2018 Review of the UN High-Level Conference on Counterterrorism


In 2000, WILPF was part of the feminist movement leadership that successfully pushed for the recognition that women were relevant to international peace and security through the creation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.

Today, new arenas of security have emerged, especially around preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism.

As part of our work for peace, freedom and gender justice, WILPF monitored the first ever United Nations High-level Conference on Counterterrorism held 28-29 June 2018 in order to identify how to address militarised challenges and strengthen strategic action for prevention, justice and peace. The theme of the meeting was: “Strengthening international cooperation to combat the evolving threat of terrorism”.

Current context on preventing and countering terrorism

Today, nation states are facing increasing challenges to ensuring human rights and human security, and non-state actors are playing an increasingly important role. At the same time, a climate of fear is putting human rights under attack, including by supporting “blank check” expansions of surveillance and militarised interventions in the name of national security.

Although the what “counterterrorism” means remains contested, this arena has become a major focus of discussion. After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1373, which established a Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) to “enhance state legal and institutional ability to counter terrorist activities.” Since that time, a variety of different entities have emerged to address the issue, and a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy has also been launched.

Feminist pacifists have been vocal in decrying the militarisation of the security agenda through counterterrorism initiatives, and demanded for greater shift to prevention, including by creating enabling environments for women’s rights and gender justice. Some of these concerns have had impact, especially around action to “prevent” (not just “counter”) violent extremism, and also on to create “conditions conducive” to peace and security (rather than just militarised responses).

However, the women’s movement and social justice movements more broadly have not had consensus on engaging on on issues of counterterrorism. On one hand, there is a clear need to include women and a gender perspective in addressing (frequently gender-blind) counterterrorism action. However, on the other, there is a clear risk risk of being co-opted into the increasingly militarised response to terrorism and insecurity.  

These tensions have brought into even greater relief this year, with the release of the February 2018 report by Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism, Ms. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin: This report raised an alarm that gender-blind counterterrorism regulation may support perpetual crises and emergency practices which undermine human rights and and fundamental freedoms.

What happened at the High Level Conference on Counterterrorism?

The High Level Conference on Counterterrorism brought together heads of Member States’ counterterrorism agencies, regional entities, and -- to a limited extent --- civil society organisations, to strengthen the international community’s counterterrorism efforts. This took place in line with the recently adopted Review of the Global Counterterrorism Strategy, which addresses prevention, capacity building, human rights and rule of law around counterterrorism, and invites Member States to work with women’s groups and integrate a gender analysis.

Opening of High-level Conference of Heads of Counter-Terrorism Agencies of Member States. (Photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

The outcome of this year’s counterterrorism review demonstrates stagnation on advancing gender perspective and ensuring human rights-focused approaches. In Resolution A/RES/70/291, references to the inclusion of women remained unchanged since 2016. This suggests a patriarchal mindset which assumes that gender is being seen as non-essential, and provides operational obstacles to including women and addressing gender within counterterrorism work.

Only a marginal number of speakers referenced the role of women as important actors on local and regional levels at the High-Level Conference either. For example, the representative of New Zealand suggested that UNSCR1325 National Action Plan can serve as a mechanism to ensure women’s space in decision-making on peace and security matters, including around issues of terrorism.

Civil society were at the forefront of demanding inclusion of women and a gender perspective in the discussions. As pointed out by Sanam Anderlini of International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), women’s organisations have a unique understanding that can shape counterterrorism policies constructively. Related research shows that the presence of women in national security institutions and the work of women’s organisations on the ground has demonstrated a positive impact on counterterrorism efforts. Women as active participants in counterterrorism are less likely to compromise on gender equality when it comes to developing counterterrorism strategies. In addition, terrorism is not gender-blind: gender roles and gender inequality can be used by extremist groups such as Boko Haram in their recruitment strategies, and they use gender-based violence as a weapon of terror and control.

Sanam Anderlini of International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) addresses the United Nations Conference on CounterTerrorism (Photo: UN)

Civil society also was at the forefront of raising concerns with the impact of the counterterrorism agenda on shrinking civil society space. Several civil society representatives, including Human Security Collective and Mercy Corps, pointed out that terrorists capitalise on such oppressive policies to gain support.

Wide view of the General Assembly Hall as Vladimir Voronkov (on screens), Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, addresses the opening of the High-level Conference on Counter-Terrorism. (Photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

Unfortunately, however, Member States discussions were largely gender blind. States predominantly focused on the role of development as the key milestone of prevention, focusing on youth as an “at-risk” group, and supported militarised and human rights-restrictive approaches to counterterrorism.

WILPF remains concerned with how discussions supported hyper-masculinised vision of counterterrorism that can co-opt women and fail to deliver on security that works for women. Governments have legitimised the use of militarised force against terrorist actors,  citing terrorism as an existential threat with high costs for civilians including women. This is similar to government justification of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against both state violence and non-state terrorist acts. Both rely on stories where “real men” need to use “just violence” to create security. But this ignores how violence creates violence, and how these tropes reproduce unequal and dependent relationships, and cycles of violence from the personal to international levels.

WILPF is also concerned that when women or gender was discussed, the participation of women in national security was too often instrumentalised. So-called “inclusive” strategies can be used to justify the use of force. This is not acceptable. Every mechanism discussed during the Conference -- from counter terrorism financing, to security sector reform, to increased surveillance and border control -- affect women and women’s organisations in particular ways. For example, the ways in which counter terrorism financing rules have been designed and implemented increase risks for women’s rights organisations and and undermine their important and courageous work for peace.

In this context, integrating gender analysis of power about root causes of conflict and preventing militarised security response is of utmost importance.

What is next?

In any efforts to counter terrorism, women and a gender perspective must be central to ensure holistic action, protect women’s participation and rights, and prevent increasing risks for local women. As civil society representatives on the margins of the conference stated: “Without a gender analysis of discrimination, violence, and lack of access to resources in relation to women and to different groups within societies, efforts to counter terrorism cannot be effective.”

However, this is only one part of the puzzle.

Counterterrorism cannot be treated as an opportunity for a “free pass” that enables militarised interventions without regard for human rights. Such initiatives must recognise that budgets for security are increasing, while budgets for gender equality and human rights are being cut. There must be consistent action to strengthen conditions conducive for women’s human rights and taking action to #MoveTheMoney away from militarised crisis response and towards gender equitable human rights and sustainable peace.

A holistic  Women, Peace and Security Agenda approach to countering terrorism demands that addressing the problem of terrorism and violent extremism does not legitimise promote perpetual crises. Nonviolence and justice for women’s human rights must be the first priority strategy.

Join the debate!

Share your thoughts!