Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin Presents Global Study on Counter-Terrorism's Effect on Civil Society

As part of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Week hosted last week at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin—Faculty Director of Minnesota Law’s Human Rights Center and United Nations Special Rapporteur—presented her Global Study on the Impact of Counter-Terrorism on Civil Society & Civic Space. This event brought together Member States, civil society, the United Nations, and other stakeholders.

Background on the Misuse of Counter-Terrorism Measures

In the realm of human rights advocacy, concerns about the misuse of counter-terrorism measures against civil society have been raised. This issue stems from the UN Security Council Resolution 1373, which was created after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. This resolution requires States to legislate against terrorism, but there is no globally agreed upon definition of terrorism. So, each State has the opportunity to define what terrorism is on their own terms with almost no consequence at the domestic level. 

As a result, some governments are using counter-terrorism laws to imprison opponents and critics of their government. Other governments are using counter-terrorism measures as a weapon to intimidate, threaten, and stifle dissent of media freedom and civil society activities that would otherwise hold states accountable. All of these issues involve the criminalization of things that human rights actors would say are protected by international law: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to participate in public affairs, and the right to practice your religion without undue interference from the state.

The Purpose of the Global Study

The purpose of Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin’s Global Study is to amplify and connect the diverse evidence from local, regional, and international civil society organizations on the impact of counter-terrorism measures on civil society. In addition, this Study aims to provide insights and recommendations to Member States, the U.N., and other stakeholders on integrating stronger human rights safeguards on counter-terrorism efforts to foster inclusive and vibrant civic spaces in compliance with international law.

This Global Study was conducted by collecting and analyzing data through a participatory process involving civil society—comprising 13 civil society consultations across regions, 108 written inputs, including 76 by civil society representing 116 organizations, and 2 civil society surveys. Support for this Global Study was provided by the Government of Germany and the Kingdom of Spain as well as Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law (INCL).

The Study’s Findings: A Global Problem

The Global Study demonstrates the negative impact of counter-terrorism measures transcends individual actors. Governments worldwide, regardless of region or political affiliation, have employed these measures in some way. Although variations exist across regions and countries, the Study underscores the systemic nature of the problem. It dispels the notion that this issue is confined to a few ‘bad apples’ and highlights the need to address the problem holistically. The Study aims to establish an irrefutable record of the widespread misuse of counter-terrorism measures and its correlation with broader human rights violations.

A Unique Approach: Engaging Civil Society in Cross-Learning

What sets this research apart, is its bottom-up approach in collecting civil society's firsthand experiences on a global scale. By amplifying the voices of those affected, the Study takes a coalition-building approach to address the limitations of relying solely on political commitment. Engaging civil society in consultations at national and regional levels has facilitated conversations, sharing of experiences, and identification of common challenges. The Study emphasizes the importance of cross-learning, where participants in one region gain insights from success stories and strategies employed in other regions.

While Professor Ní Aoláin’s tenure as Special Rapporteur nears its end, plans are underway to pilot the implementation of the Global Study in Latin America. Collaborating with regional partners and civil society organizations, the aim is to explore a localized approach to implementing the study's recommendations. A meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, will provide a platform to discuss priorities, share experiences, and develop strategies to effectively support civil society in the region. This initiative underscores the commitment to ongoing collaboration and emphasizes the Study's lasting impact beyond its official conclusion.

Supporting the Human Rights Center’s Important Work

The Human Rights Center at Minnesota Law is one of the first of its kind, with an international reputation for its rigorous research, dedicated teaching mission and meaningful support to the human rights community locally, nationally and globally. The Human Rights Center supports the work of distinguished faculty like Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin who are not only making an incredible impact around the world, but also teaching students expert legal thinking and practices while providing hands-on learning opportunities.

The broad and important work of the Human Rights Center at Minnesota Law is supported by alumni and friends. These donor contributions provide vital resources that allow the Human Rights Center to support groundbreaking research, develop innovative programs, and engage in impactful advocacy. Professor Ní Aoláin shares, “I would never have been offered this position [UN Special Rapporteur] if I were not supported by a university that values and systematically invests in the kind of work I do, from research assistants to a world-class library to faculty who value real-world policy. This work is incredibly demanding, but I chose Minnesota because I knew I would not be alone in it.” 

You can see Professor Ní Aoláin’s full Global Study in an interactive format at:

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

Honorary Kings Counsel
Regents Professor
Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society
Faculty Director, Human Rights Center
Professor, Queen's University of  Belfast, School of Law, Northern Ireland