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UN expert says misuse of terrorism laws during conflict risks worsening situation

15 October 2020

NEW YORK (15 October 2020) – A UN human rights expert today criticized the misuse of terrorism laws by some States, saying the inappropriate use of such measures in the context of complex and violent conflicts sometimes only worsened the situation on the ground.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, told the General Assembly that counter-terrorism operations and measures were frequently being applied in the context of non-international armed conflicts and complex humanitarian settings.

She identified a worrying pattern in which States appeared to ignore or undermine the application of humanitarian principles and rules, because counter-terrorism “offers a more open-ended, under-regulated and opaque set of tools” to manage complex problems. 

“The result often is an unmitigated calamity for civilian populations who are squeezed by broadly framed terrorism laws and practices with little or no recourse when misuse occurs,” Ní Aoláin said.

The UN expert’s report tracks the essential relationship between protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable, including the elderly and children in complex and fragile settings, enforcing basic humanitarian norms including the provision of humanitarian assistance. 

“I am profoundly troubled by the failure to apply humanitarian exemptions for activities that are humanitarian and impartial in nature,” she said. “Such short-sighted tactics of withholding or criminalizing humanitarian assistance only prolongs conflicts, alienates those who are needed to ultimately resolve such conflicts, and hurts the most marginal in society.” 

Ní Aoláin called on States to review existing sanctions systems to ensure they are rule of law-compliant and provide “meaningful opportunity to challenge, review and end sanctions practices for affected individuals and their families”. 

The UN expert applauded the work of impartial humanitarian actors, who work in extreme conditions and under significant stress to ensure and protect the vulnerable. The challenge now for States is to acknowledge and protect these actors effectively, she added.


Ms Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin (Ireland), the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, took up her functions on 1 August 2017. She is concurrently Regents Professor and Robina Professor of Law, Public Policy and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School and Professor of Law at the Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Michelle Erazo ([email protected]/+41 22 917 9449).
For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact: In New York, Jonathan Fowler (+ 1 917 208 6656 / [email protected]).In Geneva, Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / 

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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