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Introductory remarks of Ilze Brands Kehris
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights


Virtual Counter Terrorism Week 2020

Webinar IV: Protecting and Promoting Human Rights as a Cornerstone for Building Resilience against Terrorism

9 July 2020

Human rights are already placed at the center of the global counter-terrorism strategy – thanks to the effort of many of you – and we agree that the full respect for all human rights is a pre-requisite to prevent terrorism.  However, our progress still falls far short of our ambitions and we are here to share our views on what is achieved, and what challenges we still have to tackle.

In these times of crisis, it is critically important to remind ourselves of the centrality of human rights to State and multilateral action. The focus in this conference on how to adapt our work to a COVID-19 environment is important. The direct and indirect impact of the pandemic have clearly made evident how shortcomings in the respect for human rights in practice make societies less resilient and render vulnerable individuals and groups even more marginalized and excluded.

In addition, as the High Commissioner recently highlighted, some States have adopted repressive COVID response measures that risk deepening the crisis.  Not surprisingly, these often mirror the overreach of counter-terrorism legislation and measures [in various places] around the world used to stifle dissent, crush freedom of expression, assembly and association.  Such policies and practices further stoke discontent and undermine the prospects for success of counter-terrorism. 

We are also seeing how armed groups attempt to exploit the crisis for their own gain, and we know that communities where human rights are respected and where grievances have proper channels for expression and remedial action are better able to reject and survive acts of terrorism.  If instead of a human rights centered approach, a securitized COVID-19 response is chosen in such circumstances, we will not only see even more devastating impacts on the most marginalized, but potentially this may lead to further deepening of grievances and fostering conditions where violent extremism can find fertile ground.

We all agree that the threat of terrorism is a centrally important issue facing the globe today. But when counterterrorism is applied over-broadly, there is a risk of skewing UN and member state analysis and response.  When terrorism and counter-terrorism becomes a polarizing political frame it can have damaging downstream effects with heavily securitized responses directly impacting not only human rights, but also peace-building, humanitarian and development efforts. Knock-on effects deepen grievances and can fuel support for terrorist groups. 

We also risk missing important nuances in our understanding of the causes of crises that may inform an effective and comprehensive response. An important responsibility in guiding counter-terrorism is therefore to keep it based on complex analysis and specifically tailored to address the grave harms we all can see, while ensuring that we avoid any inadvertent effects that may only harm these efforts.

If human rights are truly to be the fundamental basis for all counter-terrorism efforts, they must run through all related activity.  Even in this Conference, the strong signal of a dedicated panel should not obscure the recognition that a human rights perspective is not a side issue, an add-on, but should be considered one of the core components of every discussion – the sessions on cyber and hate speech, on civil society and media, for example, must take on board that the importance of countering incitement does not take away from the need to allow for meaningful freedom of expression.

OHCHR devotes significant efforts to working with other UN entities and MS to make this commitment to human rights in the Global Strategy a reality. Much of our work is behind the scenes, integrating human rights into counter-terrorism activities by other UN entities, advocating for civil society meaningful participation in counter-terrorism related debates or supporting Member States.

For example, we have worked with UNICEF and OCT to ensure that the approach taken by the joined-up UN action to provide support to States on ensuring the repatriation, the prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign fighters is grounded in human rights. In the Sahel, we are working with security forces, including the G5 Sahel Joint Force, to support the establishment of a compliance framework aimed at integrating international human rights and humanitarian law into their operational activities.

At headquarters, we advocate for the importance of effective participation and inclusion of civil society in the counter-terrorism architecture.  Civil society has a key role in helping States and the UN to "take the pulse" of what is going on in our societies.  It hears, sees and understands the perspectives of the communities most impacted by terrorism and counter-terrorism activities, enabling better calibrated policies that build trust and avoid unintended harms.

We have seen two ground-breaking years where much has been accomplished by OCT following the reform of the UN counter-terrorism architecture.  As we reflect on the path ahead in the light of the Secretary-General's recent Call to Action for Human Rights for the entire UN System, we may consider how we can further improve our joined-up action to respond to crises with prevention at the forefront.

Member States have that opportunity next year when they review the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, a chance to demonstrate and strengthen trust in multilateral governance by deepening the human rights aspects of the Strategy and meaningfully integrating civil society into the consultation process.

Thank you.