June 19, 2023
IntelBrief: UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy to be Adopted During UN “CT Week”
This week the United Nations General Assembly will adopt a resolution on the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy (GCTS), a comprehensive framework document that is intended to shape the policies and activities not only of individual states, but also a myriad of UN bodies. The resolution is scheduled for adoption following a UN High-Level conference on counterterrorism on Monday and Tuesday and a series of events hosted by governments, civil society, and other international organizations as part of a UN “CT Week.” The GCTS was originally adopted by consensus (with no dissent) in 2006 and was notable for bringing together four critical strands of efforts into one comprehensive strategy: prevention (with a focus on addressing underlying causes, or “conditions conducive to terrorism”); legal, criminal justice measures, anti-terrorism financing, and border management; counterterrorism capacity-building for states; and the promotion and protection of human rights. It was the combination of these four pillars, reflective of strategies adopted in the United Kingdom and several European states, rather than a singular focus on kinetic counterterrorism efforts, that made the GCTS an important normative framework for the international community.
Every two years (with one exception due to the COVID-19 pandemic), states review the GCTS and adopt a resolution that aims to highlight current counterterrorism challenges and dynamics and offer UN entities and states an updated “roadmap” for action. The evolution of Islamic State, the challenges associated with foreign terrorist fighters, including prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration strategies, the advent of emerging technologies (including drones), and the increased focus on gender, all shaped deliberations on reviewing the GCTS in past years. Although a nonbinding resolution, beyond the normative function, the GCTS can create a mandate for action, inform resource allocations, and create a basis for dialogue between the UN, counterterrorism practitioners, and government officials.
For many diplomats, it is the review process and negotiations, more than the outcome, that serves to offer opportunities to shape the international discourse on counterterrorism. Over the past decade, the reviews have increasingly focused on protection of human rights and civil society, integrating gender as a cross-cutting issue, and the impacts of inequalities, including gender, in creating a hospitable environment for terrorism and violent extremism. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Western states have often championed these developments and called for greater engagement with civil society actors and communities most directly affected by terrorism and counterterrorism efforts. Other regions have often prioritized a focus on narrower security concerns or on development and capacity-building priorities. Fierce debates have often raged on many of these elements and, unsurprisingly, geopolitical fissures have at times loomed large over negotiations.
This eighth review of the GCTS, co-led by Canada and Tunisia (each review has been led by one or two states as ‘facilitators’) has been overshadowed in large part by the war in Ukraine, leaving many diplomats keen on a “technical rollover” that doesn’t warrant reopening the text for negotiation but includes only minor updates to dates, titles, or events, for example. Nonetheless this review has highlighted a few areas of increased focus: far-right violence (or acts motivated by xenophobia, racism, intolerance, or on the basis of religion or belief, XRIRIB, in UN parlance); disinformation and emerging technologies; increased civil society engagement and drones. While the current international security environment and incidents where states have misused counterterrorism legislation to suppress dissent, target opponents, and shrink civic space raises questions about the extent to which states abide by these kinds of frameworks – or even their more binding treaty obligations – the precedent of adoption by consensus has been an important normative statement and created a common framework for extensive international capacity-building, technical assistance, policy development and legal and political cooperation on counterterrorism. However, to date there has been no strategic assessment from the UN on the impacts of the GCTS – or indeed, its wider counterterrorism activities (including the activities of Security Council bodies). Following the precedent set during the adoption of the GCTS in 2006, every review resolution has been adopted by consensus, setting up an important common norm on terrorism-related issues.
In addition to the thematic counterterrorism issues, the GCTS also addresses the UN’s own counterterrorism architecture, which to many appears to be a Byzantine network of entities spanning the UN Security Council, which has its own counterterrorism bodies, such as the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), and the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), tasked with coordinating nearly forty UN bodies on counterterrorism issues. In Vienna, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has its Terrorism Prevention Branch. The proliferation of bodies and activities has generated debate about the impacts and effectiveness of UN counterterrorism efforts, and whether they deliver a suitable return on investments. The response, of course, often varies among different stakeholders, including states, communities, and civil society organizations, or UN bodies, either at Headquarters or the many field missions affected by this work. The UN is confronting numerous global challenges, from skyrocketing humanitarian needs to climate crises, conflict, and fragility. As terrorist threats move from the Levant to the Sahel, the confluence of many of these threats in the same places, and the fact they serve to amplify one another, calls for a more integrated approach encompassing conflict prevention and mitigation, development, and peace and security. As the UN Secretary-General and his teams deliberate on the future of UN peace operations and a New Agenda for Peace, for example, it will be important to ensure that efforts like the GCTS review can make a meaningful and impactful contribution to strengthening the UN’s added value. Following the successful conclusion of the negotiations, states are scheduled to adopt the GCTS review resolution in the UN General Assembly later this week.