In her report to the Fortieth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) on the role of measures to address terrorism and violent extremism on closing space (Advance Unedited Version, A/HRC/40/52, February 18, 2019), Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin urgently calls for action to be taken against the increasingly aggressive efforts to close civil society space, ostensibly in the name of counterterrorism. In doing so, she makes connections between several seemingly unrelated topics, including the role of international bodies like the Financial Access Task Force (FATF), increased dangers to journalists, the lack of cohesive definitions of terrorism and violent extremism, the useful vagueness of “material support” and de-risking of charities (particularly Muslim charities).
At the outset of the report, Ní Aoláin notes that “Since its inception, 66 percent of all relevant communications sent by this mandate related to the use of counter-terrorism, PCVE [Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism] or broadly defined security-related measures on civil society. She explains that the abuse of civil society is not an accident, but a key part of counterterrorism policies—they are designed to be vague enough to wield against all of a state’s enemies simply by labeling them “terrorists” or “threats to national security” (par. 7). Some examples of this overlap between counterterrorism and attacks on civil society include the dramatic expansion of the FATF’s counterterrorism operations “without any consultation with national parliaments or civil society” (par. 31), which has “caused incalculable damage to civil society,” (par. 6); the targeting of free speech and journalism through abusing “accusations of ‘spreading terrorist propaganda’” (par. 27); the intentionally ambiguous definitions of terrorist, terrorism, and violent extremism, which “allows States to adopt highly intrusive, disproportionate and discriminatory measures notably to limit freedom of expression” (par. 19); and the use of material support legislation to affect those “involved in supporting inter alia fact-finding and evidence gathering for the purpose of prosecution, promoting the right to development, or assistance to migrants” (par. 44). Additionally, she cites the result of counterterrorism regulations on banks, including “refusing to deal with civil society actors operating in or with ‘high-risk’ environments or actors, limiting access to financial services, refusal to open or arbitrary closure of bank accounts, inordinate delays or termination of transactions, and onerous administrative requirements” (51) and; the disproportionate effects of counterterrorism regulations upon Muslim charities and charities that serve Muslim-majority areas (par. 62).
The crux of the Special Rapporteur’s argument is not just that civil society space is shrinking, but that this shrinkage doesn’t make anyone any safer: “Recent research showed that there is no evidence that legal restrictions on civil society reduces the number of terrorist attacks within a country. Civil society restrictions do not make a country safe from terrorist attacks; the security rhetoric does not achieve the expected outcomes” (par. 10). She adds that civil society, in fact, actually contributes significantly in the fight against terrorism, albeit in a vastly different way than counterterrorism regulations, by acting in “an intermediary role through its credibility and access to remote communities, and can meaningfully generate peace and development, including implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 speaking directly to the sources of grievances identified as factors leading to terrorist and extremist violence” (par. 12).
The report closes with four main recommendations: the entire UN must actively and continuously seek the perspective of civil society to avoid allowing more civil society space to shrink (par. 72); holding the bodies responsible for already-implemented counterterrorism regulations accountable “for the human rights implications of the international counter-terrorism framework” (par. 73); states must intentionally take steps to prevent further shrinking of civil society space in their own counterterrorism policies; and civil society itself must fight the attacks on its actors by speaking out at all possible avenues and platforms (par. 74).