(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the ongoing 7th Review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.)

Twenty years after 9/11, the upcoming 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September is sure to be a time for reflection on U.N. and global efforts to counter terrorism and prevent the spread of violent extremism. However, the real story can already be gleaned from the recent negotiations and review of the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (Strategy). First adopted by consensus in 2006, the Strategy was significant for its comprehensive approach to countering terrorism, including a focus on addressing the conditions conducive to its spread and centering human rights in responses to it. The seventh review resolution, adopted by the General Assembly on June 30, shows both the progress that has been made since 2001 and reveals the many challenges that still lay ahead.

Outside of the Security Council, the review of the Strategy is one of the few times where counterterrorism and preventing violent extremism (PVE) discussions take center stage at the U.N., involving its full membership. The agenda is not impervious to the broader dynamics of deepening global polarization, with divergent positions on issues related to the repatriation of foreign fighters and their families, the shrinking of civic space, the promotion and protection of human rights and gender considerations, and how the U.N. system’s architecture can support member States in realizing their counterterrorism efforts. The adoption of the seventh review resolution demonstrates a commitment to consensus, but a closer inspection reveals significant cracks in the global approach.

Counterterrorism efforts at the Security Council, the General Assembly, and within the Secretariat have enjoyed broad political support, in part because of the diplomatic ambiguity achieved by the continued absence of an international definition of terrorism. Consensus regarding the Strategy and its subsequent reviews rest on this ambivalence, as any efforts to bring further conceptual clarity by defining terrorism and violent extremism have been unsuccessful. In the absence of a definition, human rights proponents argued that proposals to incorporate references to “new” threats of terrorism during the seventh review, such as from the “far-right,” were over-broad and would unleash serious harms for civil society and human rights defenders in certain national contexts.

Prior to the Strategy’s adoption in 2006, human rights were largely positioned as a consideration that must be balanced against security imperatives. In an important departure from this zero-sum approach, the Strategy affirmed that respect for human rights and the rule of law is the necessary foundation that is mutually reinforcing and complementary to counterterrorism efforts. Though it took 15 years, the seventh review bolstered this statement by explicitly naming the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and other human rights mechanisms as key partners  and affirms the absolute prohibition of torture. On the other hand, mingled into the resolution are troubling echoes of efforts to weaken the application of human rights in counterterrorism as seen in the Human Rights Council over the last years. Ultimately, the resolution falls short of instituting the kind of structural changes that are needed. For example, despite promising draft text in earlier versions, the review is silent on the proposal to create an independent and impartial oversight mechanism for U.N. activities, long called for by advocates, and significantly walked back efforts to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the Strategy.

The reality for most civil society organizations, most notably human rights defenders and women- and youth-led organizations, is that measures to counter terrorism and its financing are misused or abused to negatively impact their work and shrink civic space. The seventh review process saw the mobilization of a wider array of civil society organizations representing diverse perspectives and interests through coordinated engagements and messaging.  The co-facilitators–the Permanent Representatives of Oman and Spain– and other member States facilitated opportunities for civil society partners to contribute to the process. This is an important shift in practice that must be formalized and further expanded to include diverse representation. It is incumbent on the U.N. system to follow other multilateral entities and champion their participation, promotion, and protection much more actively and loudly than we have seen to date. Importantly, the resolution refers to the U.N. Guidance Note on the Protection and Promotion of Civic Space prepared pursuant to the secretary-general’s Call to Action for Human Rights, which can now be used to establish a benchmark for U.N. engagement with civil society in its counterterrorism efforts.

The divergent views on what approach the U.N. should take in countering terrorism and PVE, and how it should be equipped to deliver, were also on full display in the review. The last several years have seen an ever-expanding presence of the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), with sustained increases in staffing, extrabudgetary resources, and program and liaison offices. Some member States and representatives of the Office itself argue that UNOCT should be provided more influence and regular budget resources to meet the demands put upon it. Others argue that the Office has ballooned far beyond what is needed and is creating distorting effects across the U.N. system rather than fully leveraging its U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact partners, a view we share.

Most of UNOCT’s resources are devoted to headquarters-based program implementation rather than policy leadership and coordination, often placing it in direct competition with other U.N. agencies that have longstanding technical assistance track records and are already active across the globe. It is also highly dependent on a handful of donors, with 76 percent of its funding coming from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, leading some commentators to refer to a “pay to play” nature where a select number of member states influence the Office’s policy priorities, with little oversight and accountability. More generally, U.N. counterterrorism and PVE efforts have largely developed outside of the organization’s core pillars of peace and security, development, and human rights, and are not fully integrated into the secretary-general’s reforms and prevention agenda that seek to decentralize decision making and ensure a bottom-up, “field-driven” approach, making use of the many resources and Global Compact partners already in place.

On these sticky issues, consensus could not be reached during the seventh review, and member States deferred by asking the secretary-general to provide his assessment on the appropriate funding of UNOCT (including budgetary recommendations and the potential of a grantmaking mandate) and on the need to monitor and enhance the rule of law, human rights, and gender dimensions across U.N. counterterrorism efforts. Furthermore, they requested UNOCT to assess the possibility of setting up mechanisms to comprehensively assess and report on the actual implementation of the Strategy – a much needed framework, as the current system of gathering limited self-assessments by states and, for the first time during the seventh review, civil society contributions is grossly insufficient. This however means that these pertinent issues will largely be addressed within the U.N. system, rather than as part of more transparent and accessible discussions.

The result of all this is an unwieldy review document that has grown exponentially every two years, offering heavily negotiated language that is at times contradictory, open to interpretation from a variety of different and often opposing viewpoints, and close to impossible to comprehend let alone operationalize by frontline practitioners. Rather than waiting another two years for the eighth review, member States and civil society should use the interim period to hold the secretary-general and UNOCT’s feet to the fire as they assess appropriate responses to some of the critical questions that have been put to them, including the funding, monitoring, and evaluation of the U.N.’s counterterrorism efforts. They should also discuss ways to improve the Strategy review and negotiation process and streamline and optimize the outcome document, including by further opening the process to external, nongovernmental experts and a diversity of voices. Open debate and discourse can and does affect change. The shift in national policies relating to the repatriation of women and children in a number of countries coincided with the review negotiations, suggesting that the Strategy and its reviews do retain some normative power at the international level.

Image: General Assembly Holds High-level Meeting to Commemorate 75th Anniversary of United Nations on 21 September 2020. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.