Spaces for Change organized the civil society workshop, Counterterrorism, Human Rights and Civic Space in Africa, on the sidelines of the High-Level African Counter-Terrorism Meeting organized by the Federal Republic of Nigeria with support from the United Nations Office of Counterterrorism (UNOCT). 40 (forty) representatives of the UNOCT, UN agencies, foreign and diplomatic missions joined civil society organizations (CSOs) from Uganda, South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria’s six geographical regions at the workshop held on May 23, 2024, in Abuja, FCT, Nigeria. The side-event featured knowledge-sharing sessions and panel discussions aimed at fostering collaboration between governments, UN agencies and civil society actors to ensure a balanced counterterrorism approach that upholds international human rights standards.

The knowledge-sharing sessions featured experts’ presentations that shed light on the historical trajectory of global counterterrorism measures, the international norm-setting entities and enforcement mechanisms alongside their regional and national counterparts. The countermeasures adopted by countries, though well-intentioned, have produced certain unintended consequences adversely impacting the human rights of civilian populations while constraining the civic space across the continent. In addition, the role and participation of civil society in the development and implementation of counterterrorism policies and measures have been limited. Even though African governments often claim that they adopt the whole of government (WOG) approach to countering terrorism, ample evidence shows that civil society organizations are not invited to the table where counterterrorism decisions are made. Security issues are often highly classified and are to be left to the military generals.

The panel discussion, “Counterterrorism, Human Rights, and the Civic Space in Africa: Impacts, Challenges, and Opportunities for Reform”, presented perspectives from civil society leaders across Africa regarding the impact of counterterrorism policies on civic actors and the civic space. A major finding from the discussions is that the securitization of the civic space is a common phenomenon across the continent. Consequently, counterterrorism laws have been used to justify the over-regulation of non-governmental (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in Eastern and Southern Africa. NGOs and CSOs are designated as either obliged reporting entities or accountable institutions subject to stringent terrorism-financing protocols.

In Western Africa and the Sahel region, humanitarian assistance in regions ravaged by terrorism and conflict is hampered by counter-terrorism measures, undermining efforts by humanitarian organizations to reach and deliver critical support to hard-to-reach localities. For instance, humanitarian organizations are barred from accessing certain localities and populations, especially areas controlled by non-state armed groups. To make matters worse, the Sahel region is facing an intractable conflict, with the civic space completely shut down. Draconian security laws are in force to enforce compliance with the restrictions. In East Africa, counterterrorism laws and measures have placed evangelical leaders on the spotlight following the ‘Shakahola” incident in Kenya. Governments in the continent also make huge budgetary allocations to defense and national security at the expense of other key sectors necessary for the social and economic advancement of their citizens. The sectors continue to be relegated despite overwhelming evidence showing that rising inequalities, poverty, and unemployment remain the root cause of terrorism in the continent.

The intended and unintended consequences of countermeasures highlighted above underscore why human rights must lie at the center of counter-terrorism measures.  Countermeasures developed in partnership with civil society have a higher potential to be locally-rooted, resilient, accountable, and in alignment with human rights standards. For civil society engagement with governments and the United Nations to be meaningful, the barriers to participation must be lifted consistent with the principle of upholding human rights reiterated in several policy statements attributed to the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, Secretaries-General, the Human Rights Council and other UN bodies.

What can be done differently? An example is the requirement in Nigeria’s principal anti-terrorism legislation for the participation of civil society in the fight against terrorism. This is a best-practice that can be replicated across the continent. Beyond legal frameworks, participants shared examples of initiatives that have enhanced community tolerance and reduction of stigmatization of victims of terrorism, international cooperation among African countries to investigate and prosecute terrorists and terrorist financiers, among others. The Africa workshop was convened with support from the Mott Foundation and Fund for Global Human Rights. It forms part of a broader strategy to build the capacity of African civil society organizations (CSOs) to meaningfully engage mechanisms for combating terrorism at the national and regional levels.

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