Skip to main content

Press releases Special Procedures

Human rights violations while countering terrorism are systematic across the globe: UN expert

23 October 2023

NEW YORK (23 October 2023) A UN expert* today identified systematic violations of international law from countering terrorism measures across every region unrelentingly undermine human rights and the rule of law across the globe.

Based on the findings of her recent global study on the impact of counter-terrorism on civil society, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, established that civil society actors were the consistent targets of abusive counter-terrorism practices. Her report found relentless human rights violations premised on security rhetoric with no meaningful national or international accountability and oversight in place.

Ní Aoláin presented evidence of the systematic misuse of counter-terrorism measures. “The impact of counter-terrorism measures and practices is not singular but layered and multifaceted and is most keenly felt by historically marginalised groups, including ethnic and religious minorities,” she said.

“Without fundamental review and reform of the global, regional and national architecture of counter-terrorism, the capacity of civil society and human rights defenders to function will be completely undermined, and in some contexts entirely wiped out,” Ní Aoláin said.

The expert added that women-led, the gendered impacts of counter-terrorism measures on civil society are hugely under-estimated. “Women, girls, LGBT and gender diverse persons are at the frontlines of the misuse of counter-terrorism and security measures across the globe, including by the enabling and reinforcing of new technologies’ use in repressive security practices. Women civil society actors are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ telling us that the costs of counter-terrorism misuse are too high and must be abandoned to address the root causes of violence in society,” she said.

The Special Rapporteur also highlighted systematic violation of human rights related to counter-terrorism detention practices.

Based on her long-standing work on repatriation from detention facilities in Northeast Syria, Ní Aoláin highlighted ongoing egregious violations of the rights of the child in multiple closed camps, prisons and detention facilities including Al-Hol and Al-Roj Camps, Alaya and Panorama prisons, and Orkesh and Houri (“rehabilitation”) Centres, where the vast majority of the detained population are children. She confirmed that these facilities constitute places of detention where no one is free to leave, no process of law exists to justify detention, and where torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is rife.

Her report underlines practices of enforced disappearances, torture, ill-treatment, and incommunicado detention for men, women and children in detention facilities in Northeast Syria. “The scale, scope and extent of these practices may reach the threshold for crimes against humanity under international law,” Ní Aoláin said. She called on the detaining power to adhere to the fundamental obligations contained in Common Article 3 of the Four Geneva Conventions and ensure consistent humanitarian and independent human rights oversight in every place of detention in Northeast Syria”.

Ní Aoláin found mass arbitrary separation of pre-pubescent and adolescent boys from their mothers in the camps to be particularly egregious and harmful. “The trauma and violence these boys have experienced over the course of their young lives is grievous and must end. Northeast Syria is the largest detention site for children on the grounds of terrorism in the world,” she said.

The expert identified extreme violations of human rights and humanitarian law occurring in Panorama (Sina’a) prison, which holds approximately 5000 men and 700 boys, including rampant starvation and tuberculosis.

“The scale and scope of violations in Northeast Syria cannot be ignored or airbrushed away. It is morally and legally unacceptable to use ‘terrorism’ to justify egregious breaches of human rights,” she said.


Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism by the Human Rights Council, and took up her functions since 1st August 2017. She is a Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota; holder of the Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society; and faculty director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is concurrently a professor of law at the Queen’s University of Belfast, School of Law.

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups 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. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organisation. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

For more information and media requests, please contact Yasmine Ashraf ([email protected]) and ([email protected]) 

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact please contact Maya Derouaz ([email protected]) or Dharisha Indraguptha ([email protected])

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

Concerned about the world we live in?
Then STAND UP for someone's rights today.
and visit the web page at