Skip to main content

Secretary-General Warns Terrorists Are Exploiting COVID-19 Pandemic, Calls for Vigilance, at Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week Opening

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the opening of the 2020 virtual Counter-Terrorism Week, in New York today:

Welcome to this United Nations Counter-Terrorism week.  Today’s event kicks off a series of discussions over the coming days.  I want to recognize and thank all of you for taking part, as well as Under-Secretary-General [of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office] Vladimir Voronkov for his efforts.

The international community is facing a crisis like no other since the founding of the United Nations 75 years ago.  COVID-19 has caused severe disruptions to health systems, economies and local communities around the world — and laid bare profound fragilities in our world today.  I trust that this week’s discussions will provide a valuable platform to discuss the strategic and practical challenges of countering terrorism in a global pandemic environment.

It is too early to fully assess the implications of COVID-19 on the terrorism landscape.  But we know that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), Al-Qaida and their regional affiliates — as well as neo‑Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups — seek to exploit divisions, local conflicts, governance failures and grievances to advance their objectives.

ISIL is continuing its efforts to reassert itself in Iraq and Syria, while thousands of foreign terrorist fighters battle in the region, seek to engage in conflict elsewhere, or linger in temporary detention while their family members remain stranded.  The pandemic has also highlighted vulnerabilities to new and emerging forms of terrorism, such as misuse of digital technology, cyberattacks and bioterrorism.

Like the virus, terrorism does not respect national borders.  It affects all nations and can only be defeated collectively.  So we must harness the power of multilateralism to find practical solutions.  I would like to highlight five areas to guide our future actions in the field of counter-terrorism.

First, we need to keep up the momentum in the fight against terrorism.  This includes continuing to invest in national, regional and global counter-terrorism capabilities, especially for countries most in need of assistance.

Second, we need to closely monitor evolving terrorist threats and evolving trends and be innovative in our responses.  That means ensuring we have the right technology, tools and concepts to stay ahead of terrorists.

Third, counter-terrorism responses must always be gender‑sensitive — recognizing the violent misogyny at the heart of so many groups — and protect and promote human rights.  Counter-terrorism laws and security measures cannot be an excuse to shrink civic space, curtail freedom of association and deny other fundamental rights.  Full compliance with international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law is essential.  The fight against terrorism must uphold these values, or without which we will never succeed.

We also have a collective responsibility to facilitate the repatriation of foreign nationals, particularly women and children, from camps in Syria and Iraq, where the risk of COVID-19 is worsening the already dire security and humanitarian conditions.

Fourth, we need to tackle the spread of terrorist narratives through pandemic-sensitive, holistic approaches.  Psychosocial, economic and political stresses associated with COVID-19 have risen dramatically.  Terrorists must not be allowed to exploit those fissures and fragilities.

This week’s webinars and interactive discussions include civil society representatives, the private sector, women and young people, all of whom are vital to preventing violent extremism and building inclusive and resilient societies.  These discussions will also be informed by the voices of victims of terrorism.  It is crucial that we do all we can to address the plight of those who have suffered because of terrorism.

We know that, despite the passage of time, victims of terrorism continue to struggle with its legacy.  They need avenues for healing through justice and support.  I commend them for all they are doing to form global alliances, counter false narratives spread by terrorists, and share their experiences with the world.  The United Nations is committed to helping connect and raise those voices — including through events this week.

Fifth and finally, we need to strengthen information sharing to learn from the experiences and good practices of others in the COVID-19 security landscape.  The United Nations’ Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact framework has helped enhance coordination and coherence in the delivery of United Nations technical assistance and capacity-building to Member States.  Quality capacity‑building assistance will remain an important pillar of the United Nations counter-terrorism work.

We must commit to do more and better.  As in every other area of our mission, our work will be assessed by the difference we make in people’s lives.  As we commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of our Organization, let us seize this opportunity to review and strengthen our counter-terrorism efforts.

The exchange of views and ideas this week will feed into next year’s high‑level Counter-Terrorism Week, including the seventh biennial review of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, the second Conference of Heads of Counter‑Terrorism Agencies of Member States and the inaugural Congress of Victims of Terrorism.

You can be sure that the United Nations remains fully committed to advancing our common struggle against terrorism and upholding our common values.

For information media. Not an official record.