Reforming the global counter-terrorism architecture 20 years on from 9/11

6 September 2021

This week is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, a horrendous event which led to a fundamental shift in the global response to terrorism. In the days and weeks after the attacks, states drafted and agreed UN Security Council Resolution 1373, which laid the foundations for the current global counter-terrorism architecture. 

To mark this anniversary, Bond held an event, Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism: The next 20 years, which looked at the profound and damaging impact this architecture continues to have on civil society working in the fields of humanitarian response, development and peacebuilding, and what needs to change over the next 20 years. 

More harm than good

Existing global counter-terrorism frameworks have done more harm than good. Rather than ensuring safety and security for all, they have supported the expansion of authoritarian policies and practices, justified crackdowns on political opponents and civil society, pathologized and criminalised of young people, blocked the provision of vital humanitarian assistance, and undermined peace and conflict resolution efforts. 

The global counter-terrorism architecture is made up on hundreds of institutions across the UN and beyond, such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF) and the Global Internet Forum to Counter-Terrorism (GIFCT). 

Most of these norm-setting bodies were established without any representation from civil society and human rights actors. s. So when civil society or human rights groups are brought into conversations, it is often late in the day and their presence is seen by many participating states as a nuisance. The result is that many of the rules created have had severe, unintended consequences for civil society and human rights groups, though some would contest just how unintentional they really are. 

Counter-terrorism frameworks block humanitarian assistance 

One such impact is a phenomenon known as bank de-risking or financial exclusion, where banks either refuse to provide financial services to civil society organisations or block and delay payments. In 2002, FATF established a norm (known as Recommendation 8) which required states to act to protect non-profit organisations from terrorist financing abuse, as they are considered to be particularly vulnerable to this risk. This led many states and financial institutions to take an extremely risk-averse approach, which resulted in widespread de-risking. 

While this recommendation was revised in 2015 following sustained pushback from a coalition of civil society actors, the phenomenon continues to impact non-profits globally. One humanitarian agency speaking at our event told participants how in a single year, 40% of their payments from the UK to overseas had been queried, leading to delays in delivering humanitarian and development assistance of 3-12 weeks, and 4% of their payments had been blocked. This affected up to 3.7 million people living in some of the poorest countries in the world. 

Attacks on civil society

A lack of global agreement on the definition of terrorism and a lack of human rights oversight and clear accountability mechanisms has enabled governments to use the language of terrorism to supress their political opponents and restrict civil society. Participants at our event heard moving testimony from the Philippines of how politicians, activists and even peacebuilders are systematically labelled as terrorists, enabling the state to use its security force to oppress these individuals and the communities they come from. 

They also heard how the counter-terrorism frameworks are being expanded into the digital sphere, as online surveillance and spyware technologies such as Pegasus are used to monitor human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents under the guise of countering terrorism. 

Civil society is pushing back

Speakers agreed that we are at a critical juncture, and reform of the global counter-terrorism architecture is urgently needed. 

Civil society are already pushing back through coalitions and networks such as the Global NPO Coalition on FATF, which successfully campaigned for the revision of Recommendation 8 in 2015. Earlier this year, an informal network of civil society organisations, including Article 19, Saferworld and the European Centre for Non-Profit Law, secured important wins during the renegotiation of the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy. 

There has also been significant progress at the national level in countries like Nigeria, where civil society has pushed the government to pursue a risk based rather than a pre-emptive approach to counter-terrorism and non-profits. The government will conduct a risk assessment later this year, which will lay the foundations for a new national counter-terrorism architecture that includes civil society. 

Civil society has a key role in holding states to account, conducting research on how global counter-terrorism frameworks work and gathering evidence of their impact on human rights, development, humanitarian response and peacebuilding. Yet the coalitions and networks driving much needed reforms are often under-funded and poorly resourced. 

The next 20 years

Recent events in Afghanistan, the birthplace of so many of the institutional structures and normative frameworks established to fight terrorism, demonstrate that this is not just a legacy issue, but something that continues to affect us today. 

The next 20 years can and must be different if we are to protect human rights and realise development and humanitarian outcomes. This will only happen if civil society is able to claim a seat at the table and break open the human rights and civil society free spaces that make up the global counter-terrorism architecture. To do this they need support from our allies and financial backing. 

Find out more about how you can get involved by joining the Bond Sanctions and Counter-Terrorism, Civic Space or Conflict Policy groups who organised this event. 
 

About the author

Rowan Popplewell
Bond

Rowan is Bond's policy manager focusing on civic space and the operating environment. She supports organisations from across the development and environment sector to respond to restrictions on advocacy and campaigning in the UK.