Global Policy Forum

Civil Society and Fighting Terrorism Through the UN


By Diana Medaglia

December 16, 2009


As Washington takes its next steps in Afghanistan, civil society groups (also known as nongovernmental organizations) working in the country continue their efforts to improve living standards and, indirectly, to battle terrorism. UNA spoke with Alistair Millar, a co-director of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, on its work.


Q. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, agreed by the General Assembly in 2006, is the first UN document on counterterrorism to include a role for civil society, or nongovernmental organizations. What role have such groups played in Afghanistan in the UN's counterterrorism efforts?

A. The strategy outlines a holistic approach that includes an array of activities that are not, and should not, be labeled as counterterrorism per se. The counterterrorism task force was established to help the UN bring more coherence to some two-dozen UN actors that are relevant to carrying out the strategy. Many of these task force members, such as the UN Development Program, the World Health Organization, Unesco and the World Bank, are actively involved in Afghanistan. There are numerous Western and Afghan-based nongovernmental organizations working with those agencies to provide services.

Q. The report that you and Eric Rosand wrote last year, "Civil Society and the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy: Opportunities and Challenges," addresses the limited efforts that have been made by the UN to engage civil society on fighting terrorism. But the few attempts made by these groups to interact with the UN on the issue have been minimal. Why?


A. Engagement by the UN with civil society organizations on softer issues (related to what the UN calls "causes conducive to the spread of terrorism"), such as education and improving governance or monitoring human rights, is quite significant. And relationships have been productive between civil society organizations and the UN for a long time before the strategy's adoption. UN engagement has been less fruitful on harder security issues. This is in large part because the UN is a member-state organization, and states have tended historically to take security matters into their own hands and been reluctant to share military and law enforcement responsibilities with nonstate entities. There have been improvements: the Security Council's counterterrorism-related subsidiary bodies and their expert groups have been more willing to draw on analysis by think tanks and cooperate with them by, for example, attending workshops. But more could be done to strengthen UN engagement with CSOs, particularly at the local level, and to give them more space to operate as independent, constructive players in the struggle against terrorism.

Q. According to your report, countries are viewing civil society groups as "undefined risks" and are reluctant to partner with them. As a result, these groups are cautious about associating with governments to avoid undermining their own legitimacy. The UN's explicit acknowledgement in the resolution that civil society can contribute to its counterrorism initiatives could alleviate these tensions. Are these tensions also affecting UN counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan?

A. The strategy offers an opportunity for states to see the value of civil society organizations and view them as partners rather than possible liabilities. In Afghanistan, the security situation is so complicated and in many areas so dangerous that I think it is the lack of security and nationwide governance that is making the environment difficult for CSOs to engage.

Q. What role has civil society been playing in Afghanistan?

A. Numerous Western-based and local CSOs are working mainly on delivery of services, health, women's education and other basic community needs.

Q. How will President Obama's recent decisions on the US role in Afghanistan affect civil society's participation in the UN's counterterrorism efforts?

A. The US plan specifically acknowledges the important role that CSOs can and need to play in what is essentially a strategy for building local capacities to reduce violence and establish self-sufficiency at the community level. This in turn encourages development as a pathway for resisting the Taliban and other destabilizing forces. The US plan is based in large part on modern counterinsurgency doctrine, which increasingly recognizes the need to engage with local populations. Civil society has an important role to play in facilitating that engagement and help "win hearts and minds." Moving forward, the challenge will be establishing security and having a plan for allowing the military to transition out (or move to the background as protection) while allowing CSOs to transition in and do their work uninhibited by the threat of violence and intimidation.


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