The global war on terror that was spurred by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States may have prevented some subsequent attacks, but it also created an existential threat to global civic space.
Just weeks after the attacks, the Financial Action Task Force, the global body that sets standards aimed at preventing money laundering and terrorist financing, introduced new counterterrorism rules that declared the civil society sector as particularly vulnerable to terrorist abuse. Two decades later, civil society leaders say those global counterterrorism frameworks have done far more harm than good and offered some governments a smokescreen for closing civic space.
“These laws understandably aimed to disrupt funding flows to terrorist networks and stop them from easily transmitting information online,” said Poonam Joshi, director of the Funders Initiative for Civil Society. “But creating broad, nontargeted restrictions created major barriers for civil society groups to operate safely and securely.”
Joshi said it’s now more difficult for people to organize, get their ideas into cyberspace and engage in peaceful protest in safe settings, where their data is protected. Further, philanthropies that support civil society organizations and rights movements face more obstacles to cross-border funding.
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said the humanitarian crisis now unfolding in Afghanistan highlights the harm overly broad counterterrorism measures have done to civil society.
As many as 97% of the people in the country are at risk of falling into poverty as foreign aid disappears and civil society organizations are forced to shutter in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power. Since the U.S. designated the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2002, most transactions involving the current Afghan government are now illegal.
“I think what Afghanistan reveals to us is the utter failure of counterterrorism measure over the past 20 years,” Ní Aoláin said. “In a way, the country was the central testing laboratory for post-9/11 securitization.”
Between 2001 and 2018, at least 140 governments adopted counterterrorism legislation, according to a report by Ní Aoláin. She said two-thirds of the reports her office has received since 2005 have related to laws and policies being used to target civil society groups.
“Another problem was that the U.N. agencies and bodies with a mandate on counterterrorism — including FATF — offered no clear, narrow definitions about what constituted terrorism or security threats,” Joshi said. “Over time, counterterrorism laws have been used to target anyone that was deemed problematic or a troublemaker.”
Ní Aoláin said that the scale of abuse and misuse of counterterrorism measures was so great, it couldn’t be dismissed as an inadvertent negative impact to civil society.
“We learned that this was hardwired into the system,” she said. “Governments were deliberately using counterterrorism legislation to target protest movements, dissent and calls for accountability.”
Many countries — including the U.S. — have at times criminalized protest, used information technology to track and censor those perceived to be a threat to the state, and promoted narratives steeped in fear to foster suspicion of dissenters and public acceptance of security crackdowns. The 2020 CIVICUS Monitor reported that just 3.4% of the world’s people live in countries where civic space is open.
That report downgraded the U.S. to “obstructed” status for the first time, citing restrictive laws, excessive use of force against protesters and an increasingly hostile environment for the press as reasons for the designation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded threats to civic space, as governments enacted more restrictive laws under the guise of protecting public health. Ní Aoláin called post-9/11 global security frameworks the “bedrock” on which COVID-19 restrictions were built. Since the start of the pandemic, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has tracked more than 150 state and federal proposed bills and new laws restricting Americans’ right to peaceful assembly.
“A pattern we’re seeing is multiple countries leveraging the pandemic to further crack down on civil society,” Ní Aoláin said. “That includes restrictions on specific organizations, targeting specific human rights defenders and putting in place legislation that has been rushed through parliaments.”
Joshi added that this pattern can be seen in government responses to movements around the world, from Black Lives Matter in the U.S. to crackdowns on protestors in India, Belarus and Syria.
As the world seeks to emerge from a period of chaos and distress caused by the pandemic, civil society organizations have made pushing back on threats to civic space a top priority. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation supports the Funders Initiative for Civil Society, CIVICUS and International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, as well as many other organizations working to confront the problem.
“We’re entering a new era of disruption and transition, and we think civil society in the broadest sense — from individuals and movements to formal organizations — is going to be critically important to making sure human rights, rule of law and social justice are at the heart of our future,” Joshi said. “You can’t take for granted that space that’s closed is just going to reopen, so we have work to do.”
The Funders Initiative for Civil Society and Fund for Global Human Rights partnered to launch the Global Initiative on Civic Space and Security. The goal is to rewrite what they call governments’ “security playbooks” and create security norms that respect human rights and safeguard civic space.
Aside from abuse of counterterrorism laws, the Global Initiative will work to push back on use of information technologies to track and censor people, as well as promotion of “security narratives” that foster suspicion of dissenters and public acceptance of concentrated state power.
Joshi said many human rights groups and funders have struggled with building public or political support using narratives based on a human rights critique of the “war on terror” because it’s seen as a choice between civic freedoms or security — with many choosing security.
“Over the last year we’ve thought a lot about how to reframe this issue as one that doesn’t make it a choice between these two very important things, or reinforce the false narrative that activists pose the same threat as terrorists,” she said.
James Savage, who directs the Fund for Global Human Rights’ Enabling Environment program, stressed the need to craft a narrative that effectively counters discourse steeped in fear. He said that civil society organizations must strengthen their strategic communications efforts and that funders need to look at how they can help to build civil society’s narrative power.
“The modus operandi for much of civil society has been name and shame tactics,” Savage said. “We need to learn how to offer a vision that goes beyond calling out bad actors and think about how we invest in the long-term capacity and infrastructure for civil society to strengthen its narrative.”
Ní Aoláin said civil society groups also need to stress the overall ineffectiveness of counterterrorism and securitization. “What we’ve seen over the last 20 years is that it actually fosters more violence and governmental abuse,” she said, “and it’s been a colossal waste of money.”