Human rights impact of counter-terrorism and countering (violent) extremism policies and practices on the rights of women, girls and the family - Report of the Special Rapporteur (A/HRC/46/36) [EN/AR/RU/ZH]

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Human Rights Council
Forty-sixth session
22 February–19 March 2021
Agenda item 3
Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil,
political, economic, social and cultural rights,
including the right to development


In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism addresses the global, regional and national effects of the widespread use of counter-terrorism and preventing and countering (violent) extremism law, policies and practice on the lives of women, girls and the family.

The interaction between family regulation and counter-terrorism is accelerating, with profound implications for both, giving the State considerable and unprecedented access to the home and enabling the legal regulation of family life in the name of national security in ways that hitherto would have been inconceivable. The effects are found across multiple counter-terrorism measures, with a specific and defined negative impact on the human rights of women and girls and direct consequences for the integrity and protection of the family.

I. Introduction

  1. The Special Rapporteur has identified gender mainstreaming and attention to the gendered effects of counter-terrorism, violent extremism and broadly defined security laws and practice as a fundamental aspect of her work. Specifically, the mandate holder has continued to identify the gender and human rights impacts of measures aimed at countering terrorism and those of approaches directed at preventing or countering violent extremism. She has also addressed countering terrorism and preventing violent extremism in specific country reports. More recently, the mandate holder has attended to: the gendered impacts of restrictions on civic space; the risks of women-focused programmes aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism, inclusive of “agenda-hijacking;” and the problematic use of gender stereotypes to promote the roles of women in countering terrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism. In the present report, she provides a comprehensive overview of the impact on women’s and girls’ rights of the use of counter-terrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism programmes. She specifically addresses the impact of counterterrorism and countering extremism law and practice on the human right to family life, including the construction, regulation and control of the family resulting from those practices.

  2. The Special Rapporteur notes that significant and substantive efforts have been made to incorporate a gender perspective into the national security arena. Gender mainstreaming is rooted in the development of international law and architecture for the advancement of gender equality and the empowerment of women. It has expanded to the counter-terrorism regulatory space, particularly within the United Nations counter-terrorism architecture, in part through the Security Council’s women and peace and security agenda. That particular progression has been articulated in previous reports from this mandate holder to the Human Rights Council. It is also related to a greater engagement by security actors with the multiplicity of roles that women play in society, such as in the context of conflict and in the structure and practices of terrorist groups, including those designated by the United Nations. The Special Rapporteur has observed that a range of “gendered security harms” have resulted from national security policies, even when Governments have sought to explicitly incorporate a gender perspective. Those harms result, for example, when “gender” is treated as synonymous with “women”, when human rights and gender equality are removed from gendered approaches to counter-terrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism, when gender equality is instrumentalized through the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women as a national security tactic and when a gender equality perspective is used to focus on women terrorists in ways that encourage punitive State responses, often with a higher gender-related cost for women than for similarly situated men.

  3. Drawing from the definition of gender used by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Special Rapporteur notes and affirms the definition of gender as a set of socially constructed identities, attributes and roles for women and men and society’s social and cultural meaning for those biological differences resulting in hierarchical relationships between women and men and in the distribution of power and rights favouring men and disadvantaging women. She further affirms the elaboration on that definition relied upon by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), which notes that such attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. While the present report primarily addresses the experiences of women and girls, she notes that men and boys also experience gender stereotyping and that masculinities and femininities also shape roles, expectations and harms in this arena. She underscores the social construction of gender binaries and that they do not fully encompass the ways in which sexual minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons experience the impact of counterterrorism and countering (violent) extremism law and practice. She also reflects on the impact of those policies and practices for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons. An intersectional approach to reflecting the experiences of counter-terrorism measures demonstrates how experiences of discrimination and human rights abuses intersect and are compounded as determined by other social identities, including race, ethnicity, religion, ability, age and sexuality, and beyond.

  4. The Special Rapporteur is particularly concerned that women and girls bear heavy and unseen burdens resulting from both the direct and indirect impacts of counter-terrorism law and practice. She notes that, in the absence of a globally agreed definition of terrorism, many States have adopted national legislation concerning terrorism that is frequently at odds with the principle of legal certainty. Many countries criminalize acts which are protected by international human rights law, including freedom of expression, privacy, peaceful assembly and religious belief and expression, the right to a fair trial, the right to leave and return to one’s country and the right to family life. The counter-terrorism arena is often mistakenly viewed as gender-neutral, both in its practices and consequences. The Special Rapporteur underscores that that view is mistaken. She stresses that counter-terrorism law and policy, particularly in formal and elite settings, national and international, occur in spaces which are dominated by male actors and informed by gendered stereotypes.

  5. The implementation of counter-terrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism law, policy and practice is equally gendered. Women have historically struggled to have due and adequate representation in the security sector that dominates counterterrorism enforcement, including among the police, the military, prison personnel and the intelligence services. Nationally, elite security spaces remain dominated by affluent men lacking ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. While some progress is demonstrated in ensuring greater access for women to security sector careers through gender parity strategies, senior and decision-making roles in those arenas remain overwhelmingly closed and inaccessible to women. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization provides one positive example of increased attention to gendered approaches and organizational oversight, through its adoption in 2018 of a revised women, peace and security policy to increase the representation of women at all levels in civilian and military positions. In 2018, France adopted a gender equality strategy that promotes the increased participation of women in peace and security and public decision-making roles, including in peacekeeping operations. By contrast, although examples of good practices may exist, little data are available on national intelligence services. Improved gender representation can have significant positive effects on the design, delivery and oversight of counter-terrorism law and practice including for women and girls.

  6. The Special Rapporteur reiterates, however, that counter-terrorism institutions and policymakers not only suffer from an acute “diversity crisis” along gender and race lines, especially at the highest levels of decision-making, but also function within institutionalized cultures of discrimination, misogyny and gender bias that perpetuate gender inequality and cultures of impunity, while rewarding a very particular set of traditionally “masculine” traits and behaviours, including technocratic knowledge, justification of the use of force, decisiveness over moral considerations and masculinist protection narratives. That creates a complex reality for improving gender parity in those spaces, hindering institutions from responding to crises effectively and serving all communities equally, and leads to instrumentalization of women on the ground and failure to appreciate them as experts in their own right. She acknowledges that having certain women as architects and decision-makers in counter-terrorism and military establishments promoting and regulating counter-terrorism at home and abroad is not unproblematic. The addition of women, particularly similarly situated elite women, into such institutions does not necessarily better equip such institutions to mainstream a gender perspective or protect the rights of diverse women. She underscores the complexity of that space and cautions against attention to gender parity alone as a marker of progress on non-discrimination. Regrettably, some women claim to function as feminist voices within those security frameworks instrumentalizing and appropriating a securitized version of the women and peace and security agenda to advance the narrow aims of countering terrorism or securitized countering violent extremism. Necessary transformations are thereby missed, without recognition of the gendered harms and consequences of securitized approaches and their effects on women or the appreciation that the effects of the counter-terrorism State fall on women who are most often of different races, ethnicities and religions from the power brokers making decisions.

  7. From her sustained engagement with women’s civil society actors, the Special Rapporteur is aware that the consequences of increased securitization and expanded counterterrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism regulation have been particularly felt by women-led civil society and by women human rights defenders. She affirms the emphasis placed by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders on the need to specifically protect women human rights defenders, including from the negative effects of ill-conceived and badly applied counter-terrorism law and practice. Recent reports have detailed the increasing threat against women human rights defenders in conflict and postconflict countries, specifically countries experiencing terrorism and those at the centre of global counter-terrorism responses. Women human rights defenders are targeted at alarming rates for challenging the root causes of conflict, including corruption, governance deficits, access to land or resources and traditional notions of family and gender roles in their societies, by both State and non-State actors. States have layered responsibilities under international human rights law, including to respect, protect and promote the rights of all persons within their jurisdiction and to provide effective remedy. These have been specifically elaborated upon in relation to the violations of rights, targeting and reprisals faced by human rights defenders as a result of their work.

  8. The costs are particularly acutely felt in conflict-affected and fragile States, where women are doubly squeezed by the harms caused by violent non-State actors for whom indiscriminate violence is their stock-in-trade. Women and girls are caught between Scylla and Charybdis in contexts where non-State armed groups and proscribed terrorist organizations vie for control of territory and governance with States. The Special Rapporteur acknowledges that terrorism is particularly detrimental for the protection of women’s rights and that women who are victims of terrorism face particular and unique challenges. She affirms that there are specific harms that women experience as a result of overarching gender inequalities, stereotypes and assumptions about their needs, experiences and vulnerabilities after terrorist acts that produce policies and practices of layered harms for women who are victims of terrorism. She is deeply concerned about the sustained targeting of women and girls by non-State actors and designated groups, and in particular the widespread use of sexual violence, rape and sexual slavery to harm women and their families. She supports efforts to ensure the prosecution of acts of sexual violence under international law and welcomes initiatives to advance the implementation of international law standards for survivor-centred responses and prosecutions.

  9. In the present report, the Special Rapporteur documents the intersections of gender and national security approaches on women, girls, families, family life and family relations – specifically addressing their human rights dimensions and impacts – and provides guidance and recommendations to States.