, assisted by an advisory committee of 15 diverse civil society representatives. ​

We found an overwhelming consensus that the UN is failing to meaningfully engage with, promote, and protect civil society in the context of the world body’s counterterrorism efforts, and that there is common desire to see the UN correct this course.

Our research process was designed to mirror the engagement practices recommended in the report, grounded in transparency, accountability, and reciprocity – with multiple avenues for civil society partners to engage, participate in decision-making, and impact the project results:

• Advisory Committee: A geographically- and gender- diverse advisory committee of 15 civil society representatives selected from a pool of 121 applicants supported the project team in making decisions around the design and implementation of consultations and aided in our analysis.

• Landscape Assessments: For each in-person regional consultation we also secured local experts to produce landscape assessments of civil society and counterterrorism issues in the region, and translated into local languages as needed, to inform our research and discussions.

• Consultations: Following each of our 10 consultations, we developed and translated as needed detailed reports capturing the discussions and solicited feedback from participants to ensure its accurately reflected the proceedings.

• Online survey: As our consultations were not accessible to many civil society groups, the project team developed a mutli-lingual global survey to elicit the experiences of individuals and organizations that were unable or unwilling to participate in the in-person and virtual discussions.

Harouna Abdoulaye, COPAVE
Beth Alexion, Saferworld; CSO Coalition on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism
Ali Altiok, United Network of Young Peacebuilders
Miguel de la Vega, Unidosc
Hussein Khaled, Haki Africa
Mira Kusumarini, Empatiku Foundation
Sarah Le Mesurier, International Commission of Jurists
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, University of Minnesota Law School

Victoria Ohaeri, Spaces for Change
Cholpon Orozobekova, Bulan Institute
Inès Osman, MENA Rights Group
Mahi Ramakrishnan, Beyond Borders Malaysia
Arjun Sethi, Georgetown University Law Center
Ashleigh Subramanian-Montgomery, Charity & Security Network
Marco Velasquez Ruiz, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana Bogota

Findings

Existing entry points for engagement with the UN’s counterterrorism architecture are extremely limited, and inaccessible to most CSOs – particularly those most impacted by conflict and abusive counterterrorism measures.

Civil society groups clearly see benefits that could accrue from more meaningful engagement with the UN on counterterrorism and P/CVE efforts.

Substantial barriers and risks are impeding meaningful engagement with civil society, and their willingness to engage in the Global South.

These preconditions cannot be overcome by any UN entity overnight, and progress demands buy-in and trust from civil society, as well as substantial political support and investments by Member States.

Steps toward more meaningful CSO-UN engagement in the short term can foster incremental progress toward addressing these preconditions and increase engagement significantly over time. 

The report offers a framework and recommendations for the UN and its Member States to meaningfully engage civil society while incrementally addressing the preconditions for engagement.

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Final Report

Independent Civil Society–UN Counterterrorism Engagement: A Scoping Report

Author: Matthew Schwartz, Sarah St. Vincent, Tufyal Choudhury, Damarie Kalonzo, and Franziska Praxl-Tabuchi

Date: May 2024

 

Read the Report

Landscape Assessment Reports

The Scoping Study was informed by a series of regionally focused research products prepared by local civil society experts. These reports were later finalized and prepared for publication with the generous support of the Government of Canada.

Exploring Eastern Africa’s Landscape: A Scoping Study on an Independent Civil Society-UN Counter-Terrorism Engagement Mechanism
Author: Karanja Muraya (Africa Center for Engendered Security), African Journal of Empirical Research 4, no 2 (2023)
Date: Dec 2023

Landscape Assessment Civil Society and Counterterrorism Mechanisms in Europe
Author: Magda El Haitem (El Haitem Law)
Date: May 2024

Iniciativas para prevenir el uso indebido de las organizaciones sin fines de lucro en América Latina
Author: Gabriela Pellón (Independent Consultant) and Miguel de la Vega (Unidosc)
Date: January 2024

Redefining civil society’s role in the UN counter-terrorism architecture
Landscape assessment: Middle East and North Africa

Author: MENA Rights Group
Date: May 2024

UN & Multilateral Efforts and Civil Society Engagement on Counterterrorism and Preventing and/or Countering Violent Extremism in South-East Asia: A Landscape Assessment
Author: Marc Batac (Independent Consultant) and Tuan Nguyen-M (Build Program Manager, Initiatives for International Dialogue)
Date: May 2024

Mécanisme d’engagement indépendant entre la société civile et les Nations Unis en matière de lutte contre le terrorisme: Rapport d’état des lieux Afrique de l’Ouest
Author: Abdoulaye Diallo (Independent Consultant) and Mouhamadou Lamine Bara Lo (Independent Consultant)
Date: January 2024

In support of wider civil society efforts to demand more meaningful influence on and engagement with UN counterterrorism efforts, this report presents the results of a year-long scoping study undertaken by the Global Center and Rights & Security International with the support of a committee of 15 civil society advisors. Based the input of more than 170 civil society representatives from more than 50 countries around the world, the findings and recommendations presented in this report explain the hesitation of many groups worldwide to engage with the United Nations on counterterrorism-related issues, the range of barriers they face, and their aspirations for the UN role in promoting and protecting civil society and civic space. The report highlights key preconditions for greater civil society engagement with UN entities regarding these topics and offers a framework to strengthen the  UN’s engagement with civil society embodying specific attributes of meaningful engagement across a range of mutually reinforcing modalities of engagement. The report concludes with several practical entry points for addressing the preconditions for engagement, including specific recommendations to the UN and its Member States.

A launch page the provides details about the scoping report process can be found here.

In an era defined by rapid technological advancement, integrating new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) has become central to national security strategies worldwide. While these technologies offer unprecedented capabilities in combating threats, their use raises significant concerns regarding human rights violations and erosion of civil liberties.

This policy brief examines the complex landscape of human rights implications surrounding the deployment of new and emerging technologies in national security efforts. It emphasizes the importance of upholding fundamental rights outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), particularly in the face of evolving security challenges. While acknowledging the necessity of robust security measures, the brief highlights the danger of overreach. It focuses on electronic surveillance, drones, metadata, biometrics, online communications, internet, and social media, including AI-powered technologies, and delves into how these technologies intersect with existing legal frameworks regarding privacy rights, freedom of movement, and due process rights.

The Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) was launched in New York in September 2011 as the first global platform dedicated to nonmilitary counterterrorism cooperation. It emerged at a time when the general perception was that the United Nations was too rigid, political, and bureaucratic to respond effectively to terrorism threats considered urgent, imminent, and dynamic. Since its launch, the GCTF has steadfastly indicated a desire to collaborate with the United Nations, but the purpose and nature of that relationship has been amorphous.

This brief examines collaboration between the United Nations and GCTF and reflects on the objectives, modalities, and effectiveness of that collaboration in today’s counterterrorism landscape. It offers recommendations to optimize existing practices but raises larger questions about the value, structure, and scope of that relationship in the longer term that will need to be answered.

Over the last decades, the threat of terrorism has become more diverse, dispersed, and complex. Traditional military and security-centric approaches to dismantling terrorist organizations may diffuse the threat, but they are also inherently reactive and have reinforced cycles of violence. To effectively prevent and mitigate terrorism, the Global Center believes that governments, civil society, and the private sector need to work together to address the conditions of instability and injustice that allow terrorist groups and ideologies to emerge and expand in the first place. In a Security Management article, Executive Director Eelco Kessels outlines the Global Center’s work focusing on women’s roles in preventing violent extremism, countering terrorism financing, improving criminal justice systems, and engaging with youth leaders. It describes the organization’s capacity to lead innovative programs that serve communities and groups most affected by conflict and terrorism.

Developed with the Asia Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG), the report examines regional efforts to protect non-profit organizations (NPOs) from terrorism financing abuse. It includes a heat map of strengths and weaknesses in implementing international standards from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and offers reflections on ensuring measures do not disrupt or discourage NPO activity.

The report notes weak compliance with FATF’s Recommendation 8 on NPOs and provides further detail on what specific elements of Recommendation 8 are challenging for APG members, finding room to improve on the conduct of inclusive and evidence-based risk assessments of potential NPO abuse for terrorism financing and to strengthen and sustain outreach and engagement between government and NPOs.

The report also analyzes how compliance is being evaluated across the region, with its findings used to inform amendment of the FATF standards. It finds areas of misunderstanding or misinterpretation related to risk-based supervision for NPOs and notes limited consideration of how CFT measures may disrupt or discourage legitimate NPO activities.

As part of a series of policy briefs collaboratively produced by the Global Center and the Royal United Services Institute, Emily Winterbotham addresses the impact of gendered narratives in the conflict in Ukraine.

Gendered norms and identities shape everyone’s involvement in violence, including men, women, and nonbinary people. How groups, whether nonstate actors or states party to a conflict, construct norms, which includes expectations of femininity and masculinity, is crucial to understanding violence. This brief analyzes the ways in which gendered narratives have been employed during the war in Ukraine. It reflects on the traditional use of gendered narratives in the field of security and draws on the author’s research on the role of gender in the field of terrorism.

Annabelle Bonnefont and Franziska Praxl-Tabuchi share their thoughts regarding civil society engagement on counterterrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism issues within the context of the UN General Assembly’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. Even though civil society has been impacted by the UN counterterrorism architecture, opportunities for a broad range of civil society actors to meaningfully engage with UN counterterrorism programming and policy-making remain limited at best. The authors layout recommendations and a path forward for member states and the United Nations to include diverse civil society in UN counterterrorism efforts.

The Global Center’s Eelco Kessels and Melissa Lefas published an article in Just Security reflecting on the eighth review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS) which furthered the promotion of human rights and protection of civic space. The negotiations were heated, with some member states threatening to revise existing language in an attempt to deprioritize human rights and civil society engagement, while promoting their own interests and agendas. The next GCTS review will mark its 20th anniversary, demanding a sober assessment of its promise to normatively reset counterterrorism approaches and size, scope, and prioritization of UN counterterrorism efforts against other global priorities.

This report is the sixth in the Global Center’s “Blue Sky” series which explores how the UN’s comparative advantages can be leveraged to improve the balanced implementation of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. The report opens with a broad overview of changes in the security landscape and reflections on UN counterterrorism and preventing violent extremism responses. Chapter two highlights key developments in the UN ecosystem since the seventh review of the Strategy, providing context and background to support member states, UN entities, and other stakeholders in situating core issues in the eighth review. Chapter three then assesses the key architecture, namely the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism and the Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact, and stresses the need for improvements in integrating the rule of law, human rights, and gender commitments, engagement with diverse civil society, and monitoring and evaluation. The report concludes with recommendations on leveraging the Strategy to realize the UN’s comparative advantage on counterterrorism and PVE issues.

The recommendations focus on (1) optimizing the UN counterterrorism architecture; (2) resource mobilization; (3) integrating the rule of law, human rights, and gender commitments; (4) meaningful engagement with diverse civil society; and (5) measuring Strategy implementation.

Summary findings and key recommendations were presented during a launch event held in 31 May 2023, in the lead up to the UN Counter-Terrorism Week and the negotiations of the eighth Strategy review resolution. Support for this project, including the consultations, high-level events, and report, was generously provided by the governments of the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland and with broader support of our work by the government of Sweden.