Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda

Increasingly counter-terrorism strategies and policies are decided at the international level, most notably by the UN Security Council, and are used to erode human rights, with no accountability.

White House (Pete Souza)   Maison Blanche  (Pete Souza) [Public domain]

Because of the nature of current terrorism threats, counter-terrorism often demands an international response. It often requires collaboration across jurisdictions for prevention and investigation. Increasingly counter-terrorism strategies and policies are decided at the international level, most notably by the UN Security Council. However, these policies are often used to justify measures that erode human rights protections and ultimately put people's security at risk. They often target the most vulnerable: migrants and refugees - as they cross national borders equipped with facial recognition and other biometric technologies; human rights defenders - as they are targeted by unlawful surveillance deployed in the name of counter-terrorism; and civil society organisations - as their access to international funding is curbed.

These policies are developed by political and corporate actors with no democratic accountability, no public debate or and no involvement or scrutiny from civil society.

What is the problem

Since 2001 at least 140 countries have adopted counter-terrorism legislation. These laws, and related measures are often in response to decisions made by the UN Security Council and other international bodies. They often erode human rights and affect the most vulnerable.

There are major strategic and political factors at play. Powerful states - originally led by the US but increasingly by the Russian Federation, Pakistan and Egypt and supported by China - push for the adoption of policies at a global level that support a security approach to counter-terrorism with little or no regard for the human rights implications. Some Western democracies use the cover of having to comply with international, or European, policies to adopt measures at the domestic level that encroach on human rights. Many other states seek and receive financial, logistical, and other kinds of support implement the counter-terrorism measures required by the UN and other international bodies. Meanwhile powerful corporate players, such as the surveillance industry, are active in supporting the implementation of data-intensive solutions, which put the privacy of individuals and the security of their data at risk.

Why it matters

Many resolutions by the UN Security Council are legally binding on all states. That means that governments around the world must implement measures such as intelligence sharing; systems to collect and share biometric data; mass retention of personal information of passengers (via Passenger Name Records); collecting and sharing ever more granular data of individual and organisation's financial transactions to monitor and track their activities.

The UN global strategy on counter-terrorism and specific Security Council resolutions routinely pay some lip service to human rights, for example demanding states to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms when implementing counter-terrorism measures. This language is tokenistic at best. It offers no guidance on how the far-reaching counter-terrorism measures can be implemented in ways that comply with human rights.

When it comes to intelligence sharing, identification systems based on biometrics, and the regulation of financial transactions, governments and companies regularly overplay the security benefits and the efficacy of technologically driven solutions and underplay the negative impacts on individuals and society. They often choose to ignore any assessment on the effectiveness of these measures to combat terrorism.

In fact, the whole international counter-terrorism structure is designed to side-line human rights and to avoid scrutiny. Decisions are taken by small group of states in secret, with no consultation with civil society or other actors.

What are the solutions

Privacy International recognises that surveillance measures and international cooperation can play a role in preventing and investigating acts of terrorism. But counter-terrorism cannot be a human rights free zone. It also cannot be left to be decided by those with a vested interest in pursuing widespread surveillance of society and adopting technological solutions that ultimately put security at risk. Just like for any interference with the right of privacy it must be accordance with the law, necessary, and proportionate.

There needs to be:

  • specific, detailed human rights guidelines provided to states in implementing measures such as intelligence sharing, biometric data systems, and financial data as required by UN Security Council resolutions;
  • transparent and independent privacy and security assessments prior to the introduction of measures that rely on the collection, storage and analysis of personal information and periodic review of the impact of such measures;
  • an open process of review of states' counter-terrorism measures by the UN (e.g. the Security Council Committee on counter-terrorism), with the participation of civil society (e.g. the opportunity to provide briefings in advance of country's assessments);

What PI is doing

We are:

  • campaigning for stronger privacy protections in international counter-terrorism policy making;
  • supporting the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights;
  • advocating for changes in UN Security Council resolutions on counter-terrorism, including the recognition of specific human rights safeguards;
  • advocating for more transparency in international decision making on these issues and for the meaningful involvement of civil society actors