Security and Foreign Policy

From the Margins of Counter-Terrorism, the Dilemma of Civil Society

The United Nations General Assembly recently completed its review of the counter-terrorism architecture within the UN, but failed to make the process open to civil society. Marina Kumskova explains how and why the UN system can do more when it comes to the participation of civil society.


Every two years, the United Nations General Assembly reviews its counterterrorism strategy in a way that remains a mystery for civil society, especially grassroots organisations. Most often, the conversation takes place behind closed doors, with only a limited number of civil society organisations. International non-governmental organisations have some say in the process through their individual engagement with Member States.

The counterterrorism architecture of the UN System is constructed using very ancient means that many other areas, including peacebuilding, peacekeeping and crisis response have to overcome to some degree. Despite claims that civil society is not involved enough in the peace and security work of the UN, there are high-level leadership meetings with civil society and engagement  in some form of common action. At the same time, in counterterrorism, power relations are very clearly identified through a realist security perspective. Member States make decisions in an attempt to force the international system to serve as a tool for its implementation, with no intent to engage anyone with marginal access to power. At present, academia and think tanks lead the engagement with civil society in order to provide innovative solutions.

Since its establishment in 2006, the UN’s Global Counter-Terrorism strategy process goes conversely to the principles that are preached by a number of Member States and intergovernmental organisations. For example, various UN bodies and instruments have emphasised the need to include women-led civil society actors at all levels in order to ensure that gender-sensitive conflict analysis informs decision-making processes. Often, even inversely, references to civil society have been used as a mechanism for the shrinking space of civil society, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These countries have the most say in the way counterterrorism strategies evolve through their financial contributions and leadership in key UN counterterrorism bodies.

This year, the UN used the margins of these discussions to host its very first conversation on counterterrorism to reflect on the priorities of Member States while building effective partnerships, with the participation of civil society. Should that be considered progress?

There are a number of points that need to be taken into consideration while responding to this question.

First, civil society was not openly invited. There were no invitations/open calls that are traditionally used by UN agencies to facilitate the access of civil society. While the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the upcoming High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) have managed to get diverse voices in these specific settings, counterterrorism discussions involved a small number of international non-governmental organisations, which were not truly representative of the diverse experiences of people in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Libya, among others.

Second, even if there were a global call for engagement, the call should have been sent out much earlier. Not every civil society representative and not every group doing amazing work on the ground is able to strategise and finance its participation in such global discussions on a short notice.

Furthermore, the convening and engagement took place right after the resolution on the Review of the UN Counterterrorism Strategy was adopted. For one, this resulted in the language on women and gender analysis to remain the same as in 2016. As terrorists continue to utilise gender strategies to consolidate their power and further their gains, there is a strong need to integrate gender analysis of power and question systems and practices that deepen traditional gendered roles facilitating conflict and militarised security. Terrorism is a problem that does not simply involves the poor and marginalised; it is important to bear in mind that many of those who join terrorist groups are white and privileged individuals. By focusing solely on development and on youth, the problem will not be solved. In fact, the experience of working with civil society shows that such an approach has a greater potential to alienate many. Gender structures and power relations are something that terrorists are very good at building on and should be on addressed when constructing counterterrorism strategies.

Finally the question is, what does the engagement with civil society truly mean? Meaningful engagement of civil society means that civil society organisations can engage based on their experience and expertise with impact. It requires removing the on-going obstacles to participation, including the lack of access to resources and gender power relations, and enabling women to speak for themselves, rather than being spoken for. It requires providing space for civil society in counterterrorism committees and working groups. It is not just about having them speak for four minutes in an attempt to show the rest of the world that counterterrorism “masterminds” do care. Instead, it is about making civil society’s engagement count.

While some acknowledgement of civil society’s role may be seen by many as solid progress, this engagement should be cautiously examined. By making a strong push for a space that lies on the margins of real conversations, civil society may face the trap of being instrumentalized, as gender was to justify counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

The space should be addressed from a power perspective by learning from the actions used by civil society in other spaces to penetrate and transform security work. Civil society should make use of existing mechanisms within a complex UN architecture to bring their concerns to the fore. The Universal Periodic Review can be one such mechanism that some organisations have successfully used to push for a gender-sensitive peace agreement in Colombia and a commitment to disarmament in Cameroon.

The partnership should be constructive and civil society should not have to trade their expertise in return for a space to make an empty statement. While engaging with governments and sharing experiences and emerging trends from the ground, grassroots organisations have tremendous capacity to produce change in state response; however, such cooperation should be based on an agreement that the change will actually be made as opposed to being used by Member States to draft another winning speech at the next international convention.

Finally, the power of civil society organisations is truly in finding agreement among themselves. CSOs have to be able to strategize and exchange entry points for better impact. In Africa, women’s groups are known for sitting together, exchanging experiences and learning from each other, not only about the work they are doing but also about the avenues of transforming systems within which they operate; something, which civil society organizations in the counterterrorism space have yet to identify.

A lot still needs to be done by Member States, civil society and intergovernmental bodies to unite in their ways to counter terrorism. However, this should not be based on changing responses; it should start with changing a vision and the structure that leads the process. By trying to invade this structure either with civil society engagement or with gender as an entry point, we all face the dilemma of being co-opted in militarised and oppressive ways to counterterrorism.

Marina Kumskova holds a Master’s Degree in Human Rights from Columbia University and has previously worked for several non-profit and academic research centres, where she conducted in-depth human rights analysis across the security spectrum. Currently, she works as a Women, Peace and Security Programme Associate at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and supports the Center for Progressive Security, an innovative project for strengthening legal jurisprudence and good practice exchange on women’s rights in counterterrorism. 

Photo Credit: Naoyuki Yamagishi

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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