Fionnuala Ní Aoláin's remarks on Civil Society Empowerment and Women, Peace and Security

PSRP researcher Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (TJI, Ulster University, UN Special Rapporteur for Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights) UN Special Rapporteur for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights While Countering Terrorism spoke at to the UN General Assembly and led a discussion on ‘Civil Society Empowerment and Women, Peace and Security’ at the invitation of the Permanent Missions of Ireland, Colombia and Jordan, on the occasion of the annual Security Council Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security, on Friday 27 October 2017.

Her UN General Assembly presentation is available online.

Below are her remarks at the side event.

Excellencies, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am pleased to have this opportunity to address this gathering and to acknowledge the wider work being undertaken by the governments of Ireland, Colombia and Jordan in advancing the Women Peace and Security Agenda.

As the newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism I have only recently set out my preliminary priorities for the mandate.  It is fitting that two of those priorities namely, the advancement of greater normative attention to the gendered dimensions of terrorism and counter-terrorism and advancing the rights and protection of civil society in parallel with the work that is done to regulate, counter and prevent terrorism echo the focus of this gathering today.

I take the view that an engaged, supported, independent and robust civil society is critical in the context of counter-terrorism.  Civil society plays an integral part of countering violent extremism, preventing extremism and bringing the response to terrorism into balance with the broader human rights and international law obligations of states.  It seems obvious to say that healthy civil society is an indicator of the well-being of individuals and contributes to the functionality and dignity focused capacities of societies all around the globe.  In two of the countries supporting this side event today – Colombia and Northern Ireland – civil society organizations have been at the heart of supporting, enabling and embedding peace agreements and bringing an end to the cycles of violence that have plagued our respective societies.

Civil society organizations give voice to the marginalized and vulnerable, including victims of terrorism, and provide a constructive route to accountability and transparency in counter-terrorism work.  Civil society is also an essential corner-stone in engaging women and girls in civic discourse, public life and enabling the full capacities of women and girls to be realized.  As we know statistically, women’s engagement in political life in many states has been historically limited, but women’s engagement in civil society activism has been sustained and important across the globe.  In acknowledging the value of civil society broadly defined, to the advancement of the rights of women and girls, we are increasingly aware of the important role women play as civil society actors in the context of counter-terrorism, conflict and countering violent extremism.

We also know that civil society has a critical role to play in activism, education, research, oversight and partnership with governments in the context of counter-terrorism.  Women are an essential part of that partnership and attention to the presence, participation and voice of women and girls in civil society is a natural extension of UNSCR’s 1325 emphasis on participation for women and girls.  While the formal emphasis of implementing 1325 has been (rightly so) on the inclusion of women in formal peace negotiations, mediation and other war and peace related negotiations, it is time we paid attention to the equal and necessary representation of women in civil society spaces that are essential to the advancement of security.

It is also vital that civil society play a more fulsome role in the counter-terrorism architecture of the United Nations, and that we integrate a civil society voice to our deliberations as part of the “all of the UN” approach to countering terrorism.  There are institutional spaces to create, voices to listen to, and opportunities to engage greater transparency in UN counter-terrorism spaces.  UNSCR 2242 recognizes that women are a vital voice to include in the counter-terrorism, CVE and PVE arenas, but in doing so we need to be committed to meaningful inclusion and not merely window dressing or commodification of women’s presence to securitize women themselves as opposed to making women and men both more secure.

It is also important to underscore that civil society’s independence is critical to its value and voice. However, as many of us are aware, civil society space is shrinking and under sustained pressure in many parts of the world. Human Rights defenders are in the frontlines of this shrinking space, being targeted by both state and non-state actors alike.  Women human rights’ defenders are at particular risk. AWID has tracked the vulnerability and loss of women human rights defenders in recent years.[1] They include LGBTQI activists, indigenous women, land rights activists, sex worker activists, women’s rights activists, journalists, lawyers, political activists, economists, artists and writers.  The targeting of civil society actors on the basis of national security, as well as the targeting of civil society actors by violent non-state actors rightly concerns us all.  This bi-lateral squeeze is happening globally and simultaneously, and has significant consequences for the broader efficacy of peace and security efforts, as well as limiting the full effectiveness of counter-terrorism efforts.

Taking seriously the notion that in order to prevent violence we engage “all of society” — civil society is a crucial partner in the counter-terrorism realm. Even as they criticize exercising the right to freedom of speech, opinion and assembly, civil society organizations are doing the necessary work of accountability and transparency. I remain deeply concerned that civil society groups and activists are being targeted by national security laws and administrative procedures for engaging in legitimate activities protected by the international human rights law. The harassment, suppression, detention and killing of civil society activists, lawyers and, human rights defenders many of them women cannot be accepted and legitimized by a reliance on national security doctrines or excuses. The engagement of civil society presents positive opportunities for the implementation of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, across its four pillars. Listening to civil society, to grassroots activists, to those closest to the violence and those most capable of telling us what terrorism means for ordinary people is essential.  Listening to mothers who have lost their children, girls who have been sexually violated when rape is used as a method and means of terrorism, grandmothers who have lost their homes, and generations of women who have been deprived of access to education, health and basic sustenance by extremist and misogynistic groups is essential.

We also need to be prepared to listen carefully to what harms counter-productive responses by the state really do in practice – what human rights violations are committed in response to terrorism, and how to do better by listening and responding to those whose lives are most affected every day by the intersection between terrorist actions and counter-terrorism responses.  For women this means paying attention to the gendered effects of counter-terrorism practices such as extended detention (leaving female headed households in many societies where the capacity to navigate as a women is limited by law and social norms), the effects of indiscriminate application of terrorist financing rules that leave women without access to funds to pay for family needs and day to day necessities, and the harms of sexual violence and gender-based violence experienced by female detainees in custody. Close attention to women’s voices, primarily shared through civil society space, ultimately strengthens our capacity to respond to terrorism, deepens our understand of its harms and enables us to address the root causes of extremism and indiscriminate violence.

As Special Rapporteur, I have made a clear commitment to mainstreaming gender as a central plank of my work and approach.  It is extraordinarily gratifying to have the leadership of key states committed to similar work and similar values. All of us know, that in the counter-terrorism realm this commitment is relatively new.  The Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) held its first open session in 2015 briefing member states on the role of women in countering terrorism and violent extremism. More recently broader efforts have been made by CTED to link the Security Council’s work, counter-terrorism and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. This commitment finds further expressions in UNSR 2242 highlighting the impact of extremism on women’s lives through displacement, as well as direct and indirect violence. Gendering counter-terrorism is no longer a marginal activity, not least because we recognize that the efficacy of counter-terrorism norms, as well as a meaningful approach to countering violent extremism inextricably requires taking account of gender.

For all of us, I also affirm the necessity of measuring the human rights compliance of counter-terrorism laws and administrative practices through any impact on the enjoyment of women’s rights.  Addressing women’s security in the context of terrorism and counter-terrorism demands that we pay particular attention to the disparate impact on women because of their social, economic and political status in society. Counter-terrorism laws and practice that further rarefy gender disparities, undermine the dignity and equality of women and girls, and fail to acknowledge women’s particular vulnerabilities in conflict and violent settings should be a suspect category for us all. Despite our focus today on women, peace and security it still behoves us to pay particular attention to men, recognizing that monitoring the gendered effects of counter-terrorism is not just about “adding women and stirring” but expressly means paying attention to men. This involves understanding male vulnerability as well as the drivers to violence and extremism that are connected to masculinity practices and the validation of male status and highly stratified male roles. I do not suggest in any of the countries represented here today that this is a simple task, nor that substantial barriers exist.  But without this nuance and complexity in understanding the challenges we face in gendering security from armed conflict, to civil wars, to situations involving terrorism we will fundamentally address the drivers that produce and enable terrorism and insecurity across the globe.

In all of these contexts we have much work to do.  This can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task.  And yet I am extraordinarily optimistic.  The WPS agenda itself if cause for optimism despite its challenges.  We have fundamentally changed the terms of the conversation and this is a sizeable achievement on its own terms.  We have many more allies and alliances on this issue that many of us who spent years working in situations of strife, for myself in Belfast Northern Ireland, could have dreamed would be possible decades ago.  So, I commend Ireland, Jordan and Colombia for their leadership and as SR for Counter-Terrorism I look forward to productive and sustained conversation and action together in the years ahead.