Weaponizing Counterterrorism | Opinion

While certain aspects of the global fight against terrorism command front page headlines, other work goes largely unnoticed. But not by all.

For governments trying to silence their critics, counterterrorism policies—including those made by international bodies—provide invaluable tools with which to target critics and silence dissent.

One such international body is the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The Task Force is a global watchdog that works to ensure that states are meeting internationally agreed standards to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism by criminal networks. It provides regular assessments of states' compliance across a number of areas, including their regulation of non-profits, which are sometimes used as fronts for criminal activity. Based on these assessments, the FATF provides states with recommendations on how to better comply with standards.

While the FATF's work is of crucial importance, its recommendations can be interpreted liberally by states, and in several instances, have been abused and exploited to crack down on civil society. According to a recent independent study, there is a lengthening list of states that have attempted to justify crackdowns on civil society by hiding behind the fig leaf of FATF recommendations. They include Albania, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Venezuela and crucially Turkey.

A new report from Amnesty International, Weaponising Counter-Terrorism, explored the ramifications of a recent law rushed through the Turkish Parliament under the guise of combating terrorism financing.

Law No. 7262 introduced new measures that threaten to further undermine the legitimate work of Turkey's beleaguered civil society organizations.

Parliament passed the law on the last day of 2020. It was in response to a 2019 FATF assessment report that found Turkey only in "partial compliance" with its recommendation on terrorism financing and potential risks associated with the non-profit sector.

FATF recommended that Turkey implement a "targeted risk-based approach" and proportionate risk-mitigation measures to NPOs identified as at risk of terrorism financing abuse.

In response, Turkish authorities rushed through the law, without any consultation with civil society, and failed to introduce the risk-based approach recommended by the FATF.

The law goes far beyond what is required by FATF. Its overly broad and vague provisions undermine the principle of legality in a way that threatens to further erode the exercise of the rights to freedom of association and expression, and a range of other human rights, already routinely undermined and violated in Turkey.

The FATF sets out a risk assessment for states to apply to the non-profit sector to identify specific risks associated with terrorism financing and to implement targeted mitigation measures where required. However, the law's many ambiguities leave it open to misuse.

Banknotes of international currencies
Banknotes of international currencies. Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images

The new law subjects all NPOs to the same disproportionate risk mitigation measures, including organizations at no risk of vulnerability to involvement in terrorism financing. It ­­imposes burdensome audits on all NPOs and includes provisions that would hinder all online fundraising activities without justification based on actual risk.

The law includes provisions that enable the suspension, removal and replacement of board members and employees, in violation of the right to privacy and to association, who may be subjected to criminal prosecution under Turkey's deeply problematic anti-terrorism laws. NPOs may also be dissolved or taken over without adequate and effective judicial safeguards. Although the new law described the suspension measures as "temporary," terrorism prosecutions in Turkey often last for many years.

The law comes in the context of the ongoing onslaught by Turkish authorities against civil society.

Emblematic cases include the prosecution of imprisoned prominent civil society figure, Osman Kavala, and the conviction of Amnesty International Turkey's honorary chair, Taner Kılıç and three other human rights defenders in the Büyükada trial. These and scores of other cases clearly demonstrate how counterterrorism measures in Turkey have been weaponized against political opponents, journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organizations.

Fear of being labeled a "terrorist" or their work branded a "security threat" has led to a shrinking of space for free expression and association. During the state of emergency in place from 2016-18, more than 1,300 associations and foundations and over 180 media outlets were permanently closed down by executive decrees for unspecified links to "terrorist" organizations. This already devastated civil society landscape is further at risk as the new law begins to be implemented.

In February, the Task Force finally acknowledged that some states can take advantage of their requirements and opened a project to mitigate these "unintended consequences." But Turkey's law is a warning.

In a human rights landscape with few leverage points, FATF matters. Its assessments can influence a country's ability to secure loans, attract investment and gain foreign aid.

As the Task Force meets in Paris, it must do more than acknowledge that Turkey has exploited FATF standards. It must act to reverse their new law. Blatant disregard for the FATF process and for international human rights law cannot be accepted.

If the Task Force fails to make this clear, there is a danger that it would allow the continuation of dangerous precedents that will be eyed keenly by would-be authoritarian governments around the world.

Julia Hall is Amnesty International's expert on counterterrorism.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.