On Apr. 25, 2023, the Charity & Security Network (C&SN), in partnership with ARTICLE 19 and the European Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL), on behalf of the CSO Coalition on Human Rights and Counter-terrorism, hosted a Civil Society Organization (CSO) Town Hall as part of the UN GCTS Eighth Review and Roadmap.

The event was attended by the co-facilitators of the Eighth United Nations (UN) Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS) Review, the Permanent Representatives of Canada and Tunisia–Ambassadors, Bob Rae and Tarek Ladeb

The recording of the Town Hall can be viewed at UN Web TV.

Civil society was invited to communicate feedback to Member States on the first revision (Rev1) of the draft resolution of the UN GCTS, ahead of the second round of GCTS negotiations. C&SN’s Ashleigh Subramanian-Montgomery, Associate Director, Policy & Advocacy and ECNL’s Marlena Wisniak, Senior Advisor, Digital Rights, co-moderated the panel. 

The expert panelists for the town hall featured: 

In addition to those noted above, attendees included civil society, Member States, think tanks, UN counter-terrorism entities, assorted UN agencies.

The CSO Town Hall currently serves as the only official engagement opportunity for civil society throughout the GCTS Review and Roadmap. C&SN encourages the CSO Town Hall to remain as an institutionalized part of the process moving forward. 

Throughout the event, panelists and civil society attendees stressed the importance of including civil society in this process and incorporating a human rights-based approach and an intersectional gendered perspective in the GCTS. 

Other topics discussed included oversight and accountability mechanisms for the UN’s growing counter-terrorism architecture, addressing the nuances of countering terrorism financing (CFT) without hampering civil society’s ability to fund and implement humanitarian aid and peacebuilding activities, and the dangers of using new and emerging technologies to counter terrorism without relevant safeguards and protections and without input from those impacted by these measures. 

Panelists offered concrete recommendations on how these topics can be considered and integrated into both the second and subsequent rounds of GCTS negotiations.

In opening the event, Ambassador Ladeb recognized the rising misuse and abuse of counter-terrorism measures, including against human rights defenders (HRDs), humanitarian actors, journalists, and civil society. 

Marlena Wisneak of the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law emphasized the need for precise language regarding counter-terrorism measures, and that any restrictions to human rights in the name of counter-terrorism must have a legal basis and have a legitimate aim. In particular, she warned of the encroaching use of technology for national security, and the risks it poses for mission creep and human rights abuses. Digital platforms and surveillance mechanisms often disproportionately target and suppress vulnerable groups and stifle free speech. To keep counter-terrorism measures in check, Marlena underscored the need for effective oversight to ensure there is compliance with human rights frameworks.

Subramanian-Montgomery underscored the importance of cross-sectoral collaboration between Member States and civil society when addressing terrorism, the critical role civil society plays at the grassroots level, and how counterterrorism measures disproportionately impact women’s rights and women-led organizations. UN Member States, she said, should recognize that local, national, and international civil society organizations play a vital role in reaching communities that are often out of reach of government, while strengthening networks with global support.

Because civil society is often targeted by overly broad national security measures, Subramian-Montgomery highlighted the importance of listening to civil society when strategizing how to best eliminate the unintended consequences of counterterrorism. She noted the mutually beneficial nature of protecting human rights while countering terrorism: failure to comply with human rights protections outlined under international obligations – including the UN Charter – is a core contributor to increased radicalization and violence.

Sally Mboubien commented on the introduction of new language in the GCTS Rev1 that serves to expand counter-terrorism in the African context. Language in Rev1 states that counter-terrorism efforts in the African region should be nationally owned and implemented by “supporting national governments.” According to Mboubien, this clause is incomplete – some national governments do not protect HRDs, include gendered perspectives, or tackle the root causes of terrorism. 

Unfortunately, as Mboubien noted, the GCTS encourages national ownership for counter-terrorism expansion on the African continent without addressing how some national governments manipulate overbroad counter-terrorism language to shrink civil society and civic space while increasing oversecuritized and militarized responses. She argued that it is critical the UN does not augment the GCTS with continued overbroad language, and to ensure efforts to raise the issue of terrorism in Africa include language which protects human rights, rule of law (RoL), and intersectional gendered approaches to countering terrorism. 

Miguel de la Vega spoke on the importance of oversight and accountability being incorporated in the GCTS, as well as the references to CFT within the Rev1. He supported the Rev1 suggestion of “an oversight body that reports to Member States”, noting that transparency and accountability allows the UN to verify the effectiveness of this strategy and to develop data-driven and evidence-based responses to any unintended consequences. 

De la Vega also drew attention to specific clauses within the Rev1 that addressed CFT and offered language suggestions that would ensure that CSOs and their funding are not halted, either intentionally or unintentionally by national governments, through CFT measures.  

Ambika Satkunanathan addressed the danger of embracing terms like “violent extremism” and “radicalization” in the GCTS: national governments can use these overbroad definitions to link civic activities to terrorism, and promote expansion of counter-terrorism at international and national levels. She reminded Member States that the focus of the GCTS should be on identifying the root causes of terrorism, rather than widening the scope for counter-terrorism. 

During her remarks, she emphasized that UN entities can both address important topics like terrorist attacks on the basis of xenophobia, racism, religion or belief (XRIBR), and other forms of intolerance – without weaponizing these to expand the counter-terrorism architecture – and ensure compliance with the principles of legitimacy, proportionality, necessity, and legality.

After the panelists spoke, the town hall opened for interventions from the floor by civil society organizations, UN compact entities, Member States, and think tanks. Several civil society organizations echoed the need for human rights to be interwoven throughout the GCTS, and emphasized that human rights principles like freedom of expression cannot be sacrificed in light of new and emerging challenges, such as those presented by technology. Representatives from Switzerland, Mexico, and Malta expressed the importance of including civil society in this process. 

In his closing remarks, Ambassador Rae spoke about the weaponization of counter-terrorism measures, and how violence and can be a response to militarization and authoritarianism. He affirmed that protections of individuals must be at the heart of all UN activity, and echoed civil society calls for an oversight mechanism on the implementation of the GCTS. 

Subramanian-Montgomery concluded the event, calling for feedback provided by civil society to be reflected in the second round of negotiations. She reminded the UN Member States that they share a common goal with civil society in promoting a more peaceful and stable world while protecting human rights, rule of law, while utilizing gender-sensitive approaches – highlighting numerous examples, including UNSCR 2664 humanitarian sanctions carveouts, as evidence of improved collaboration between civil society and governments.

“If you take one thing away from this Town Hall, let it be the words and asks of civil society as you go into your next round of negotiations. As you heard today, these asks come from Cameroon, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and the world over. They come from people – just like you and me – who want a world free from terrorism, free from extremism, and free from the ways in which counter-terrorism measures impede their ability to operate, and impede their access to open civic space,” she said.

As the GCTS enters the second and subsequent rounds of negotiations in the coming weeks, C&SN urges these paramount human rights issues, such as the role of civil society in combating the root causes of terrorism, incorporating intersectional gendered perspectives into the GCTS, and accountability and transparency, to be heard by Member States and pushed forward into the coming revisions and final adoption of the GCTS.