Report on Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism


4 March 2021


Written by:  Hannah Mulhern and Clélia Jeandin



Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while counter-terrorism, Ms. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (Photo/OHCHR)

On March 4, the Special Rapporteur on Countering Terrorism Fionnuala Ní Aoláin presented her report on the human rights impact of counterterrorism and countering (violent) extremism policies and practices on the rights of women, girls and the family. In her report, the SR underscored how national security policies too often include extreme policies (mass surveillance, arbitrary detention, intrusion of security forces in the family sphere, citizenship stripping, sanctions, stigma, discrimination) that have caused increasing concern for the security of women, girls, and the family in the past 20 years.

A number of questions arose from the participating states, which mainly regarded the possibility of including a gendered approach in the support provided to victims of terrorism; the repatriation of refugees and especially children currently detained in camps, and the challenge of gender equality in the counter-terrorism sphere. SR suggested that state structures acknowledge gender specific psycho-social and other rehabilitative needs. Support structures need to adopt a more comprehensive approach to reproductive rights and sexual health (e.g. legal provisions and social entitlements). Children are also particularly affected by terrorism. SR notably cited the living conditions in refugee camps that have been established in conflict-affected zones, especially Iraq and in the Syrian Arab Republic. The return of foreign fighters and their families from conflict zones would also enable the end of these camps. Lastly, national plans of action must be established in order to integrate women in counterterrorism and encourage gender mainstreaming. Some NGOs also took the opportunity to share their experiences and knowledge of the misuse of counter-terrorism laws in countries such as Turkey, The Philippines, Iraq , China and Burkina Faso.


Opening Statements

Special Rapporteur, Fionnuala Ní hAoláin opened the discussion by noting that 2021 is a pivotal year for counter terrorism and human rights, as it marks 20  years since 9/11 and indeed the multiple anniversaries of many sanctions. She first thanked Switzerland and Canada for their cooperation on individual communication, the Russian federation and Kazakhstan’s for their returning and repatriation of women and children , and welcomed Finland’s decision to make their counterterrorism committee public, the very first State to do so .She also noted that she has, among other things, produced a tracker on the use of emergency powers by states during COVID 19.

In turning to her report, she remarked that security spaces remain overwhelmingly male dominated, with policies doing little to benefit women in complex situations. She underlines the importance of an integrated gender perspective, with equality as a priority. She is extremely troubled by the misuse of counter terrorism and extremism regulation against women human rights defenders, fuelled by broad , vague , imprecise and legally unsound definitions of terrorism at a national level. The report also addresses sanction regimes and the lack of robust oversight , as well as a lack of consistent and adequate humanitarian exemptions. The report also deals with the devastating effect of regulation on family life, especially practices such as nationality stripping and the extension of ‘security agendas’ into family courts . She notes that the family , and its construction, is continually weakened by the application of counterterrorism law . She is particularly concerned about the impacts on Muslim families, where the family itself is rendered a unit of suspicion by law enforcement.

She also notes that she is unrelentingly appalled at the treatment of children in camps such as Al-Hawl and Al- Roj. She applauds states such as Russia, US , Kosovo and Kazakhstan who have made efforts to repatriate their citizens .


Interested delegations

Many states took the opportunity to submit their positions. Most countries such as Belgium (on behalf of Benelux States), Greece , Denmark ( on behalf of Nordic countries), France, Ireland, UK, Malta,  Mexico( on behalf of a group of Latin American countries), Libya, Cameroon, The US, Qatar, , Mauritania, Morocco , The Maldives. as well as UNICEF, UN Women, and the EU welcomed the thematic focus and the decision to include a gender perspective in this year’s report, recognizing the heavy burden carried by women and girls. Concern was raised at the difficulties faced by women in attempting to enter the counter terrorism sphere and in contributing to the negotiation, and drafting, of the laws in question. They also noted that the scale and reach of counterterrorism policies are expanding, with vague definitions, causing inevitable intergenerational impacts for families.  They also thanked the special rapporteur for her work on highlighting the limits to civic space and women’s groups, often occurring as a result of strict counter terrorism financing laws. Overall, the majority of states believed that counterterrorism needs no longer be considered gender neutral. Sudan, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan also welcomed the report whilst speaking of their efforts within their national action plans to tackle terrorism within their own borders. Malta also noted their agreement with the special rapporteur, also adding that sexual minorities also feel adverse effects.

Mr. Michael Gaffey /Ireland

Fiji recognised that protecting peace and security is, inevitably, of high importance, but human rights must be protected also. They concurred that intersectional lens was needed . Azerbaijan also expressed gratitude to the Special Rapporteur for report whilst also strongly condemning terrorism and all its manifestations . They warned of the glorification of terrorists, and reiterated that terrorism constitutes a serious crime and must be dealt with as such. However, they also shared their position that this should be done whilst protecting human rights.

UAE was similar, as it condemned terrorism unequivocally but also recognised the need to safeguard women and children and call upon all states to pull efforts and cooperate. Egypt were also of a similar mind in stating that there should be zero tolerance to terrorism and that the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism must be identified and dealt with, and also recognized the need for a global effort in tackling it. Senegal, China, and Indonesia also made reference to global efforts whilst Armenia noted the need for a concerted effort internationally, regionally and also with academics and civil society.

China and India held strong opinions, stating that whilst counter terrorism efforts can effect human rights, terrorism, in itself, is a direct threat to human rights. China specifically made note of their opposition to all forms of terrorism, stating that any terrorist attempts will be dealt with seriously before the law. They made no mention of the report’s specific gender perspective. 

Bangladesh emphasised that religious and political leaders must take a role in counter terrorism efforts, whilst also noting that women can take an important role in stopping terrorism, by raising their awareness, to eventually notice warning signs of radicalisation in young people .

Russian Federation, Ms. Kristina Suckacheva

Both Venezala  and Iran used the opportunity to note the US’s history of funding terrorism in foreign countries. Russia and Kazachtan reiterated their work to support the reintegration and repatriation of women and children who are held in camps and thanked the Special Rapporteur for their inclusion and recognition in the report. Russia noted some disagreement with the reports focus on the construction of the family, noting that this should not fall within the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.

Iraq used the opportunity to respond to the report’s mention of their national practices, disagreeing with the special rapporteurs notes regarding the need to recognize forced marriage and disagreed with her stance on “unchilds”, concluding that these national practices, in reality, actually protect children .


Right to reply

China exercised their right to reply and responded to accusations pertaining to its establishment of abusive counter terrorism policies in Xinjiang. It deplored what it called ‘fake information’ as lies invented by governments and NGOs aimed at discrediting China’s reputation.

As too did Armenia, who claimed that the military forces deployed by Azerbaijan during the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh included foreign fighters, and more specifically Jihadist mercenaries and Chechen terrorists. Azerbaijan then took the opportunity to deny these accusations and accused Armenia of grave environmental crimes and destruction of important elements of Azerbaijan’s cultural and religious heritage during Armenia’s occupation of its territories.