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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

UN Office of Counter-Terrorism Town Hall meeting, Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

08 May 2020


8 May 2020

Greetings, and let me begin by wishing everyone good health. UN staff are the most important UN resource, and your well-being is our top priority.

As the Secretary-General has often reminded us, we are all in this together. As we address the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that we work together as One UN. I have accepted USG Voronkov's invitation to join you in this Town Hall meeting, in order to engage with your teams and consider further approaches to strengthen our cooperation.

As head of the UN Counter-Terrorism Office, Mr Voronkov often emphasises the need to respect human rights even in the most difficult circumstances – and I am grateful for that. Looking at the dilemmas world leaders are facing in confronting COVID-19, we see this very clearly.

Some human rights, such as freedom of movement, expression assembly and association can be limited for reasons of public health. Still, key conditions have to be met: measures must be provided by law, necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory and imposed with procedural safeguards, so that democracy and the rule of law do not also fall victim to the virus. You are familiar with these issues in your counter-terrorism work, as these parameters also apply to national security. Since the start of the pandemic, my Office has been heavily engaged in producing guidance to ensure that responses to the pandemic comply with human rights. This includes our policy guidance on COVID 19 and emergency and exceptional measures.

Unfortunately, we have seen some governments imposing measures that have led to restrictions on freedoms far beyond what is necessary to contain the virus.  Heavy-handed responses to COVID-19, including measures that may fuel grievances and lead to further marginalisation of already discriminated communities, are likely to strengthen terrorist organizations as they seek to increase recruitment.

The core challenge that our organizations are grappling with is how we can ensure that human rights are the fundamental basis for counter-terrorism efforts. This has been, and continues to be, an uphill struggle. There are too many examples in recent years of counter-terrorism measures leading to serious human rights violations – and these have only undermined the fight against terrorism.

Clearly, the prevention of terrorism goes hand in hand with the Secretary-General’s prevention agenda. My Office has repeatedly emphasised that countering terrorism means not only reacting after a threat has materialised, but also preventing terrorism from happening in the first place in full compliance with human rights. This approach is well reflected in the UN’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. It is important to recall the Strategy's emphasis on this point: Marginalization, discrimination, and other violations of human rights are among the key drivers conducive to terrorism and violent extremism

 With this in mind, and to avoid counterproductive outcomes, we regularly advise States to incorporate a number of fundamental elements in every strategy to counter terrorism or prevent violent extremism. They include:

  • ensuring that the justice and law enforcement systems are scrupulously fair and rights-compliant;
  • preserving civil society space, to voice the concerns of diverse groups and communities;
  • engaging communities, including youth and women, in decision-making processes; and
  • upholding freedom of expression while countering hate speech, including online.
  • At this time of heightened need, it is also imperative that renewed efforts be made to protect vulnerable groups, and to provide for marginalized communities, to ensure the realization of economic, social, and cultural rights.

In this context, let me say a word about surveillance. Many proposals have been made for new technology and apps to track people during the pandemic. Digital technologies do indeed offer potential benefits to epidemiology, but the impact of these technologies on privacy rights are enormous, and the risks for abuse are obvious. They will require special care and robust safeguards to ensure full respect for human rights standards. This is an area where our two Offices can jointly have real impact.

I believe we need to strengthen linkages between human rights and terrorism prevention across the UN counter-terrorism architecture.

Although Member States have repeatedly committed to human rights in Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, this has not always translated into sufficient political support, backed by infrastructure and resources.

We remain concerned that while UN activity on counter-terrorism has expanded, the 4th pillar of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, focusing on rule of law and human rights, remains underfunded, and requires more political support.

We count on your support to ensure that the UN's human rights bodies have the necessary capacity to help the Organization deliver fully on its strategy.

There are concrete ways in which we can work together to strengthen the fourth pillar. For example, we would be keen to work with you in the Global Compact to conduct an extensive review of the integration of human rights across all projects and programmes, and to develop recommendations for enhancing this aspect of its work.

To date, USG Voronkov and the Office of Counter-Terrorism have been very open to engaging on human rights with my Office. I look forward to sustaining and strengthening our coordinated efforts. There are many examples of the impact of this productive and constructive engagement:

As you know, OHCHR has closely engaged in the ground-breaking initiative currently led by your Office with UNICEF and other UN entities, to develop a global framework for UN Support on Syria / Iraq Third Country National Returnees. We welcome this collaborative, all-of-UN initiative, which has taken into account many diverse perspectives. We are committed to supporting the project, to working with you to ensure that human rights is a central and operationalized component of the framework, and to playing a strong role in overseeing its implementation.

A key concern is the potential spread of COVID 19 in the displacement camps in north-east Syria. This could be devastating, given the dire living conditions in the camps. As you know, I have been encouraging states of origin to repatriate their nationals stranded in the camps, and my Office is closely following the situation.

We are also engaging with your Office on a range of other counterterrorism projects and activities. For example, we have been working together to develop joint programming in targeted countries to respond and address issues in the justice sector, and to ensure that security forces comply with human rights while countering terrorism.

We are working with OCT and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute on a research initiative analysing the human rights dimensions of the use of artificial intelligence in counter-terrorism.

One issue that we can further discuss is how to enhance the integration of human rights into the UN's public messaging on counter-terrorism, our engagement with Member States, and in the development of shared analysis of specific countries and situations. To assist this, my Office is keen to contribute to the preparation of OCT/USG country missions, to facilitate full awareness of the human rights context of those missions and coordinated, accurate, and appropriate public and private advocacy. Debriefing each other on each of our visits and engagement in countries of joint interest could also be very useful.

I also look forward to continue supporting OCT's expansion of engagement with, and support to, civil society on counter-terrorism issues. This is essential to enabling increasingly meaningful implementation of the fourth pillar of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, both by the UN and by Member States. OCT has demonstrated a welcome openness towards civil society, and I am sure that our enhanced cooperation will contribute to ensuring that OCT’s initiatives align with the UN-wide initiatives on civil society engagement and on reprisals against people who engage with the UN.

My Office remains committed to participating in the second UN counterterrorism week, which has been postponed to next year due to the pandemic. I view this as an opportunity to reinforce all-of-UN messaging and build political support for the centrality of human rights to the counter-terrorism effort.

The Secretary-General’s recent Call to Action on Human Rights highlighted the essential role played by international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law in countering terrorism and preventing conflict. It also gave our two Offices important opportunities to work together to implement the Secretary-General’s vision.

My colleagues and I look forward to more engagement with all of you, to working together on joint programming, coordinated advocacy and engagement with Member States, and to enhancing our openness to, and support for, civil society.

Thank you for your attention.