Global Study on the Impact of Counter-Terrorism on Civil Society & Civic Space

A Resource by the UNSR  on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental

Freedoms while Countering Terrorism

Published: July 2023

Civil society organizations and UN human rights mechanisms have consistently conveyed concerns about the misuse of counterterrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) measures. Despite this, such issues have often been sidelined within counterterrorism and security discussions. Prior instances of abuse have been treated as isolated incidents, framed as a ‘bad apple’ problem rather than indicative of systemic flaws associated with counterterrorism measures and their human rights implications for civil society. The Global Study rebuts this presumption, describing the systematic nature of harm to civil society and civic space done in the name of counterterrorism and recommending ways to mitigate these harms.

Photo credit Corina Rainer via Unsplash

Learn more about the issue and explore INCL’s analyses on Counterterrorism and Security here.

The Global Study is a crucial resource that synthesizes extensive research and evidence regarding the intersection of counterterrorism and P/CVE practices with civil society and civic space. The Study is rooted in acknowledging the immense benefits of an active, diverse, functional, and vibrant civil society. Furthermore, societies where civil society is absent, intimidated, suppressed, or unable to flourish are inherently weaker, less participatory, and thus susceptible to the conditions conducive to terrorism and violence. 

The Study highlights the resilience, capacity, and innovation of civil society organizations (CSOs) despite the immense pressures they face. The Study took a participatory approach, including 13 civil society consultations across regions, 108 written inputs (76 from civil society), and two civil society surveys. Additionally, the Study demonstrates a commitment to mainstream gender equality and women’s rights from its inception. 

The Study was written and presented by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, with Megan L. Manion and Alyssa T. Yamamoto. 

Learn more about the Global Study here or download the full report. 

Goals of the Global Study

  • To amplify the far-reaching and diverse evidence and findings of local, national, regional, and international civil society organizations, United Nations (UN) entities, Member States, and other sources on the impacts of counter-terrorism and P/CVE measures on civil society and civic space— and link them together into a comprehensive evidence base;
  • To identify the challenges as well as progress made on the meaningful participation and leadership of civil society in efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism at the local, national, regional, and international levels; and
  • To provide insights and recommendations to Member States, the UN, and other stakeholders on how counter-terrorism and P/CVE programming and practice can integrate stronger human rights due diligence safeguards to foster participatory, inclusive, and vibrant civic space in compliance with international law and in direct response to the concrete challenges faced by civil society today

Global Study Findings

The Study documents restrictions on civic space worldwide and finds they are directly linked to the regulatory and institutional practices of counterterrorism and P/CVE. It presents the following findings regarding the conditions, features, and consequences of such systemic misuse: 

  • Civil society experiences complex and compounding misuse of counterterrorism and P/CVE measures and practices within an expanding security architecture. The Global Study finds a ‘playbook’ of abuses, including judicial harassment, administrative measures, financing restrictions, listings, sanctions, and weaponization of new technologies like spyware and drones. Respondents rarely experience singular, isolated measures; the Study emphasizes the multi-dimensional consequences of a sequential or simultaneous application of counterterrorism and P/CVE measures, amplifying human rights violations.
  • The Study finds that the multiplicity of measures described are consistent and constant. Moreover, as indicated throughout the Study, certain features are regionally concentrated and influenced by partnerships, donor relations, and multilateral assistance. Historical exceptional power regimes, such as martial law and colonialism, contribute to these features.
  • The Study finds that when States deploy counterterrorism or P/CVE measures, they enter a realm of exceptionality where human rights deficits pervade, and the normal rules of due process and procedural protections generally do not apply, creating a host of vulnerabilities to further and layered human rights violations. Practices include secret evidence, surveillance, limited access to legal representation, extended detention, exceptional courts, and increased prison sentences, often accompanied by impunity and reprisals.
  • Counterterrorism and P/CVE misuse have pervasive and evidenced discriminatory aspects, specifically with religious, ethnic, and cultural minorities, women, girls, LGBT, and gender-diverse persons, indigenous communities, and historically discriminated groups targeted. In many countries, a presumption of discrimination arises in implementing national counterterrorism and P/CVE policies.
  • The widespread abuse of counterterrorism and P/CVE measures have direct consequences for civil society actors’ derogable and nonderogable rights. The Study finds that monitoring and evaluation, as well as independent oversight of human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of countering terrorism and/or (violent) extremism remain limited.

The above is adapted from the Studys executive summary.