Counter-terrorism: Egyptian-led resolution sends wrong message at wrong time


An Egyptian led counter-terrorism resolution adopted at the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council must not be inappropriately used as a further restrictive means to shut down civil society organisations and target human rights defenders. This new resolution sends states the wrong message at a time when democratic values are challenged by violent and repeated acts of terror.

Sending the wrong message at the wrong time – The Egyptian led and adopted counter-terrorism resolution at the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council must not be inappropriately used as a further restrictive means to shut down civil society organisations and target human rights defenders. This new resolution sends states the wrong message at a time when democratic values are challenged by violent and repeated acts of terror.

(Geneva) – A new counter-terrorism resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council is not a green light for states to widen the scope of law and policies to target and shut down civil society space in the name of preventing terrorist activity. States must ensure full consideration and respect for international human rights laws when adopting measures to combat terrorist groups and engage with NGOs and human rights defenders who have a key role in preventing violent extremism.

Introduced by Egypt, and co-sponsored by states including Algeria and Saudi Arabia – states often leading the hostile global crackdown on civil society space and human rights defenders – UN resolution A/HRC/31/L.13/Rev.1 ‘The effects of terrorism on the enjoyment of all human rights’ was adopted on the final sitting day of the 31st session of the Council, with 28 states voting in favor and 14 voting against, with 5 states abstaining.

The resolution has been critiqued by leading NGOs such as ARTICLE 19 as 'providing potential justification for abusive “counter-terrorism” measures'. The resolution 'fails to meet the needs of the victims of terrorism, and instead instrumentalises their suffering to distract international scrutiny from the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt and elsewhere,' ARTICLE 19 said in a statement. 

Sending the wrong message...

Several states challenged the text, scope, and ambit of the resolution, in the context of statements confirming that they would vote against the resolution.

  • The Netherlands (on behalf of the European Union) said that the resolution failed to recognise the distinction between how a state deals with the threat of terrorism as a party to international human rights laws and terrorists acting as individuals who ought be punished according to the criminal law. This statement also critiqued the resolution’s focus on the right to life and security of person, saying that such a narrow focus does not accurately reflect the importance of respecting all human rights when states combat terrorism.
  • South Africa pointed out that the resolution fails to adequately identify the difference between foreign fighters and terrorists, on the one hand, and local freedom or national liberation groups engaged in a legitimate and just struggle for self-determination, democracy and the rule of law, on the other – illustrating that even today, historic anti-apartheid groups are still listed as terrorist groups and this same fate must not befall future groups engaged in a similar struggle.
  • Mexico identified the remit of the Council to protect and promote all human rights, meaning the new resolution sat outside its remit, calling on a combined effort of all states parties: ‘although the fight against terrorism is paramount for all states today, we need to find convergence and not divergence as a means to respond to terrorism.’
  • Ecuador, although supporting the aims of the text in the main, disassociated with aspects that it believed could condone or justify harm to innocent victims, as collateral damage in the might against terrorism, undermining individual’s fundamental human rights.

Belgium delivered its important statement only minutes before a Council vote on the proposed resolution, sincerely thanking the international community for its support and solidarity following the 22 March terror attacks that killed at least 32 innocent people and injured 340 more from over 49 nationalities. However – it also sent a powerful message urging states not to support the resolution:

‘[w]e cannot be guided by fear, quite the opposite; our responsibility is to pursue a framework that preserves our values. We are convinced that the fight against terrorism, even in the most tragic moments must be undertaken with full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms … We have just been victims of a terrorist attack, but we call for you to vote against this text this sends the wrong message of the way in which we should tackle the issues facing us at the moment.  

This poignant reminder fell largely on deaf ears of member states as the resolution passed.

...At the wrong time

Terrorism must, in all its forms, be denounced, dealt with and prevented. It brings untold horror, disaster and tragedy. It knows no moral or civil borders or boundaries. It operates without a care or concern for the countless numbers of innocent lives harmed and taken along the way.

But reactive counter-terrorism steps such as this resolution can also send the wrong message at the wrong time. Aggressive counter-terrorism responses can, although fleetingly appealing, erode public confidence in, and the legitimacy of, governments and public authorities, who advance policies and measures that either inadvertently restrict, or are incorrectly used to undermine the democratic institutions and rule of law – our foundational pillars of strength, at a time they need to be reinforced and used to strike back at the heart of terrorism itself.

A vibrant and healthy civil society combats radicalism and violent ideology and allows pluralistic views to be the subject of debate and public discourse. Where public debate spills over into polarising political voices espousing hate and discrimination, appropriate democratic safeguards must protect underlying values of tolerance and diversity and denounce such abuses of these rights.

Often at the forefront of advancing divergent views, and all too often the first to be wrongly punished for taking a brave and bold position – human rights defenders are a critical component and key tool for states to combat terrorism in all its vicious forms.  

The invaluable role of human rights defenders and civil society organisations in countering terrorism

The fundamental role of civil society and human rights defenders working towards economic, social and cultural rights was, on the same day, confirmed in a separate and historic and warmly welcomed resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council – a resolution denounced by Egypt as part of a small group of vexatious states who sought to delegitimise the work of defenders and weaken protections for reprisals against them. 

Hostile acts against civil society by the Egyptian Government, the main co-sponsor of the counter-terrorism resolution, do not instill international confidence that the space for the legitimate and important activities of civil society will be maintained under counter-terrorism measures and policies that inaccurately cloak human rights abuses with a veil of necessity, safety and security.

Such is the way with the counter-terrorism narrative; it often leads to unwarranted investigation and misdirected scrutiny of credible and legitimate civil society organisations. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently called out the increased crackdown on civil society organisations by the Egyptian Government, leading to the closure of at least 20 NGOs on just one day because of alleged links to declared terrorist organisations, going on to say that:

‘Egyptian civil society activists should be lauded for their dedicated efforts to promote human rights under such difficult circumstances. Laws that impose undue restrictions on NGO registration and funding – as well as freedom of expression and association – must be amended to create a more tolerant atmosphere.'

A time for human rights defenders and States to unite and lead the fight against global terrorism

States must acknowledge and foster the role of NGOs and civil society organisations and human rights defenders because they both have a stake in the same underlying values promoting good governance, accountability, transparency and facilitating public discourse and discussion on key human rights related issues as a way to ensuring social order, harmony and peace. Their respective roles are interrelated and mutually reinforcing as core working components of a democratic society.

Because of this, the international human rights community must closely appraise each and every time states invoke the mantra of counter-terrorism as a means to justify the ends of security, liberty and peace – and, more importantly, call out activities that restrict rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, target human rights defenders for arrest or even attack, and unfairly try critics of the government.

ISHR maintains its previously stated and strong position on this issue and calls on all states to ensure that when considering adopting any anti-terror related laws, all international human rights law standards are primary consideration together with ensuring consultation and engagement with civil society as a part of its process.

Sam Dipnall is an Australian human rights lawyer working with the International Service for Human Rights


  • Human rights defenders
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Belgium
  • Ecuador
  • Egypt
  • Netherlands
  • South Africa