On Feb. 28, 2023, the Charity & Security Network (C&SN) submitted input to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin. 

This was in response to an open call for submissions “for civil society, Member States, and regional and international organisations to contribute their distinct and diverse experiences, evidence, research findings, and insights on the interface of counter-terrorism, civil society and civic space for the first independent Global Study on the Impact of Counter-Terrorism Measures on Civil Society and Civic Space, which will be issued in 2023.” 

In alignment with the Special Rapporteur’s ongoing commitment to elevating civil society expertise, the mandate is conducting a participatory consultative process led by civil society at the national, international, local, and regional level. 

Process, Countries, and Partners

To facilitate input for the submission, C&SN held a consultative Roundtable with approximately 30 civil society organizations (CSOs) who experience counter-terrorism measures’ harmful and negative impacts. Civil society partners shared impacts from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Canada, Iraq, Kenya, Nicaragua, Palestine, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, the United States, and Venezuela. 

In addition to partners who chose to remain anonymous, the input was submitted by C&SN jointly with the Arab Campaign for Education for All (ACEA), the Bridges Faith Initiative (BFI), the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), the CIVIC Advisory Hub, the Common Action for Gender Development (COMAGEND), the Defenders Protection Initiative (DPI), Epuka Ugaidi, the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), the Human Security Collective (HSC), the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), the Palestinian NGO’s Network (PNGO), the Philanthropy Europe Association (Philea), Unidosc, and the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmakers Support (WINGS).

C&SN, in collaboration with partners, addressed several key areas where civil society and civic space is negatively impacted by counter-terrorism measures. These are laid out in the following sections.

Civil society’s critical role in humanitarian aid, peacebuilding, and violence prevention in fragile and conflicted settings

Civil society facilitates alternatives to violence, delivers aid and resources in hard-to-reach areas, and fosters conflict resolution. They do this through engagement in peacebuilding processes; understanding and addressing violence and conflict’s root causes; dialogue facilitation; being locally and contextually aware of conflict dynamics; enabling awareness on how to best engage in conflict prevention; and strengthening existing community and local expertise on violence prevention. 

Partners highlighted  the fundamental role CSOs play in sustainable peacebuilding, as CSOs can provide oversight of security policies and practices without  assuming an adversarial position relative to government, and are thus able to co-create rights-respecting strategies with governments for contending with insecurity and conflict.

Background of counter-terrorism measures impact on civil society 

Over application of counter-terrorism laws and measures, including anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing (AML/CFT), are seen as key drivers of restrictions on Freedom of Association and civil society’s, including philanthropy, ability to give or receive resources especially in cross-border areas and operations. 

In many contexts, states do not restrict civil society activities through laws or regulations but through informal practices and processes. This section highlighted common consequences of shrinking civic space on the role of civil society in the protection of civilians, including: Restrictions on expression; Arbitrary or targeted legal restrictions; Restrictions on access and movement; and Harassment and intimidation.

Many of the places where the government has placed a significant emphasis on countering terrorism while also placing greater restrictions on civil society have become more violent and even devolved into situations of armed conflict, thus exposing greater numbers of civilians and communities at risk of harm.  

The broad nature of counter-terrorism measures and laws and the lack of international accountability mechanisms allow for governments to utilize these measures to silence and create barriers for civil society actors 

Overly broad and vague counter-terrorism laws inhibit civil society engagement in peacebuilding. These laws restrict the ability to engage with any individuals or groups who are either connected to or suspected of being connected to proscribed individuals or groups alleged to be involved in terrorist activities under existing counter-terrorism frameworks. Country-specific examples of this include:

  • Somalia: Due to the current domestic counter-terrorism laws in effect, there is no ability to engage with organizations or groups engaged in violence in any way, even in critical peacebuilding contexts.
  • Cameroon: Counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) laws silence civil society actors, making it difficult for individuals to take up human rights concerns without being branded as part of a terrorist movement. 
  • United States: Police in the state of Georgia invoked a 2017 terrorism law, § 16-4-10, against environmental activists who occupied a woodland area to protest the trees being felled for the construction of police training centers, leading to nineteen arrests and Domestic Terrorism charges for protest-related activities.
  • Iraq: A prominent environmental activist was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen. Continued restrictions on activists and organizations represent the shrinking civil society space.
  • Palestine: Counter-terrorism measures significantly curtail the work of civil society by criminalizing human rights work. Within Palestinian civil society, anyone is a potential target under the broad authorizations of counter-terrorism laws, creating a stifling environment.
  • Uganda: Broad use of AML/CTF laws silence CSOs and human rights defenders, and the use of overbroad counter-terrorism measures halt financial transactions and non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) productivity.
  • Canada: 
    • Afghanistan: Since the Taliban became the de facto government, Canadian humanitarian and international development organizations have been told they need to cease operations in Afghanistan under threat of facing terrorism financing charges.
    • Palestine: Some Canadian organizations have withdrawn from Gaza over concerns that providing aid there would be viewed as providing support to Hamas. 
  • Sri Lanka: Local counter-terrorism laws, especially the Prevention of Terrorism Act, are used to stifle dissent. Private actors, including banks and the military, threaten and coerce Tamil and Muslim civil society actors. Social and traditional media entrenches counter-terror narratives that restrict civil society activities. Local organizations are provided financial incentives to work on “violent extremism” (VE), driven by multilateral and bilateral donors.
  • Latin America: The adoption of counter-terrorism legislation, as well as of the Russian-derived “foreign agents legislation,” has had a deep impact in Nicaragua and Venezuela, where these policies have contributed to the stigmatization and criminalization of human rights organizations, leading to over 1,000 organizations being legally canceled / forcibly dissolved.
    • Nicaragua: Restrictions on Freedom of Association and Religion have been extended to the Catholic Church through the raids of parish facilities and arrests of priests and clergy.
    • Venezuela: Frequent criminalization of organizations and activists, with accusations often related to terrorist activities for those persons that openly criticize public policies.

Counter-terrorism financing laws continue to inhibit civil society funding, bank transfers, and operations

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the financial sector placed new emphasis, focus, and aggressive new measures on counter-terrorism enforcement, resulting in complex challenges that CSOs still face to this day. 

One key challenge is that the financial sector is supposed to take a “risk-based approach” (RBA) to their compliance programs. However, they often instead operate in risk averse manners that negatively impact civil society’s ability to operate, leading to problems like “de-risking”, whereby financial institutions close or restrain relationships to avoid risk altogether. Even with these ongoing challenges, the financial sector and U.S. government agencies and regulators often punt responsibility back and forth between themselves, leaving a dire status quo that harms not only CSOs operating in complex, conflict environments, but, more egregiously, the communities these CSOs are supposed to serve. 

In the European context, there are issues of increased bank de-risking and tighter reporting obligations, which raise privacy rights concerns. In the Latin American context, measures have been imposed throughout the region without having initially conducted sector-specific risk assessments (RAs), which is both against FATF Recommendation 8 (R8) guidelines and which results in a general imposition of obligations and ineffective protections for the most vulnerable organizations.

Counter-terrorism measures have a disproportionate negative impact on women and women-led organizations

The ways in which counterterrorism measures and counter-terrorism financing laws have been created and implemented rarely take into account women’s rights organizations and their operating environments. Many women-led and women’s rights organizations focus on peacebuilding and conflict resolution as a means to preventing terrorism and violence – yet, most report that counter-terrorism measures currently have a negative effect on their ability to operate. States have utilized overbroad definitions of terrorism to suppress and sometimes criminalize the legitimate work of women’s rights organizations. Country-specific examples include:

  • Uganda: Frozen bank accounts were cited as due to terrorist financing, and broad targeting of organizations involved in voter education and civic awareness initiatives aimed at informed decision-making during elections for marginalized groups such as women and youth.
  • Cameroon: Women’s rights and gender equality organizations are often cut out or overlooked when it comes to implementing counter-terrorism laws, and in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts, despite women being a leading force in these spaces.
  • Kenya: Gender writ large and women’s perspectives in particular are not included in the development of national counter-terrorism policies and laws.

Civil society cannot fully engage with the international community on the impact of counterterrorism measures without continued commitment to due diligence safeguards that protect against reprisals

A crucial component of providing a space for meaningful participation of civil society is due diligence safeguards to protect civil society actors against reprisals in their home countries and regions. The threat of reprisal, especially in the context of counter-terrorism, limits the effectiveness of local CSOs and creates a chilling effect that prevents  raising concerns to the UN and other international organizations.

  • Canada: Law enforcement figures and government actors were invited to a civil society roundtable on CVE laws and programs, creating barriers for safe and meaningful input for civil society. The fact that this was viewed as an acceptable format for a civil society roundtable raises concerns about the precedent it sets for future Counter-terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) consultations.

Recommendations to States and regional and international organizations, including the United Nations, for ensuring adequate civil society participation and consideration of the impacts of counter-terrorism on civil society

The widespread and intentional use of counter-terrorism laws to target civil society without accountability can partly be attributed to the internationally broad definition of counter-terrorism and lack of international mechanisms to hold states liable for these actions. 

C&SN and partners call for accountability mechanisms within the UN that redefines and monitors an international definition of terrorism that prevents the broad use of terrorism against civil society actors and incorporates a gender / LGBTQIA+ lens in monitoring how counter-terrorism laws are applied in various contexts.

Additionally, we recommend creating spaces for civil society to report instances of abuse of counter-terrorism measures by States. This could be accomplished through accountability mechanisms and reporting requirements to monitor how counter-terrorism frameworks are used by States, and to monitor broad or vague use of counter-terrorism laws to target human rights defenders and civil society.

Possible mechanisms and further recommendations proposed by C&SN and partner organizations include: 

  • Cameroon: Redefine what terrorism is by the standards of the UN, create a mechanism to hold states accountable, and create a UN-led quota system to instill mandatory consultations with women’s rights organizations.
  • Kenya: Look at mechanisms that enable healthy relationships with governments and partners to come together and walk as allies.

  • U.S.: Establish a Commission of Inquiry into the effects of broad and vague counter-terrorism measures, used both to document targeting of civil society and the impacts of counter-terrorism measures through a truth-telling effort that enables the populations harmed by these measures to voice their grievances as an important step towards rectifying the harms.

  • For CTED: Develop a clear country assessment methodology and integrate the assessment of the impact of counter-terrorism measures on civil society and civic space within country assessments. 
  • For States:
    1. States should recognize the many critical contributions of local civil society to the protection of civilians in conflict, and at a minimum, abide by international standards for protecting the Freedoms of Assembly, Association, Expression, and Public Participation.
    2. States should ensure that local civil society can access financial resources.
    3. States should limit sanctions for material support to precise and narrowly defined actions in ways that abide by international human rights standards and do not impede legitimate activities.
    4. States affected by armed conflict should refrain from imposing arbitrary limits on movement and access.
    5. States affected by armed conflict and organized violence should create channels for engaging with civil society on protection issues and priorities.
    6. States should ensure that efforts to protect principled humanitarian action include concern and protections for independent local civil society.
    7. States should actively inform, consult, and involve civil society in the design and implementation of counter-terrorism support activities. 
  • Universal Periodic Review (UPR): The Human Rights Council (HRC) should formally adopt a requirement that each UPR address the issue of civil society (including philanthropy) rights, with a special focus on whether counter-terrorism laws are infringing on rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and relevant UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR), such as UNSCR 2462 and UNSCR 2664. This solution would address the issues of accountability, State cooperation, and international support that partner organizations have called for to combat the negative impacts of counter-terrorism laws on civil society rights. This would enable an additional forum where civil society rights under international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) are offered attention and protection. C&SN submits that the Special Rapporteur should undertake a feasibility study of adopting this requirement within the UPR.

C&SN thanks the Special Rapporteur for conducting this comprehensive flagship study.