Women's Rights, Human Rights, and Counterterrorism

Friday, January 11, 2019
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) conducted its first all-female foot patrol with ten female peacekeepers. UN Photo/Pascual Gorriz
Fionnula D. Ní Aoláin

UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism, UN Human Rights Council


Adjunct Senior Fellow, Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations

Fionnula D. Ní Aoláin, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, discussed her work to mainstream gender analysis throughout efforts to counter terrorism.



POWELL: (In progress)—should go ahead and get started. I’d like to welcome everybody. My name’s Catherine Powell. I’m an adjunct senior fellow with the Women and Foreign Policy Program here at the Council.

It’s my great pleasure to introduce Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who I’ve known for many years. She is currently the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. She is also a professor at University of Minnesota law school, where she’s the faculty director of the Human Rights Center. And, third, she’s concurrently a professor at a Queens University in Belfast Northern Ireland, her alma mater. I wonder when she sleeps. That’s not entirely clear. I’m not going to read her whole bio, as you have it in front of you.

Professor Ní Aoláin is going to share some remarks with us today for about ten minutes, and then we will open up for discussion because I see a number of experts around the table. And we look forward to the discussion. This session is on the record. And without further ado, I will turn it over to Professor Ní Aoláin. Thanks.

NÍ AOLÁIN: So many thanks to Professor Powell. And she and I have had many engagements over many years, and both as colleagues—international law colleagues, and also during her time in the Clinton administration. So I'm very pleased to be introduced by her today and to be here at the Council on Foreign Relations.

POWELL: Obama administration. (Laughs.)

NÍ AOLÁIN: Obama. See? I—

POWELL: Though, I voted for Hillary Clinton, but—(laughs)—

NÍ AOLÁIN: That’s right. I’m—I shouldn’t say. (Laughter.) I’ll be very careful with my words. So let me take this opportunity to make a couple of remarks. And I would start by noting that on taking up the role of special rapporteur in the autumn of 2017, I had laid out four priorities as mandate holder for my three-year term. And those priorities are set out in the General Assembly report that I offered and presented to the General Assembly in October 2017. As a feminist law—international law scholar, and as a practitioner of international law who had spent much of her adult life in a conflict and post-conflict jurisdiction—Belfast, Northern Ireland—I was acutely aware of the value of a gendered analysis of law, of conflict, of violence, and the importance of the gender—a gendered understanding as one addressed the challenge of extremism.

So it was fairly obvious to me that I would make gender mainstreaming a priority for the mandate. And I have followed through on that commitment in my country work, my thematic reports, and my communications with states. In setting gender as a priority, I had an initial expectation of some antagonism. As some in the room may recall, when my predecessor Professor Martin Scheinin issued a thematic report in 2009 addressing gender and counterterrorism, states were in general fairly hostile to the enterprise. The response to this move by my predecessor included the view that the issue—that is to say, gender—was both ultra vires the scope of the mandate’s powers and variety of other views on the hegemonic enterprise of including gender in human rights discussions, imposing women’s rights and women’s experiences into spheres where they were not wanted or needed.

By contrast, in 2017 there was no obvious hostility. In fact, quite the opposite. This is affirmed at the time, about a year and a half ago by the gender conversations that were taking place another security spheres—primarily in the women peace and security agenda occasioned by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325. So gender is finding its way into the institutional architecture of counterterrorism. We see it, for example, in the compact—the Global Compact Working Group on Gender, in various Security Council resolutions, in guidelines—most recently, for example, the 2018 addendum to the 2015 Madrid Principles on Foreign Terrorist Fighters—and we see gender in the context of security discussion in General Assembly resolutions.

So all of this signals some good and positive progress on engaging gender in the security sphere. But let me posit some challenges and offer, perhaps, some preliminary solutions. First, I would want to say that the engagement with gender remains as short-form for women, meaning when we say gender it variably slips to talking about women—like the old adage women-and-children, one word. And women remained the default category for engagement. We have yet to address masculinities and the hegemonic masculinities that produce and sustain violence, both public and private, in the context of violence and extremism. Men’s vulnerability to violence and harm, including men's vulnerability to sexual violence, remains occluded in many of the security conversations of the day. And men as victims of terrorism and extremism are invisible and unseen. Men and young boys in many parts of the globe are presumed combatant, depriving them of the most essential aspect of civilian protection under international humanitarian law.

So if we’re really to get to get serious about the endeavor of engaging gender in counterterrorism, we have to start and pay some serious attention to men, addressing the masculinities that undergird radicalization and extremism, defending the rights of men and boys to protection from terrorist attack, and from rights-breeching counterterrorism measures against men, and addressing the masculinity of security institutions, internationally and nationally, that remain overwhelmingly male. Second, I would say women remain primarily visible in the counterterrorism realm as victims of terrorism, playing the role of the sort of—in some ways, the quintessential and archetypal victim. There's no doubt at all as to the importance of recognizing women as victims. For far too long, as many of the you in the room will know, serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law sustained by women—including, but not limited to, sexual violence—were ignored.

However, I want to suggest that we’re in grave danger of being swamped by what we might call the protection racket. Namely, the law and politics of protecting vulnerable women in ways that entrench notions of chastity, inequality, honor, and dependency in the counterterrorism space—as I think has happened in the women, peace, and security space. I suggest that the key issues and violations for women are a set of precursor issues concerning structural discrimination, entrenched inequality, lesser status, and lack of access on the basis of equality to a range of rights and opportunities. This is where human rights marches in. Oddly and paradoxically, in the counterterrorism and security space, it's easy to talk about gender—read, women—without discussing or talking about rights.

I suggested that this is precisely the fault line of women's carved-out space currently in counterterrorism. It states the obvious to say that the struggle to engage human rights in the security sphere remains trenchant. The way forward is to understand that only when we fully and substantively engage the lack of rights realization for women will we address the conditions that produce their specific vulnerability to terrorism and violence as well as their lack of capacity when counterterrorism strategies produce human rights violations. So rights talk and rights walk is essential for women's advancement in the counterterrorism sphere.

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about women as front-liners in counterterrorism. As the global counterterrorism strategy affirms, women are increasingly and importantly valued as agents to prevent counterterrorism and extremism. Women are active in civil society, they’re engaged in familial and communal level, and they have access to the context where violence is brewing and emerging. CVE, countering violent extremism, and preventing violent extremism strategies around the globe nationally and domestically increasingly invoke women. And funding has tended to follow the invocation.

But the invocation tends to be a one-way street. CVE and PVE strategies run extraordinary risks of commodifying women, exposing them to extreme violence in retaliation, defining them as, if you want, agents of foreign agendas and inherently untrustworthy, as we have seen in parts of the globe. In PVE and CVE parlance, human rights as a value or a discourse hardly appears. And it's worth noting that we don't have a global definition—a globally agreed, legal definition of extremism or violent extremism.

All to say, as was noted by a transformative study carried out by UNDP last year, that rights depravations and rule-of-law deficits are often at the heart of radicalization pathways. And if we are to include women in countering and preventing violent extremism, we have to see women's role as actively and genuinely autonomous, grounded in the dignity and worth of each individual, and the community she represents, not as a means to an end. Rights, including the sustained violations of women's rights, are part of the terrain that sustains extremism in all its forms. Recognizing the independence of rights and security, moving away, I think, from ill-conceived notions of balancing or metaphors of tradeoff, is it means to firmly insert rights, including women’s rights, in the fulcrum of the the security nexus.

So I look forward to discussing these comments and other views on the role of gender in the counterterrorism sphere. And welcome your remarks and views. Thank you.

POWELL: Thank you so much.

So before I open this up, I'm going to take the prerogative as chair to ask the first question. And you’ve challenged us to a conceptual level. You’ve also challenged us at the level of—the programmatic level. So I'm going to pitch my question—try to pitch it at both levels.

One of the many important points you made, which you’ve also written quite eloquently about, is the role of hypermasculinity in producing and sustaining violence in war and conflict. We can think of—oftentimes, I think, the issue of masculinity and the fact that men and boys are also victims in war gets addressed within the rubric of women, peace, and security, for example because men and boys can also be victims of sexual violence. And so the Berkeley Law School Human Rights Clinic, for example, has done quite a bit of work on that and trying to mainstream that issue around that men and boys into the women, peace, and security paradigm.

However, to the extent that we think about the role of masculinity in promoting and sustaining violence, should the U.N. be addressing masculinity as a gender issue? Or does it make sense to continue to address these issues within the rubric of conflict prevention, or the youth bulge—the fact that there are many young men who are unemployed in the Middle East and North Africa? Or we were talking before coming in in the role of madrassas in educating young men—all-boys education that is centered around violent extremism. Is the U.N. ready to talk about the role of masculinity? And I ask that because I—having worked in the U.S. government, I’m not so clear if the U.S. government is ready to talk about the role of masculinity in warfare. But I'm wondering if the U.N. might be.

NÍ AOLÁIN: So I don't profess to speak for all of the U.N. And I have my colleagues, including the undersecretary general, here today, who may also express views on this matter, and colleagues from OHCHR. What I would say is I don't think it's—in general, it's not an either/or. I think that actually there's an intellectual honesty. If we’re going to use the word “gender” as a policy matter, and we simply default to talking about women, then intellectually that's terribly dissatisfying. But not only just dissatisfying at an intellectual level, it speaks to the loss of the capacity to engage in a more full and in a more fulsome and textured way about the complexity—the totality of gender roles.

And this, I think we—the U.N. has, and I commend the working group and also the work of U.N. WOMEN in this regard, and I think some significant work that has been done, largely on the margins of the women, peace, and security agenda. But nonetheless, an incipient recognition that addressing men and boys both as perpetrators of violence, but as victims of violence, and recognizing the masculinity of institutions, right, is hugely important. And that leg, I suppose, is also—that sort of institutional legs is also represented in the women, peace, and security—sort of the third leg of the stool, which is participation. How do we include the participation—full participation in the security decision making sphere?

So I think that has to happen. But I also think all of these other areas that you’ve identified, Catherine, are—it's not either/or. We have to address the role of masculinities and violence in complex and fragile societies, because as many of us know, we're stuck in these essential loops of violence in societies. A really good statistic is that the average length of time of peace agreement lasts is five years. What does that tell us? It tells us that we’re in a cyclical cycle in many contexts and parts of the world, where the obvious solutions aren't addressing the fundamental an underlying issues in that society—of structural inequality, of exclusion, of discrimination. And gender is inherently a part of that discussion.

I would also say the same as the youth bulge. The global counterterrorism strategy agreed this spring and summer really addresses and recognizes the essential requirement of including youth in the discussions around long-term peace and security, and in the area of preventing violent extremism and radical violence. So, again, these things are not separate. They’re both at the conceptual level, but they’re also at the programmatic level, across programs, including the ones you’ve mentioned.

POWELL: Thank you so much. I want to open it up. And just to remind you to tip your card to the side if you have a question. And, again, as a reminder that we are on the record.

I spoke with Ambassador Voronkov earlier, and then promised that I would offer you the first question.

Q: Thank you very much. Thank you for the possibility to be together with you today. First of all, it’s a great pleasure to be here. Secondly, thank you, Fionnuala, for a very interesting introduction, for a lot of good ideas how to move forward on this very interesting, very delicate, and very promising topic to be discussed today.

Maybe I will start with trying to answer this question about masculinity. I think it's very good that this is a part of this discussion in the United Nations. Let’s proceed from the very simple fact that United Nations are 193 countries, with different culture, with different levels of development, with their own civilization, and so on and so forth. Of course, it creates a lot of—a lot of barriers to be overcome in order to have a common approach to the issue. But gender issue, women empowerment issue, is very high in the personal agenda of the Secretary-General Guterres. And I think it's one of the main issues which are—which is discussed in linkage with all the problems with are in the agenda of the United Nations, including counterterrorism. So I must admit, regrettably, that while the 2000 global counterterrorist strategy is the source of the United Nations work on counterterrorism and prevention of violent extremism, progress on integration a gender lens has been very slow. But now the situation is a different one.

Speaking about the last edition of the global counterterrorist strategy—and Fionnuala mentioned this issue in her statement—gender issue is the mainstream issue in the activities of the United Nation organization on this counterterrorist track. The secretary-general’s plan of action to prevent violent extremism, launched in 2015, provides a comprehensive approach to addressing conditions underlying radicalization and violent extremism. It highlights seven areas of priority action, one of which is gender equality and empowering women. So I think it's women—I think it's very obvious indication that the situation is getting more appropriate to the current demands. And the U.N. WOMEN, as an U.N. entity, is a key partner of my office in developing the comprehensive plan of actions on this very track. And we are very proud that gender equality is highlighted as one of the key areas for the next action.

U.N. WOMEN and my office are working together in delivering policy and programmatic outcomes, collaboration includes joint analysis, developing normative frameworks, strengthening coordination, and investing in civil society capacity-building. On 6 December, the United Nations Global Counterterrorism Compact was launched by the secretary-general. It’s a new arrangement for the United Nations on counterterrorism track. It means that my office is a coordinating force for the activities of all the U.N. entities, including, of course, U.N. WOMEN. And we are working on the framework of this agreement also very closely with Fionnuala because we need to have more and more advice. We need to have this mainstreaming of gender as a real part of cross-cutting agenda on counterterrorism.

Last June, the Secretary-General Guterres convened the first-ever high-level conference on counterterrorism in New York, where a large number of speakers underscored gender is a cross-cutting topic throughout the conference. By the way, the head off the U.N. WOMEN chaired one of the plenary sessions. And it was also the emphasis of the role of gender equality in the activities of the United Nations. At the conclusion of the conference, Secretary-General announced that United Nation Office of Counterterrorism will look to establish a new mechanism to ensure that the views of civil society, including gender-focused organization, are fully reflected in the United Nations counterterrorist strategies and policies.

In addition to mainstreaming gender across all the activities, my office—which includes a capacity-building arm, the UNCTC, United Nations Counter Terrorist Center, is leading several capacity-building projects focused on and engaging and women and girls. For example, we’re implementing a project to develop a handbook on the human rights-based treatment of women and children accompanying FTFs. This is really very severe humanitarian issue. And we need to address this issue together because the number of this people, ladies and children accompanying foreign terrorist fighters, are huge. It’s going on about thousands of people. It’s going on about hundred—not hundred. I think it's going on about 500—50,000, 60,000. This is very significant number of people.

And we need to create a legal framework how to deal with these people. This is a severe question, for example, for Iraq. And we're trying to collect the best possible experiences of many countries in order to create this legal framework for the activities of the member states. I think the support of civil society, the support of women's organizations in this field is absolutely must. And we need to continue this very good cooperation with U.N. WOMEN on this very track. And we are doing this kind of work. Now we—my office is recruiting a gender advisor to oversee that gender is effectively mainstreamed throughout our work and to strengthen our collaboration with U.N. WOMEN.

Finally, in 2019 we will be implementing a full gender program to be developed in close cooperation with other United Nation partners. And this will ensure the necessary programming of our activities on counterterrorism. So thank you for your attention.

POWELL: Thank you very much, Ambassador. And he heads the office—the U.N. Office of Counterterrorism. So I really appreciate your coming. And this is really part of mainstreaming this agenda.

Let me turn to Judith Bruce.

Q: Thanks. Is it on?


Q: Right? OK. Well, thank you, first of all, for convening the conversation. And just wanted to make a few observations.

I was part of the generation that pushed for the word “gender.” And I don't think it's always served us because it doesn't tell us—certainly programmatically—where we should be devoting very scarce resources. And it leaves the analysis, I think, highly theoretical and without clear clients. So I myself don't use it that often. I’m working now in a number of conflicts zones, including around the Syrian crisis. And even the youth—for instance, youth strategies. Analyze them for the last thirty-five years, end up typically consolidating male space, consolidating male power, and everyone would always rather invest in males and females. And I used to set my watch to see how quickly that would be preferred, because the population that need to be reached are ten-year-old girls, basically.

Right now and Syria there are going to be one-point-three to two million stateless children born in the next seven to ten years. And the structural elements that leave them there have to do with exclusion of girls from any meaningful school, social space reduced so that marriage rates are higher probably in the urban areas that in the rural areas, for reputational reasons. No attention to them unless they’re pregnant. And there’re not registering the children because it costs $400 to register your marriage. And basically, unless you get—unless you do a granular analysis and decide who you're going to prioritize, the money won't get where it goes. And I look at documents every day. And they say: $9 million. And I say go to the back. Which real people are are going to get real things, in real places? And I would strongly advocate for the ten- to 12-year-old female population is core. But also those places where conjointly you have—for instance, in Lebanon—populations of poor Syrian girls, poor Lebanese girls because poverty is rising there too, and Palestinian girls, and all the divisions that are now arising among them.

So if governance—if basically security means governance, this language I don't think is helping us, basically. So whether the SDGs or some other mechanism can be used, what are the possibilities of much more granular analysis, so we know who our first clients are for the investments?

NÍ AOLÁIN: Yes, let me just, first of all, welcome and thank Undersecretary General Voronkov for coming. And my mandate really appreciates the support of his office to the work of the mandate. And while we sometimes disagree on issues, both the—and we have robust conversations. The mandate is very supportive of the work of the office, the OCT, and in particular the coordination function, which is absolutely essential. And I'm also deeply supportive of the initiative taken by Ambassador Voronkov to establish a civil society unit. I think this is a critical and important venture. And civil society is significantly excluded from counterterrorism space at the U.N. and elsewhere. And this is really the first institutional initiative which has been spearheaded by the undersecretary general to meaningfully engage civil society at an institutional level in the counterterrorism space. And I think it's really important and deserve support by states.

And let me also just come to the question about nomenclature, what language we use. I think it's very clear that there is, and remains, a profound debate within feminist and other—and policy groups about whether we use “gender” or “women’s rights.” And I continue, both as a scholar and as an academic, as well as in my role as special rapporteur, remain convinced of the value of the gender language. I grew up in a society where men and boys were the primary victims of violence. If we took statistically at who’s dying in conflict, it’s gendered. And boys are overwhelmingly the targets and the victims of violence in most societies. I think to exclude that discussion—I think we miss something.

Now, that doesn't mean—so I think the debates are real. I think the concerns that when we use the terminology of “gender,” women will inevitably get excluded or squeezed out—those are not unreal or well—those are well-articulated concerns. And so it does mean when we use the language of gender we have to guard the space that includes and protects women. There's no doubt about that. But I think we lose something by not including masculinities, men and boys, in the conversation too.

But your—the second comment I would make is on budgeting. So I think human rights thinking and practice around gender budgeting has become highly sophisticated, both at the national and international level. It's interesting to me that we’re not using consistently the same kind of benchmarking around gender on programmatic work. And this is certainly one area in the counterterrorism space that I think we could actually follow the money. (Laughs.) We could follow both at the national level, where states are spending money. Where they say they’re committed to gender budgeting in the CT space, but in fact when you follow the money you don't see it, or you see where it's going.

So it's not that I don't think we have the tools to do the microwork that you're suggesting that we do, the granular work, but that we’re not deploying them as consistently, nor are we forcing or creating the kind of political pressure to encourage states and international institutions, who are spending a great deal of money bilaterally and regionally, on counterterrorism to do the same.

POWELL: Thank you. We’re going to go to Craig Charney next.

Q: OK. Thanks very much.

I run a survey research firm the does a lot of work in conflict zones. And we’ve done work in Pakistan, which I think let me to be very supportive of your emphasis on including men as well as women in the notion of gender and violence. We saw, for example, that the more media-exposed women were in Pakistan, the more opposed they were extremism. On the other hand, paradoxically, the more media-exposed men were, the more supportive they were. And that suggests both different media diets, and the fact that one was exacerbating the hypermasculinity in ways that women were not being exposed to.

On the other hand, we also saw that you had to talk to people where they were. We did focus groups of men and women the tribal areas and tested different kinds of messages. And we found a liberal explicit message didn't go over very well. But we found, on the other hand, that one that work against the Taliban and allied organizations by saying: These people claim to be respecting women and children, but they’re doing the opposite, that worked with in the notions of Pashtunwali and tradition, actually worked because, you know, they—we said: They say they’re respecting women, but they interfere them—sorry—interfere with them from going to shop, or travel, or take their kids to the clinic, and blow them up when they’re at World Food points.

Now, implicit in this was a very different notion of rights—namely, that women have the right to travel, have the right look after their children, have the right to be actors, as opposed to an implicit discourse on the Taliban’s part that basically women chattel and should be kept in boxes at home. But it was never—it was never made explicit, and it didn't correspond to an open, Western notion of women's rights. However this, with both men and women, was one of the most effective discourses in terms of rallying support against extremism.

So I'm wondering what—you know, what your reaction to these two instances? On the one hand, a very clear gender difference. On the other hand, a notion of rights that was more customary one, though not a regressive—necessarily regressive one. And how we can maintain that kind of effectiveness, while at the same time having a discourse which is opening than closing doors for women.

NÍ AOLÁIN: Yeah. Thank you. I would sort of respond on two fronts. One is just to concur with the essential and critical role of the media and other—and other platforms, particularly social media platforms, in the discussion about counterterrorism and countering violent extremism. This is a hefty and really complex conversation at the global and at the national level. Most recently, for example, the European Union has issued a draft regulation on takedown of internet content. And my mandate has expressed some views on that. We think it is important, I remain convinced of the importance of regulation, but have significant concerns about the ways in which regulation may inappropriately encroach on freedom of expression.

And bearing in mind that as we have struggled internationally to agree a global definition of terrorism, although there are Security Council Resolutions 1566 and others that move in that direction, the result is that at the national level states define terrorism in their own national legislation as they will. And what that means is that we have many states who hew pretty closely to the global consensus on the core definition of terrorism, which is targeting civilians, indiscriminate violence. We have many states who use the capacity to regulate domestically as essentially—as a means to quash domestic dissent, to lock up and limit the rights of those who express differing points of view.

In my forthcoming report to Human Rights Council, which will be issued in March, addresses that issue directly, and tracks both the global patterns of the misuse counterterrorism against civil society and civil—and human rights defenders, and also addresses the kind of patterns we’re seeing in that—in that context. So just using the opportunity to stress the complexity of the question of regulating information, and the challenges we’re facing globally in that regard.

With respect to the question of situating sort of the rights discourse and the discussion about women's rights locally, I just want to concur very strongly with the importance of locally based engagements around violence, extremism, and radicalization. The reality is that top-down diktats don't work very well—(laughs)—as we all should know by now. And we recognize the complexity and the diversity of states and the various internalized notions of understanding, and even the different functioning of law. So many parts of the world, for example, as many of you in the room know, we may create perfect rule of law systems by inviting, usually Western, experts to come in and write codes for people. But that bears very little relation to what the law that people actually use, which is many parts of the world customary or local law and is an imposition that's not welcome and often completely ineffective because it hasn't been done in partnership with—meaningful partnership with the local.

And so I am strongly of the view that the further we get away from top-down diktats, the better. And in this context, I also accept that that is a—that we also have to address women's rights in that way. This is not to say, let me be clear, that I abrogate or say that we don't have a set of fundamental values that we can agree upon universally. It is not a—I am not advocating a relativist position. But I am saying that if we—we ignore at our peril the complexity at the domestic, and at the local. And if we are not prepared to engage gracefully and thoughtfully with local communities, and to listen to where they are at, including where you can move your arguments domestically, then I think we do—we’re at a fool's errand, actually, in the long run. So that local piece, that situated, contextual—albeit, that many people will find that frustrating, and not consistent with sort of what I want to say is a somewhat imperialist position, on the imposition of rights. I think we have to be very careful in that regard.

POWELL: I thought I had seen Michaela Walsh’s card up but it’s—

NÍ AOLÁIN: Oh, it’s tipped down now. (Laughs.) Did you?

Q: I just wanted—I was going to originally ask—

POWELL: Just move it closer to you.

Q: OK. Sorry. You have addressed the question now on the issue of the word abuse of the use of the word “expert,” because I think to begin changing any policies or any institutions, that is the first word in the—in anybody's dictionary that should be illuminated, particularly if you want to work with the younger generation. And I've been fortunate enough to spend time still working with the younger generation of women in undergraduate, and fortunately for me. And I keep learning more than I teach—or, more than I share. And I think that that this just—your comments today really moved me enormously, because you create a whole new imagery of how we can think about diversity and local participation. I just really wanted to thank you for that.

NÍ AOLÁIN: So let me just say, possibly my experience with the local comes from spending most of my life in Belfast, where we used to have people show up to tell us how to fix our conflict. (Laughs.) And we were fairly hostile to that, in the sense that ultimately—and bear in mind, again, this is—I take it as a local example, but of a broader phenomenon, which is this: This is a longstanding conflict that includes—where even the terminology of conflict itself was disputed, where there was indiscriminate terrorism, violence used in a society, where you would get up in the morning and decide what way you would drive to work based on where a bomb was located on a particular bridge on a particular day. And so—but I would say that this is been one of the most successful peace processes. We’re now almost twenty years out from a peace process which involved two states and had the support of many states, but particularly of the European Union in the United States.

But this was a locally crafted solution. But it was also—it took multiple attempts to get it right, meaning that we had an agreement in the mid-1970s. We had another agreement—attempt at an agreement in 1985. And we had the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, and other subsequent iterations. So let's be clear, solving these complex problems of violence is not one-stop shopping. It's slow, tedious, repetitive work that often involves revisiting the same issues again and again and moving the consensus just a little bit forward each time, to the point where you get to a sufficient degree of consensus that it holds or sticks. So, first of all, that speaks to the traction of the local and the need to be patient and engaged with the local. But it also speaks to the absolute importance of engaging at the national and local level, including with people you don't like.

And one of my grave concerns in the counterterrorism space right now is that often the situations that we are most engaged with are countries and settings where we are overlaying terrorism and violent extremism challenges on pre-existing conflicts—on conflicts—on complex and fragile state. So it's not—there is a terrorism problem, if you take many countries, but there are also other layers of problem. And we won't address the terrorism problem until we address and engage these other layers as well. And that, again, is complex, tedious, persistent, often repetitive work which neither international institutions or bilateral systems are well set up to sort of support over the long term.

But at the heart of those—of addressing the complexity of violence is the local, is the specific and situated place in which violence is taking place. And in that, I also believe that central importance of gender remains trenchant, which is the importance of engaging women—and men, but primarily women who are the ones who tend to be excluded from these processes in the solution finding. And that's also true of youth. And that's hard to do. (Laughs.) And in the sense that when you engage at the local and the grassroots level, it's often frustrating—(laughter)—because groups—you know, there are different agendas, they are different agreements, people have different views of the same problem. And more inclusive you try to be, the longer it takes.

And so often we shortcut all of that because it's sort of tedious to do the work, and because it's complicated, and people don't agree with each other, and we have to navigate that. And so—but I think that is both—has consistently remained a strategic mistake in engaging at both the complexity of violence is it’s situated in the local, addressing long-term questions of the conditions conducive to violence, and ultimately trying to ameliorate the conditions that leads to violence in the first place.

POWELL: Right. To Julanar Green next, and then Dorothy Thomas.

Q: Thank you so much. My name is Julanar Green, and I’m the head of the peace and security team at the Canadian mission to the U.N. So it's a real pleasure for me to be here today, and in particular to hear from the special rapporteur.

I thought, given that you mentioned the global counterterrorism strategy at the U.N., I might provide a bit of an anecdote on the negotiations that took place this past summer. One of the—obviously, one of the main tenets of Canadian international assistance, foreign policy, and our national priorities are gender. And we have a feminist foreign policy, a feminist international assistance policy, and certainly a feminist prime minister. And during the negotiations this summer, we pushed very hard to expand the language on gender in the strategy resolution. And it was quite interesting to see some of the reaction from a number of countries. I think the point that the U.N. is not a monolith, I think Undersecretary Voronkov of the point quite clearly, it's made up of 193 member states, but it's also made up of a number of different organizations, some of whom are represented here today.

But during one of the negotiation sessions, I was told by my counterpart from my country that will remain nameless—but you can guess—that language on gender was irrelevant, useless, and served no purpose whatsoever. And so that's the kind of environment that we have to deal with every day at the U.N., as a member state that really prioritizes gender. And I think what was remarkable during those negotiations was the extent to which the discussions around gender, youth, human rights, terrorist use of the internet, all of the issues that you, in fact, raised, special rapporteur, during your remarks, those were some of the toughest issues for us to negotiate. And in fact, we were not able to make much progress this time around. So I think part of my question to you is, how can we advance these discussions in a more concrete, evidence-based way?

Because certainly when I get into a negotiation, and I have to explain that gender is not just about women, the reaction that I get from some of my colleagues across the table is remarkable. I get laughter. So how can we make these discussions a little bit more concrete, I would I would ask you? And I would also make the point on women, peace, and security, I note that—we were sort of remarking at this end of the table the number of women that are in the room today. (Laughter.) Canada chairs a group of friends of women, peace, and security at the U.N. Many of the meetings that we hold are almost all women experts. So how do we get more men into the conversation, because I think that's a big part of it? And how do we break down the silos between the counterterrorism, hard-security discussions, and the women, peace, and security discussion? Those are hard questions, but I'd be interested to hear your views.

NÍ AOLÁIN: Sure. Thank you. And my thanks also, Canada has been very supportive to the mandate and have—and around the discussions on the global counterterrorism strategy and was one of the countries that the mandate was in discussion with about its views on the strategy and the issues that it wanted to raise. So I agree with you, the negotiations were challenging, to say the least, and some of the earlier versions of the document were even more challenging than the one we emerged with. So in some sense it's very clear that there was—and in the broader sense, I think it's also clear that both human rights language and gender language more broadly, not just in the counterterrorism and security space, and are feeling considerable strain in the most current multilateral environment. That is clear.

So how do we advance discussions? I think one is to be positive about what we—were we are, right? If we think back prior to the women, peace, and security agenda—of which I have been critical—but I would stay in the positive sense the simple articulation that gender is part of the security discussion, that women are part of a security discussion, that might seem self-obvious, self-evident, to everyone in this room. But it clearly wasn't self-evident before the resolution was passed in the early 2000s. So that actually—that starting point, I think, that that has been solidified or gained is important. And the second is it's always amazing to me when there was the—I think it was the 15-year anniversary of the women, peace, and security resolution. And I wrote an academic article on this at the time. It was extraordinary. It was the longest Security Council debate ever. More states lined up to speak on that resolution than any other, ever. (Laughs.)

So on the one hand, right, I take that—there's a sense of tokenism to that, right, which is that everybody—because doing gender can sometimes feel like it's sort of an easy kind of kudos box to tick for states. And that actually does—we see that up the annual women, peace, and security resolution discussion every year. But I think we have to be opportunistic, actually, and use that as a way to leverage other things. And I think—so that, again, speaks to the opportunity we have because there's this, albeit complicated, political space, nonetheless that space exists where it didn't before.

The third thing, I think, is that we have to be—or, the allies have to be better at coordinate amongst themselves. simple strategy but true. Which is that is both true of states, who have similar agendas, coordinating and maintaining better solidarity, for want of a better word, with one another. But it would also be—I think it's also true of civil society. I am amazed, as special rapporteur, if I'm in Geneva, as special rapporteur, I will have—I could meet with 100 NGOs in a day, if I wanted to. But in New York, actually, I don't see them. And I think this is a huge problem.

And I think—and my—you know, I’ve spoken to NGOs. And I said: In many countries you're dealing with the downstream effects of counterterrorism, or counterextremism, or security policy. And you're going to Geneva to lobby about it. Really, you should be lobbying while the work is—while these norms are being produced. So I think a really important dynamic to changing this space is an increased commitment by civil society and NGOs to work more cohesively and cooperatively together, and actually to show up. And because I think it's far too easy to blame states when you don't offer them an alternative, when you don't engage directly, and proactively, and consistently with states. And I think there is work to do in that regard here.

And finally, I am a great believer in data. A very old-fashioned social scientist. And I think that, for example, one of the reasons why the UNDP study on pathways to extremism in Africa is—has had such a hold, it because it's a really solid data—piece of data analysis that really measures what’s happening at the granular level—going back to granular data—so we need to invest in more data. And we need to invest, for example, if we’re talking about gender and CT space, we need to more fully and empirically understand what the effect of counterterrorism and violent extremism is on women and men. Like, measure it. Don't say it anecdotally. Spend some time figuring out precisely what that looks like, and then go to states and make the argument. So there are—and in some ways I think it's up to states to support that work, because a part-time special rapporteur, who has a full-time job as a law professor two countries, can’t do that work. But we have a dearth of expertise. And we need to fill it. And that's actually the first step to actually getting better policy, which is what we do at the domestic level. So we should be doing that internationally too.

POWELL: Dorothy.

Q: Well, first of all, just at the risk of dating myself—and I don't mean going out with myself—(laughter)—I’ll admit that I started the Women's Division at Human Rights Watch. And that was quite a long time ago. And as Judith will remember, we were arguing then whether or not women actually had human rights. (Laughter.) So that was 1990. So I think I literally gave a speech at the State Department on that topic: Do women have human rights? I don’t know. (Laughter.)

But the question I asked—I have to ask sort of follows on that, and on your just recent remark about data, because when you were speaking you said that the tendency to sort of—maybe overarching stereotype about women in this space is as victims. And as someone who from very early on tried to draw attention to that very fact when it was not being looked at, I'm now very aware that while that work has offset a lot of the invisibility of women's experience in conflict, it has also had a kind of knock-on effect of keeping us perceived as sort of marginal, or laughable, in terms of the role we play both in flagging conflict on a local level that might escalate and also in attempting to remedy it.

And one question I have for you is whether, at the level of the U.N. or at the level of yourself or other mechanisms of the U.N., there’s a way to begin to shine a very strong light on the affirmative effects of women's growing participation in civil society worldwide, as distinct from a—maybe an overemphasis on our exclusion, our marginalization, our continuing vulnerability. Not to say that those things aren’t true, because every single person in this room and outside of it, who cares to pay attention, knows that it is true. But I still feel we almost disadvantage ourselves in the data collection business by focusing predominantly on our continued vulnerability rather than our collective power to actually remedy the situation.

 And that is not just on the ground. That is in the institutions in which we are participating, in the attempt to sort of develop a discourse that allows us to not just expand notions of women's role but alter notions of men's. And I just wonder if you could comment on that, just from the point of view of the documentary evidence. I do a lot of work now trying to gather affirmative evidence about women's social impact. And it's actually quite hard.

NÍ AOLÁIN: Yeah. So I think we have—so this question of being sort of being locked into the space of sort of vulnerability or protection I think is both—you know, in some sense it's important because, again, we have had centuries of the lack of attention to gender-based violence in situation conflict or collective violence against women. So bear in mind that the Geneva Conventions of 1949 didn't even define rape as a war crime subject to grave breach attention. So, like, normatively the gaps remain—you know, we’ve had centuries of a lack of attention. So we can sometimes, and I'm conscious of this, shoot ourselves in the foot by saying, well, but we’re only talking about women as victims now, given of course the centuries in which we haven't acknowledged or accounted for those harms.

That said, I do, as I've noted, think there's a grave danger in being plugged into just the victim box. First, because also women are perpetrators. And increasingly, we have to recognize the role of women in violence. I lived in the violent—I live in a violent society. Societies don't end up being violent, engage in collective violence, just because men are violent. Societies are violent often because women engage and support violence. And not to knowledge that in the same space I think is also a challenge. And my own data work as an academic looking at the kind of—looking particularly women perpetrators of terrorism, and I think we have very good social science data actually on both statistically the number of women who engaged in extreme violence as suicide bombers and others. We have better data, for example, now particularly on women who have gone to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq. Many of those women are victims, but some are not. So we have to also recognize the kind of complexity of the terrain of women and not. I think—I think it does us—does not serve us well to oversimplify what the complexity of women’s engagement is.

I also think that we have—we should be—so I think understanding that in data terms is really important. I also think we have a more nuanced discussion now about women as early warning systems. And so one of the I think things many of us would know, that within societies where collective are extremist ideologies or violence is emerging, violence and discrimination against women is an early marker of what's coming. And actually being able to use that more effectively, using the kind of constrained experience of women as an early marker on the health or temperature of a society, in the context of terrorism or extremism, is something we need to ground more firmly in data.

The place where we also, I think, see positive data, as you suggest, is in peace agreements, and in the area of peace negotiations. So U.N. WOMEN, but also a number of academic studies on the co-relationship between inclusive peace agreements and the durability of that agreement suggest a very profound correlation between the inclusion of civil society, but specifically the inclusion of women, in peace processes as being almost an insurance policy on the likelihood that that will stick. I think that's a very important datapoint also in this context. But it feels to me like we need someone—and I don't think it's me—but I think someone needs to come up with a list. We actually need to figure out where our data gaps are.

And I think in the counterterrorism space generally we struggle with these data gaps. There’s a lot of hyperbole. But actually, the data pieces, including in the area of radicalization, violent extremism, the effectiveness of counterterrorism—so we have—we spend a lot of time managing terrorism. We don't spend a lot of time evaluating how effective that management has been. (Laughs.) So there's clear challenges in this sort of empirical sense. And I’d concur. I don't have a simple silver-bullet solutions. But I have a sense of where the gaps are. And I think there are gaps that are sorely in need of filling.

POWELL: So, Fionnuala, if you don't mind I'm just going to take this last question or two, and then have you make concluding remarks.


POWELL: So, Eileen.

Q: Hi. So I—as a journalist, I covered the conflict in Belfast, actually. (Laughs.) And in the ’80s, actually, during the bombing campaigns, and in London and then in Belfast. And in the West Bank and Afghanistan, in the ’80s, and Sarajevo as well as Chechnya. And then I was back in Afghanistan and Pakistan, South and Central Asia, overseeing our CVE programs for the Obama administration, as the docent state. But what I found, and I wanted to ask you about, if you were going to shift this conversation, A, against the protection rackets, and, B, against them—you know, getting women—using local organizations, which I agree are much more effective—we found this in Afghanistan. It does not do to do a top-down approach.

But also nonprofits, because right now the structure of USAID is committed to for-profit companies. They do not advantage—USAID takes forever to do a program. They advantage Beltway bandits. (Laughter.) And those take—maybe spend forty cents on the dollar when you get rid of security costs, their profit basis, and other things. And what we found—because I had significant amount of money, thanks to Richard Holbrooke, for public diplomacy and programs to counter violent extremism. We worked with women's empowerment. We worked with actually religious leaders and trying to bring them to other moderate Islamic leaders. We looked—we worked in madrasas to change the curriculum, et cetera.

But the problem was, you know, we had $200 million worth versus—and we put most of that—almost 90 percent of it was through local—and we taught them how to write grants. We taught them how to account for the money. Because that’s the excuse that the Americans use. They don’t account for the money. They don’t know how to write a grant. So we actually did an empowerment program to help them. We got eighty to ninety cents on the dollar going straight to the ground. How do you at the U.N. change the profit motive of aid, especially aid to women. You talk about the protection racket. I totally agree with you. But how do we change the profit motive of development and women?

And I also agree with you, this also goes to the core problem, which is extremism comes from the elements of economic depravity, you know, joblessness, corruption, lack of governance, et cetera. We all know that. But we’re cutting aid while we're increasing the defense budget. And, by the way, we have a defense secretary at the United States possibly being suggested, Jim Webb, who wrote an article in The Washingtonian, “Women Can't Fight.” So if he's selected, we have a bigger problem coming down the pike.

POWELL: So we're pretty much out of time, but why don’t we give you a minute to respond. (Laughter.)

Q: Sorry. That was a long one.

NÍ AOLÁIN: Well, let me just say two things. One is that I have deep concerns about the way in which the humanitarian sector—there’s a real tension right now. And we saw it in the debates in June and in the spring, around a humanitarian exemption. Often the places where you most need to get the money are the high-risk places, where you have groups where if you give money to those groups, you’re assumed you may be convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism. If you're a bank and you're trying to transfer money, you may be caught by global financial regulations. So it's an enormous problem. We're seeing a lack of risk taking in the places where we most need to take risk.

And so what's my answer? My answer is, which is in some ways inconsistent with the kind of emphasis on risk-free solutions to terrorism, you have to take risks in the places where is the hardest to take the risks, and with individuals that are risky. (Laughs.) Let’s be clear. They’re risky. And those places are risky. And unless you can actually get the resource is in the support into those places, it’s—and I also think about it as an insurance underwriting policy. We should be prepared to write off some of that, to take the risk to figure out the solution. So that's, I think, one answer.

The second thing I just want to say, and I’ll close with this—this is really my closing remark—is that I'm not always sure that the language of countering violent extremism, preventing extremism, countering terrorism is the most useful in these places where we need to do the hardest work. And I think that in many places that language in itself speaks to stigmatization, exclusion, marking out individuals, groups, communities, and in particular religious and other minorities, as being fundamentally suspect. And I think that one of the challenges in the current environment is actually to start to use a different language, a language of inclusion, citizenship, belonging, lack of polarization, accountability, transparency.

These are really— it’s a little bit like talking about eating good food, right? It’s really boring, right, because it's much easier to use these other sexy—and language that states have of kind of bought into. But actually sometimes using that language on the ground is profoundly counterproductive because it reinforces patterns on the ground and it creates an inside and outside. So one of the things I would say that's really important on this broader agenda of inclusion and addressing the conditions conducive to terrorism is actually thinking about the language we’re using.

POWELL: Thank you so much, Fionnuala. Appreciate it. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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