In Conversation with Elizabeth Joyce

Elizabeth Joyce is the Chief of Section, United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee. She has worked for the UN since 1999, where she started as a Money Laundering Advisor to the UNODC. From there she moved into counter-terrorism via her work on countering terrorist financing. Her talk was mostly concerned with the evolution of the UN’s role in countering terrorism, beginning in the 1990s and the reaction to the 1998 US Embassy Bombings and going up until the modern day. Her focus was technical, describing the UN’s expanding role via pieces of core legislation, as well as outlining the role and activities of the Counter-Terrorism Committee. The following CCW interview expands on that latter point, attempting to understand the specifics of the Committee’s activity and how counter-terrorism functions on the global level.

CCW: First, in your globetrotting, did you discover any cultural or religious norms that actually facilitated the implementation or generation of counter-terrorism measures?

EJ: I think it’s safe to say that in some regions, as I mentioned earlier on, community engagement for the police is a deep-seated part of the culture, and while it may never be labelled as counter-terrorism it’s actually a very useful relationship that the local police have with the community.

CCW: And that relationship between police and community does not exist everywhere?

EJ: Not necessarily, not at a grassroots level. There are certain models that are particularly prevalent in certain regions that are really helpful.

CCW: While you were analysing these myriad approaches to counterterrorism, did you come across any non-state initiatives with grassroots communities themselves doing things that states could learn from in their fight against terrorism?

EJ: Yes, absolutely —tons of good initiatives. As I said during my talk, we spend a lot of time talking to civil society, individuals and organisations, particularly in community engagement. We see womens’ groups for example taking steps to prevent terrorist recruitment. We see lots of non-profit organisations generating ideas and activities in vulnerable communities that are incredibly helpful, that build resilience within that community, and really act as a strong pull away from what could otherwise, especially for young people, be a fairly seductive recruitment process.

CCW: Your mention of women’s groups is very interesting. Do you have a specific example you could tell us about?

EJ: Well there’s one process…we ran a workshop in collaboration with a civil society organisation in South Asia, and this group brought to us various women who run projects in the region. One woman runs a little think tank that sends mothers out to talk to mothers whose children have been misbehaving. We’re talking that grassroots. Another woman was the mother of a soldier who went missing in one particular country, who ran an organisation that reached out to the mothers of sons who had been on the other side. These sorts of peacebuilding grassroots initiatives are incredibly valuable. I think it’s not necessarily that states are the best actors to be leading them, but I think states need to be encouraging them, because it might take many thousands of such initiatives but together they do have a strong social effect.

CCW: I’ll move on to advising on best practice. So, what counter-terrorism practice do you find yourself most consistently advising, across all contexts?

EJ: Many. We consistently advise countries to make sure their terrorism legislation is up-to-date, reflective of their needs, definitions are proportionate – that’s a word we think is very important – proportionate to the threat in their country. We’re very concerned if we see counter-terrorism legislation that’s too broad, so we spent a lot of time talking to states about that. The ability of judges to set the pace in a criminal justice system, we see that as a global issue, in states of all kinds of capacity, that’s very important. Prosecutors, often it’s prosecutors that need the most support in bringing cases to trial, some of the techniques of using evidence, particularly sensitive evidence, in trials, that’s important to us. Terrorist financing, we consistently recommend proportionate relationships between states and charities so that they are not subject to too much regulation, so that they’re allowed to flourish on one hand, but on the other, the risk of them being abused by terrorist financing is diminished. A lot of these sound like easy things to put in place but when you’re constantly trying to reach a balance between effectiveness and the protection of freedoms of association and freedoms of speech and so on, it’s not an easy process for any state.

CCW: In your talk you described the importance of getting people from nations with historically tense interstate relations to cooperate in counter-terrorism measures. How do you go about achieving this? 

EJ: Our objective is to generate the habits of cooperation. Our tactic is to bring them together on a regular basis and develop the habits of cooperation. It’s not a high-level political initiative. We simply believe very strongly, that, particularly on a regional level, states have so much in common at the working level, that practitioners have so much in common, that it just makes sense for them to be able to talk to each other. Most international cooperation is actually regional cooperation. If it’s a crime involving two states the chances are (unless it’s a financing crime) that it’s regional cooperation that needs to take place, they need to be talking to each other. Often they already are, but sometimes we’re able to help that process along a little.

CCW: Is there anything anecdotally you could tell us about how you manage to break down those walls?

EJ: I think you raise a very good point there, a lot of our evidence of success is anecdotal. It’s my belief that in our office we should be collating this anecdotal evidence.

CCW: It seems like the UN’s ability to deal with terrorism has expanded massively in recent years, largely due to the rising prominence of al-Qaeda and, most recently, the Islamic State. I wanted to ask, is this because al-Qaeda and Islamic State define themselves as opponents of the nation-state system as a whole?

EJ: You’ve brought something up that’s actually dear to my heart and to my colleagues’. We’re civil servants, we work for the member states, our members are states, and I think for a lot of us within the UN (and this might not have any impact on how the UN does its CT work, but on a very personal level) feel a quasi-state is an affront to the core values of the UN. It’s very upsetting to see it. There’s two points to your question, one is that, that they would aspire to be a threat to the system of nation states, but the other one is, yes the UN’s capacity to work on counter-terrorism has increased a lot, and it has increased in relation to very real threats. But, there is always more to do.

This interview was conducted by Adam Brodie for Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme.