It has been said of the UN that “what happens in Geneva stays in Geneva.” But what about New York?

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, insists that civil society organizations should be showing up for the UN’s counterterrorism work in New York and “making life uncomfortable for them.”

In late March, I had the privilege of attending a small roundtable with Aoláin, who is in her second year of a three-year UN mandate. During this event, she spoke passionately about the importance of civil society and the need to protect it from the adverse effects of counterterrorism, one of four priorities she has set out for her term. (The other three are states of emergency, legal regimes and gender effects of counterterrorism.) “We are increasingly seeing a global security regime that is impinging on the norms of the law of armed conflict and weakening human rights,” she said.

States of emergency have a co-relationship with human rights abuses and restriction of due process, Aoláin noted. Once you have a presumption of necessity, unregulated definitions of terrorism triumph, she explained. These are “loose, vague and highly problematic definitions” that are self-serving, she said, adding, “Anyone who disagrees or simply doesn’t fit in with the prevailing political discourse” becomes branded a terrorist. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that there is a “comfortable consensus” that no one state will criticize another state on its definition of terrorist, she noted.

But will the work of civil society find its way into the UN? Many nonprofits do not have the bandwidth to pursue this work, and perhaps only the largest groups reliably know their way around this forum and its entry points. Funders need to realize the importance of this work and incorporate adequate resources into grants to civil society organizations. Aoláin pointed out that the Special Rapporteur exists within the UN counterterrorism architecture, sitting on all working committees and included in all high-level conversations, because the UN wasn’t willing to create a full-time human rights piece within the counterterrorism framework. Thus, the lion’s share of this work must fall to civil society.