Security and Foreign Policy

Turning A Speech Act Into Action: Counterterrorism at UNGA73

Alexandra Rojas and Marina Kumskova discuss the ways in which a “speech act” at the 73rd Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly further perpetuates violence and instability in the world by presenting terrorism as the only threat that is nearly existential and requires an immediate militarized response.


The 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA73) recently convened in New York with the annual General Debate, a space for Member States to discuss their priorities and gain support for specific actions.

Nearly every statement by the Member States’ representatives at UNGA73 discussed terrorism and violent extremism as the most serious threats faced by the world. One after another, women and men in the highest positions in their respective governments reiterated how urgent and swift the response to the threat should be. Providing a connection between dictators and terrorists, Theresa May of the United Kingdom stated that “for when barbarous acts and aggression go unchecked – dictators and terrorists are emboldened.” Reiterating the importance of unity in response to the most urgent survival problems, Erna Solberg of Norway stated that her country is standing up against violent extremism and terrorism, not in response to individual incidents, but as long as there is a long-term foreign policy commitment.” Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh restated in her speech that no country in the world shall allow its territory “to be used for any terrorist acts against or any activity detrimental to the interest of our neighbors.”

What unites all of these statements is something the Copenhagen School of Securitization calls a “speech act.” Through this process, terrorism is presented to the audience as an issue that poses an existential threat to the worlds collective identity as well as to “the dignity and security of [innocent] human beings everywhere.” Without having an in-depth understanding of terrorism, a phenomenon with no definition and intrinsically negative connotations, regular citizens tend to accept terrorism as an existential threat, legitimizing the use of militarized force, and “tough justice” for everyone who may be involved. Being justified by the majority, military action further typifies gender identities and responsibilities, replaying the traditional understanding of nationalism, war, and masculinity.

Counterterrorism measures, even those that do not involve the use of weapons, are all infused by the same rhetoric. Measures to counterterrorism financing, increased surveillance, and community engagement strategies affect women and womens organizations disproportionately. The ways in which countering terrorism financing rules have been designed and implemented take little account of women’s perspectives and the specific features of women’s rights organizations and the environments in which they operate.

At the same time, answering violence with violence only creates more violence. These strategies can create more human rights violations to the lives of innocent people.

Only a few voices at the UNGA73 discussed how women’s rights-irrelevant counterterrorism strategies impact the situation of women. Terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram use sexual and gender-based violence to increase their influence. ISIS also recruits women into functions associated with reproduction and consolidating territorial gains. As addressed by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, the ideology of ISIS is a gendered ideology and, while applying speech act to maintain the presumption of traditional threat, it will continue to be addressed with traditional means, which often ignores the ways in which gender can be used as a tool to advance violence.

As called by civil society in July 2017, without a gender analysis of discrimination, violence, and the lack of access to resources in relation to women and to different groups within societies, efforts to counter terrorism cannot be effective. And some impact of this action has already been accomplished. The UN Office of Counterterrorism started to brainstorm the idea of opening a civil society unit and ways in which its gender expertise can be enriched.

However, the megaphone and the capacity for civil society to develop an impactful speech act, which will advance the transformation of thinking and action within the international community, is very small.

Sadly, UNGA73 demonstrated that the negative and militarized discourse goes on and gains power. It puts counterterrorism at the top of the world military industrial complex and makes it a necessary part of survival. Counterterrorism strategies evolve in the same direction of responding to violence with violence.

It is often ignored that the repercussions of these violations extend beyond endangering women, as the most “vulnerable.” It is also not a matter of humanitarian crisis. Ultimately, the support for gender-blind counterterrorism strategies does not minimize stress. Instead, persistent disregard for the value of inclusive decision-making that takes into consideration local contexts further strengthens insecurity within communities and perpetuates violence and conflict.

Marina Kumskova holds a Master’s Degree in Human Rights from Columbia University and has previously worked for several non-profit and academic research centers, where she conducted in-depth human rights analysis across the security spectrum. Currently, she works as the Women, Peace and Security Program 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.

Alexandra Rojas is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information. She teaches classes related to professional development in virtual business environments. She previously had a communications fellowship with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Alexandra serves as the Director for Communication and Outreach for the Center for Progressive Security.

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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