Civil Society and Counter-Terrorism

Last week I participated in the launch conference of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism ? The Hague (ICCT-The Hague), a newly-established think tank that will be carrying out research and analysis relating to counterterrorism.

The conference, which took place in the Hague, brought together more than 150 participants from a range of countries to review legal and policy developments in the field of counterterrorism since September 11, 2001. On the assumption that the year 2011 will mark a natural moment for assessing the past decade’s intensified efforts to combat terrorism — analyzing what has worked and what hasn’t — the conference was meant to set these debates in motion by posing some fundamental questions.

After a plenary session in the morning, four workshops were held in the afternoon, addressing such issues as the international law framework for countering terrorism and the role of civil society in preventing terrorism.

I chaired the latter workshop, whose goal was to examine the ways in which non-governmental organizations, community groups, faith-based institutions, and other civil society actors might play a useful role in countering terrorism. While participants raised a couple of examples that were directly related to the fight against terrorism — for example, efforts in the UK to dissuade alienated Muslim youth from joining violent groups — the main focus of the workshop was on work that would not naturally be labeled counterterrorism, but that might nonetheless support the goal of preventing terrorism.

Among the examples raised were civil society efforts to resolve potentially violent conflicts, remedy underdevelopment, calm religious tensions, or address other conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.

Hindering Counterterrorism Efforts

In thinking about the workshop beforehand, I was struck by how it seemed to presuppose that civil society has meaningful role to play in efforts to prevent terrorism. It assumed, in other words, that the work of civil society organizations can, in some way, complement or even assist government counterterrorism efforts.

Yet as we began our discussion, it became all to clear that this view is not uniformly shared. Participants described how many governments, rather than seeing civil society as an ally in countering terrorism effectively, appear to see civil society as a hindrance to this goal.

Because we were taking stock of the nearly ten years since the September 11 attacks, I was reminded of how, in late 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft lashed out at civil society groups that had been critical of the Bush Administration’s extreme measures. Claiming in testimony before Congress that such groups “aided” terrorism by “eroding national unity,” Ashcroft implied that they could face negative repercussions for their work.

His testimony raised a stir, as did similar warnings by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. But in a country with a strong tradition of independent civil society groups, and sturdy constitutional protections on freedom of speech, association, and assembly, these menacing official views had little discernible impact. Human rights and civil liberties groups did not mute their criticisms or limit their demands for reform.

In many other countries, however, civil society groups are much less protected from government repression and have, over the past decade, faced an array of restrictions. In some cases, counterterrorism justifications have been used as a pretext to facilitate restrictions on civil society. For example, a number of governments have adopted overly broad counterterrorism laws that allow them to clamp down on freedom of association, speech, and assembly. Indeed, in some instances, NGO representatives have even been criminally prosecuted as terrorists.

Civil Society’s Independence

Some governments recognize that civil society organizations are critical players in the design and implementation of any effective long?term strategy to address terrorism. They seek to engage civil society organizations in their counterterrorism efforts–and perhaps even to co-opt them.

On the question of how and to what extent civil society actors should join in the government’s efforts, it is worth recalling Ashcroft’s comments, in particular the idea that the critical views of civil society threaten to “erode national unity.” Although the motivation for his comments was deeply misguided, they draw attention to one of civil society’s crucial elements: its independence.

Where a vibrant civil society exists, groups think for themselves and take independent positions, often positions critical of government policy. They do not unquestioningly toe the government line and they cannot be bought off.

In my view, any discussion of how government, multilateral institutions, and other actors might seek to work and collaborate with civil society organizations should keep this quality of independence in mind. To the extent that governments take actions to undermine this independence–whether coercively, via restrictions; or in a gentler way, via financial subsidies and other forms of co-optation–they may be doing harm to civil society’s most important and defining attribute.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer working in New York and Paris.

This column previously appeared on Justia’s Verdict.




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JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York and Paris.

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