Counterterrorism Resolutions and Initiatives by Regional Institutions: Organization of Islamic Cooperation

  • Melinda Negrón-GonzalesEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the International Human Rights book series (IHR)


The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is a transregional organization that aims to represent the world’s Muslims. The OIC set an ambitious agenda in its 2025 Program of Action and is evolving from a loosely configured assemblage of states to a more cohesive organization. It is well-positioned to play a greater role in global affairs, particularly in counterterrorism, considering the dire circumstances in many OIC member states wracked by armed conflict. As such, two top priorities are countering violent extremism and promoting human rights, and this chapter examines the intersection between the two. It assesses the degree to which the OIC’s definition of terrorism and its resolutions and initiatives on counterterrorism mirror global trends for countering terrorism within a human rights framework. The chapter concludes that the influence of authoritarian member states and ambiguities concerning the compatibility between some Islamic laws and international human rights laws limit the degree to which the organization can provide guidance on countering terrorism without violating international human rights norms. In addition, despite recent capacity building, the OIC still lacks adequate monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to influence its member states. Its tools for facilitating compliance with the recommendations of its Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission are especially weak.


Counterterrorism International human rights Organization of Islamic Cooperation Countering violent extremism 


Violent extremism poses a serious threat throughout the Muslim world. A majority of terrorist attacks carried out by transnational terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, have occurred in member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), particularly in war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In fact, OIC members have experienced a disproportionately high level of political violence carried out by non-state armed groups in the 2000s compared to non-OIC states. Some of these conflicts have been wracked by atrocity crimes (e.g., Sudan, Syria) and have descended into appalling humanitarian crises (e.g., Yemen, Somalia). Consequently, the OIC has stepped up efforts to prevent and suppress international terrorism and resolve the conflicts that often breed terrorist violence.

This chapter reviews the evolution of the OIC’s institutional infrastructure and shines a spotlight on the organization’s counterterrorism and human rights initiatives. It assesses the degree to which its resolutions and programs on counterterrorism mirror global trends and serve as effective measures for countering terrorism within a human rights framework. The dire circumstances in many OIC countries experiencing conflict and terrorism have served as a catalyst for the creation of subsidiary organs, projects, and partnerships with other international organizations to enhance counterterrorism activities. The OIC is well-positioned to play a greater role in global politics, particularly in counterterrorism, and it has coordinated symposia and created mechanisms by which states share information on counterterrorism and build networks for sustained cooperation. The organization, however, has been less successful in its promotion of human rights. This is partially due to ambiguity regarding the relationship between Islamic law and international human rights law but also the result of its institutional weakness vis-à-vis member states. Indeed, despite capacity building, the OIC still lacks robust monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that would boost compliance with its directives; and this is especially true of its Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission.

The first section provides a brief primer on the OIC, with emphasis on recent reforms to transform the organization from a loose confederation into a more cohesive organization with a broader mandate. This is followed by a review of OIC legal instruments on counterterrorism and an assessment of the degree to which they complement or contradict United Nations (UN) treaties and resolutions. The next section turns to OIC resolutions and initiatives on human rights and their convergence and divergence with international human rights treaties, with special attention paid to recent discussions on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism (Pillar IV of the UN Counterterrorism Strategy). The chapter ends with an overview of the OIC’s programs to prevent and combat terrorism and an evaluation of their effectiveness and potential for success.

OIC Background

Established in 1969, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (formerly Organization of the Islamic Conference) aims to serve as the collective voice of the Muslim world. The first meeting of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers was held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1970, and a permanent Secretariat was established in Jeddah shortly thereafter. By 1999, the transregional organization had grown from 25 to 56 UN member states plus Palestine. It has historically functioned primarily as a platform for dialogue, though a reformist Secretary General set an ambitious agenda in the early 2000s to restructure the organization and enlarge the scope of operations. This culminated in a new Charter in 2008 and a name change in 2011 to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Its new Charter, like the older version, affirms a strong commitment to international law and state sovereignty, and it invokes Islamic norms and values as guiding principles.

The OIC’s main objectives are to facilitate solidarity within the ummah, or Islamic community, foster good relations between the ummah and other actors, and also offer an Islamic perspective in global forums. The OIC is composed of three main bodies: the Conference of Kings and Heads of State and Government, the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM), and the General Secretariat and subsidiary organs. There are four specialized institutions under the auspices of the OIC: the Islamic Development Bank, the Islamic States Broadcasting Organization, the International Islamic News Agency (all in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), and the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (in Rabat, Morocco).

Long regarded as a marginal player in international affairs (Kayaoglu 2015; Samuel 2013; Bicak 2011; Hmoud 2016; Akbarzadeh 2005), the OIC seeks to increase its visibility and influence among its members and beyond. As such, institutional capacity building has continued apace after its 10-Year Program of Action adopted in 2005 ushered in a wave of reforms. The OIC Secretariat has since allocated more resources toward extant programs and created new subsidiary organs and specialized institutions to address the most serious challenges facing member states, such as poverty, conflict resolution, and good governance. For instance, in 2011 an Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) was formed as an expert body to facilitate discussions on human rights. In 2013 a Peace and Security Mediation Unit was established to settle disputes, and a Humanitarian Emergency Response Fund was created to provide humanitarian assistance as soon as man-made and natural disasters arise. The OIC 2025 Program of Action adopted in 2016 builds on the former plan and is even more ambitious, emphasizing 18 priority areas with 107 goals. It identifies counterterrorism, extremism, violent extremism, radicalization, sectarianism, and Islamophobia as top priorities. Other priority areas include peace and security, Palestine and Al-Quds, poverty alleviation, investment and finance, food security, science and technology, climate change and sustainability, moderation, culture and interfaith harmony, empowerment of women, joint Islamic humanitarian action, human rights, and good governance.

Despite these reforms and institution building, the OIC remains weak vis-à-vis member states, in part because its members vehemently guard their sovereignty but also because of its size and diverse membership profile. It is a heterogeneous assemblage of 57 members with vastly different economic and political systems. Almost all member states have sizable Muslim populations, and many are Muslim-majority, though they do not share a uniform vision for the role of Islam in public life or international politics. Its members span four continents and there is a considerable gap between rich and poor states. For instance, the per capita GDP based on purchasing power parity in the richest member country was 17 times higher than the average of the OIC countries in 2010, and of the UN list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), 21 out of 48 are OIC countries (Tadjdini 2012: 39). The range of political regime types represented in the OIC is also quite broad, spanning from monarchies to semi-democratic republics to authoritarian regimes (most member states are more authoritarian than democratic). These disparate member states have different and often competing national interests. They also have distinct commitments to regional organizations, and the OIC must compete for influence with these other, more robust institutions. For example, Southeast Asian member states belong to the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN), a more cohesive and comprehensive regional organization than the OIC but less supranational than the European Union, to which Turkey is an official candidate for membership. Moreover, as the only NATO member in the OIC, Turkey is beholden to a distinct set of norms, regulations, and objectives concerning international terrorism and global politics more generally.

Given its size and diversity, the OIC’s reliance on consensus decision-making often results in lowest-common-denominator resolutions that are excessively broad and vague. Moreover, decisions (referred to as communiques, declarations, or resolutions) made by any OIC organ are non-binding and do not carry the weight of law. Consequently, even decisions reached by the highest bodies, the Islamic Summit or ICFM, are akin to recommendations, and these bodies have neither the authority nor the instruments to coerce implementation of directives or punish violations (Kayaoglu 2015; Samuel 2013). Notwithstanding its recently expanded mandate and the creation of new organs and initiatives, the organization continues to lack robust monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. As a result, OIC Secretaries General have applied pressure through what one former Secretary General calls behind-the-scenes “quiet diplomacy” (Ihsanoglu 2010). Overall, then, the organization lacks supranational authority and has primarily served to facilitate dialogue, fund projects and training programs in a wide variety of fields, and act as a liaison between its members and between members and various UN bodies.

In addition to its economically and politically diverse membership profile, geopolitics impede further cooperation and integration. A significant source of tension within the OIC is the Sunni-Shia divide. This schism has caused considerable political instability, particularly in the Middle East, and it directly fuels terrorist violence in places like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Indeed, OIC member states engaged in sectarian proxy wars and partisan conflicts have actually helped to create conditions in which terrorists thrive. This long-standing sectarian rift has manifested itself inside the OIC, thereby hampering its capacity to address the problem. The Sunni-Shia divide within the OIC is compounded by Saudi Arabia’s preponderance of power in the organization and its rivalry with Iran. Saudi influence in the OIC rests largely on its wealth – between 1970 and 1991, $96 billion was bilaterally awarded by Saudi Arabia to OIC countries in the form of loans and grants (Tadjdini 2012: 38). Akbarzadeh and Ahmed (2018) add that Saudi Arabia has been able to “exert hegemonic control over the OIC” because the Secretariat and most subsidiary bodies are located in Saudi Arabia and because of the organization’s reliance on Saudi funding more generally. These dynamics impact the OIC’s ability to contribute to UN and member states’ counterterrorism efforts and limit the OIC’s ability to apply pressure on states to abide by international human rights law while countering terrorism.

OIC Resolutions and Treaties on Counterterrorism

The OIC is progressively developing its capacity to aid member states and the international community with counterterrorism, and it is uniquely positioned to play a role in counter-jihadism. The cornerstone of the OIC’s legal and normative framework on counterterrorism is its 1999 Convention on Combating International Terrorism (hereafter, Convention). It is one of only three OIC treaties and includes 42 articles covering a wide spectrum of issues, from defining terrorism to recommending action to combat terrorism. The Convention repeatedly condemns terrorism as a violation of both Shariah (Islamic way of life and law) and fundamental human rights enshrined in UN treaties. The organization has also issued several non-binding resolutions on terrorism, particularly since the 9/11 attacks on the United States. These resolutions cover prevention, how to combat ongoing violence and conflict resolution. The latter is especially important for large-scale, protracted conflicts (e.g., Syria’s or Libya’s civil war), which involve a panoply of state and non-state actors and different types of warfare, from conventional warfare to terrorism against noncombatants.

The OIC has generally followed the lead of the United Nations in the field of counterterrorism. It encourages its members to ratify and comply with the full range of UN counterterrorism legal instruments, and the UN and OIC have strengthened ties in recent years. UN Secretaries General have underscored the importance of working with other international organizations, and the OIC has garnered considerable attention since 9/11 as a “strategic and crucial partner of the United Nations” due to the high number of attacks and recruitment that occur in member states (UN Doc. SG/SM/13143). The UN Security Council has also taken note of the OIC’s importance and held its first ever meeting on the role of the OIC in maintaining peace and security in 2012 (Security Council Advocates Greater Ties 2013).

The United Nations has developed 19 international legal instruments to prevent and suppress terrorist acts. These sectoral instruments cover specific criminal acts, such as the unlawful seizure of aircraft and the taking of hostages. Although these sectoral treaties address most forms of terrorism, they criminalize particular acts without any reference to terrorism per se, and the international community has yet to agree on a universal definition of terrorism. Proponents for a universal definition point to the inconsistencies in counterterrorism legislation in the 140 countries that have adopted counterterrorism legislation since the 9/11 attacks (as required by various UN resolutions). They argue the absence of an internationally agreed upon definition makes interstate cooperation on counterterrorism excessively cumbersome because legal regimes at national, regional, and global levels lack harmony. The OIC has officially endorsed this position, and it has been directly involved in the debates on the UN’s draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) in which the definition would be enshrined. The following section presents the disagreements surrounding the creation of a universal definition and discusses the implications of the OIC’s attempts to include provisos based on its Convention on Combating International Terrorism.

Defining Terrorism

Since its creation by the General Assembly in 1996, the UN Ad Hoc Committee on International Terrorism has been incrementally working on a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) but has yet to finalize it. A major stumbling block is a lack of consensus on a definition of terrorism. The OIC has been the primary driver of one strand of an ongoing debate on how to define terrorism in the CCIT. In short, the OIC seeks to exclude acts of violence carried out by non-state actors during an armed struggle against foreign occupation, colonial, or alien domination (Kayaoglu 2015; Nesi 2016; Samuel 2013; Tadjdini 2012; O’Keefe 2012; Bozorgmehri 2012; Hmoud 2006; Alfitiri 2006; Young 2006; Saul 2005).

An early attempt to outline exactly what type of activity constitutes terrorism can be found in the UN General Assembly Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism (1994):

[C]riminal acts intended to or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them. (UN Doc A/RES/49/60 (1994), para 3)

UNSC Resolution 1566, adopted a decade later, states:

[C]riminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature, and calls upon all States to prevent such acts and, if not prevented, to ensure that such acts are punished by penalties consistent with their grave nature. (UN Doc S/RES/1566 (2004), para 3)

Neither of these definitions is legally binding. Saul (2005) posits that the UNGA Declaration is akin to a political agreement rather than a legal definition but because it represents the consensus of the full international community, it serves as a good starting point to discuss a more comprehensive definition. In fact, the Declaration recognizes this and calls for further development of codified norms and laws pertaining to terrorism. Accordingly, UN Security Council Resolution 1566 specifies more criminal acts than the UNGA Declaration but does not incorporate all forms of terrorism and leaves out the requirement of intent or motive (political, ideological, religious, … purpose). Moreover, the degree to which 1566 constitutes a legal concept is also debatable, according to Samuel (2013). The proposed definition in the draft CCIT, by contrast, is much more inclusive of the types of criminal activity covered in sectoral agreements. Yet it does not require a political motive, unlike the 1994 Declaration. Hence, there are significant differences that shape the scope of what a comprehensive definition should include. The defintion in the draft CCIT’s Article 2 is much more precise than either the UNGA Declaration or 1566. It includes the following:
  1. 1.
    Any person commits an offence within the meaning of the present Convention if that person, by any means, unlawfully and intentionally, causes:
    1. (a)

      Death or serious bodily injury to any person

    2. (b)

      Serious damage to public or private property, including a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system, an infrastructure facility, or to the environment

    3. (c)

      Damage to property, places, facilities, or systems referred to in paragraph 1 (b) of the present article resulting or likely to result in major economic loss, when the purpose of the conduct, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act

  2. 2.

    Any person also commits an offence if that person makes a credible and serious threat to commit an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 of the present article.

  3. 3.

    Any person also commits an offence if that person attempts to commit an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 of the present article.

  4. 4.
    Any person also commits an offence if that person:
    1. (a)

      Participates as an accomplice in an offence as set forth in paragraph 1, 2, or 3 of the present article

    2. (b)

      Organizes or directs others to commit an offence as set forth in paragraph 1, 2, or 3 of the present article

    3. (c)
      Contributes to the commission of one or more offences as set forth in paragraph 1, 2, or 3 of the present article by a group of persons acting with a common purpose. Such contribution shall be intentional and shall either:
      1. (i)

        Be made with the aim of furthering the criminal activity or criminal purpose of the group, where such activity or purpose involves the commission of an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 of the present article

      2. (ii)

        Be made in the knowledge of the intention of the group to commit an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 of the present article


    (UN Doc A/59/894, Appendix II Draft Comprehensive Convention against International Terrorism)

The draft CCIT definition is also more precise than the OIC Convention (below), though Article 1 of the OIC Convention does share many of the same elements found in the UN resolutions. It states:

‘Terrorism’ means any act of violence or threat thereof notwithstanding its motives or intentions perpetrated to carry out an individual or collective criminal plan with the aim of terrorizing people or threatening to harm them or imperiling their lives, honor, freedoms, security or rights or exposing the environment or any facility or public or private property to hazards or occupying or seizing them, or endangering a national resource, or international facilities, or threatening the stability, territorial integrity, political unity or sovereignty of independent States

‘Terrorist crime’ means any crime executed, started or participated in to realize a terrorist objective in any of the Contracting States or against its nationals, assets or interests or foreign facilities and nationals residing in its territory punishable by its internal law

Similar to the UNSC 1566, then, motive is not a feature of this definition and it encompasses an exceedingly broad array of activities by undefined actors. As such, a letter from Human Rights Watch to the OIC Secretary General in 2008 implored the OIC to narrow its definition of terrorism to cover only “acts committed with the intention of causing death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages” (Improve and Strengthen the 1999 OIC 2008). The report also requested the OIC amend an exclusion clause for fighters struggling for self-determination.

It is this clause that has caused much debate over how to craft a universal definition for the CCIT. The OIC has vociferously called for the CCIT to exclude non-state actors engaged in armed struggle against foreign occupation or colonialism. In addition, it has argued that the international community has not paid enough attention to state terrorism, which should be included in the CCIT. Both arguments emanate from the OIC’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reflect the OIC’s attempt to protect Palestinian militants and create more legal instruments to address what it regards as Israeli “state terror.” Accordingly, the text offered by the OIC for the CCIT reads:

The activities of the parties during an armed conflict, including in situations of foreign occupation, as those terms are understood in international humanitarian law, which are governed by that law, are not governed by this Convention. (O’Keefe 2012: 272)

By contrast, the text circulated by the opposing camp, which is generally supported by Western governments, states:

The activities of armed forces during an armed conflict, as those terms are understood under international humanitarian law, which are governed by that law, are not governed by the Convention. (O’Keefe 2012: 272)

The seemingly minor differences in the two versions have profound implications for the treaty’s juridical reach. For example, though “armed forces” in the second version could include more than the armed forces of a state, even a broad interpretation would only encompass dissident armed forces and at the most armed units of militarily organized national liberation movements subject to military discipline (O’Keefe 2012). This is the reason the OIC version states that “parties” to an armed conflict that falls under international humanitarian law should be excluded. The term “parties” is much broader than “armed forces” and would include any armed groups fighting for self-determination irrespective of their military character. Put differently, the broader term “parties” would result in the exclusion of some groups colloquially branded as terrorists from the CCIT’s jurisdiction because they are fighting against occupation (i.e., Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). In essence, the CCIT would mirror the OIC Convention on Counterterrorism, which unequivocally says:

Peoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism, and hegemony, aimed at liberation and self-determination in accordance with the principles of international law shall not be considered as terrorist crime. (OIC Convention article 2(1).

The OIC’s consistent and full-throated support for the right to self-determination stems from its official backing of the Palestinian struggle for an independent state, which has been a central issue throughout the organization’s history. In fact, one of the main catalysts for strengthening Muslim solidarity under the auspices of a new international organization was the 1967 burning of Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by Zionists. The OIC was created 2 years later and enshrined the protection of the Al-Aqsa mosque and other Islamic holy sites in its Charter. Further, supporting Palestinian independence is also endorsed in the Charter. Even the OIC’s Cairo Declaration on Human Rights (discussed in the following section) includes a strongly worded article on colonialism and self-determination, stating:

colonialism of all types being one of the most evil forms of enslavement is totally prohibited. Peoples suffering from colonialism have the full right to freedom and self-determination. It is the duty of all States peoples to support the struggle of colonized peoples for the liquidation of all forms of occupation.” (Art 11(b))

The OIC’s proposed exclusion clause has not been accepted and it brings to the forefront unresolved debates in the international community concerning the right to self-determination. Although the UN Counterterrorism Strategy also affirms the right to self-determination for “peoples which remain under colonial domination or foreign occupation” (Samuel 2013: 342), self-determination is an evolving concept. It has been invoked in a variety of situations – for example, during decolonization of Africa in the 1960s and 1970s and during the breakup of the Former Yugoslavia. However, ambiguities remain concerning its proper use in the postcolonial period. For example, the right of self-determination belongs to “a people,” but who or what constitutes “a people” is simply not defined in UN documents.

An exception to this are the Palestinians who have indeed been regarded as a people by the International Court of Justice (Samuel 2013). This does not, however, resolve the riddle for myriad other groups that have carried out violence in the name of self-determination. Recent uprisings in Libya and Yemen, for example, illustrate the difficulty in distinguishing between armed struggle (theoretically covered by the right of self-determination) and terrorism. When it comes to the OIC, what ends up happening in practice, according to Hashmi (1996), is that both OIC members and OIC leadership are more prone to accept self-determination claims from Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries (e.g., Kashmiris in India-controlled Kashmir, Moros in the Philippines) rather than from groups in Muslim-majority member states (e.g., South Sudanese). Indeed, the organization has not condemned attacks by Palestinian militants, and aside from Palestinians the OIC has openly supported other Muslim groups such as Kashmiris, Bosnians, and Kosovar Albanians. By contrast, it has not supported separatists or jihadists who employ similar tactics and are seeking a new form of government within defined borders in Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, or Yemen, among others. Human Rights Watch’s report, noting that international law prohibits attacks against civilians no matter the circumstances, asked the OIC to amend its definition “to clarify that its condemnation of terrorism makes no exemptions, even if in the name of causes that OIC member states endorse” (2008). Furthermore, individual member states’ support for some non-state armed groups clearly demonstrates that, unsurprisingly, realpolitik guides state support for some militants over others rather than legal principles per se. Of course, this is not unique to either the OIC or OIC member states.

In sum, the OIC’s Convention for Combating International Terrorism provides a vague and excessively broad definition of terrorism and also excludes militants fighting for self-determination against occupation or colonialism. Organization members have sought to insert this latter proviso into the draft CCIT, but their efforts have been met with resistance from others in the international community. In addition, because terrorism remains ill-defined in the OIC Convention, it is difficult to apply to real-world situations. To further complicate matters, the organization has been inconsistent in its denunciation of similar types of militant groups, albeit unequivocally consistent in its condemnation of terrorist violence in general and of jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their affiliates. Lastly, the OIC has rhetorically supported some armed separatists, and OIC member states have provided support to some militant groups, further obfuscating clear standards for who gets branded a terrorist and ignoring the directives of the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy and the OIC Code of Conduct, discussed in the next section.

Countering Terrorism: UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy and the OIC Code of Conduct

The UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy (hereafter UN Strategy), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006 and reviewed every 2 years, serves as the international community’s blueprint for action. The UN Strategy, like the OIC Code of Conduct for Combating International Terrorism, is non-binding but implores states to cooperate and build a united front against terrorists. The OIC has strongly encouraged its members to follow the UN Strategy and has successfully created forums and other opportunities for states to enhance cooperation (discussed in the last section). The UN Strategy also covers issues beyond interstate cooperation and is divided into four pillars: Pillar I addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, Pillar II preventing and combating terrorism, Pillar III building states’ capacities and strengthening the role of the United Nations, and Pillar IV ensuring human rights and the rule of law. This latter pillar is discussed in the following section on human rights. Pillar II (1) directs states to:

refrain from organizing, instigating, facilitating, participating in, financing, encouraging or tolerating terrorist activities and to take appropriate practical measures to ensure that our respective territories are not used for terrorist installations or training camps, or for the preparation or organization of terrorist acts intended to be committed against other States or their citizens. (A/RES/60/288)

This greatly resembles the OIC’s Code of Conduct for Combating International Terrorism (hereafter, the Code) adopted over a decade earlier in 1994. The Code directs OIC members to:

Take all necessary measures to ensure that their territories are not used for planning, organizing, executing, initiating or participating in any terrorist activity including infiltration of terrorist elements into their countries as well as taking residence therein, individually or collectively, and also the harboring, training, arming, financing, recruiting for providing any facilities to such elements likely to enable them to achieve their aims. (Code of Conduct 1994)

Though non-binding, the Code has been referenced in numerous OIC resolutions and declarations, which lends it a “legally binding character,” according to Hmoud (2016: 163), though Samuel (2013) asserts that it is in fact quite weak. The Code promulgates three main directives: terrorism must be denounced, members should take measures to ensure their territory is not used in the service of terrorist activity, and members should cooperate to bring perpetrators of terrorism to justice (i.e., through extradition). The Code has been reviewed though not amended; hence, the OIC routinely calls upon its members to implement the UN Strategy which is more detailed, up to date, and comprehensive.

Despite calls to abide by the Code and the UN Strategy, the actions of some of the OIC’s most powerful member states during Syria’s civil war (2011–present) serve as a clear example of how strong countries flout OIC and UN dictates. OIC member states (and non-OIC states such as Russia and the United States) have prolonged Syria’s civil-turned-proxy war by providing support to myriad militant groups that the Syrian government and others call terrorists. OIC leadership repeatedly asked members not to provide support to President Assad’s regime because it targets civilians (Iran has nevertheless continually supported its Syrian ally with weapons and troops). Tellingly, the OIC has repeatedly and vociferously called for a political solution to end the war but has hitherto been silent on state support to anti-regime militant groups fighting in Syria (Negrón-Gonzales 2016). Gulf monarchies (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar), Jordan, Turkey, and other OIC states have provided significant support to militants fighting against Assad’s forces. In addition, OIC members, such as Turkey and Jordan, not only hosted militant groups in their territory but also provided them with training. Yet, despite OIC member states arming and supporting even jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra branch, OIC leadership has avoided openly criticizing these activities. Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict in Yemen resembles the Syrian quagmire in that there are various insurgents, some of them jihadists, backed by external powers, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia which further entrench sectarian identities in a zero-sum competition.

While its member states continue to support militants and fight sectarian proxy wars that create an environment in which jihadists thrive, the OIC leadership loudly condemns sectarianism as one of the most dangerous threats to the Muslim world and a contributing factor in the rise of extremism. In fact, it has sponsored research and international symposia on the subject. It also directly intervened, for example, in Iraq’s civil war by successfully facilitating dialogue between Sunni and Shia Islamic clerics in 2006. These talks culminated in the Makkah Declaration, which prohibits sectarian violence, among other things. Iraqi Foreign Minister Zibari lauded the OIC’s efforts, stating “the OIC initiative had a positive influence on the political situation in Iraq” (OIC Journal 2015a), though the degree to which this document changed conditions on the ground is highly dubious. After a drop in sectarian violence, bloodletting erupted anew and by 2013 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had conquered swaths of territory in Western Iraq by inflaming sectarian grievances just as its predecessor (al Qaeda in Iraq) had done. During a trip to Iraq in 2015, the OIC Secretary General stated it was time to develop a second Makkah Declaration, though a second version never materialized (OIC Journal 2015a).

In short, the OIC insists its members heed the UN Strategy and the OIC Code; however, many OIC member states continue to support militants. It must be noted that this is not unique to the OIC or OIC states. The OIC’s inability to curb its members support for various militant groups is in part a product of the OIC’s weakness and is also a reflection of the lack of relative power of international organizations writ large to constrain states when national security is at stake. This is especially true with respect to persuading states to abide by international human rights law while countering terrorism and holding them accountable for rights violations committed in the service of “national security.”

OIC Resolutions and Treaties on Human Rights

Before turning to measures taken by the OIC to ensure the protection of human rights while countering terrorism, it is necessary to explore the OIC’s broader human rights landscape and how it relates to the UN’s. The foundational centerpiece in the UN’s human rights regime is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted in 1948. The only Muslim-majority state that did not sign off on the UDHR in 1948 was Saudi Arabia, arguing that the declaration violated Islamic law. Although other Muslim-majority UN members played an active role in drafting the UDHR, the 1972 OIC Charter did not explicitly refer to human rights, though its affirmation of the UN Charter implicitly endorsed these ideas. The OIC’s new Charter was revised in 2008 to include the promotion and protection of human rights as a key objective. In addition, an overwhelming majority of OIC member states are parties to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (Tadjdini 2012).

The OIC’s principal human rights instrument is the non-binding Cairo Declaration on Human Rights adopted in 1990. Although it echoes many of the principles outlined in UN treaties, it differs in some important ways (Kayaoglu 2015; Samuel 2013; Oba 2013; Kayaoglu 2014; Doebble 2013; Frick and Muller 2013; Ahmad 2012; Ohuma 2008; Donnelly 2003; Mayer 1999; Rehman 2005; An’Naim 1990). The Cairo Declaration reflects the values of prominent conservative regimes. Kayaoglu (2014) notes that although moderate members of the OIC such as Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia have attempted to play a more assertive role in recent times, conservative members like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan have been more influential in setting the ideological parameters of human rights initiatives. He contends that

this conservative agenda tends to value the community over the individual, duties over rights, and tradition over progress. On an individualist-communitarian continuum, compared to Islam, liberalism is individualist, rights-based, progressive, and compared to liberalism, Islam is communitarian, duty-based, and traditionalist. (Kayaoglu 2014: 73)

The Cairo Declaration not only explicitly references Islamic law but unequivocally places Shariah above international human rights law. Consequently, it has been criticized for circumscribing the universal rights elucidated in the ICCPR and the ICESCR. For instance, one glaring omission in the Cairo Declaration is the right to freedom of association. Another example is the limitation on freedom of expression in Article 22 which states that, “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to principles of Shari’ah” – Islamic law limits speech that is blasphemous.

Another problem with setting parameters based on Shariah is that it is unclear exactly what those principles are because Islamic law is, in fact, divided into distinct schools of jurisprudence and there are unresolved debates between these legal traditions and within them. Because there is not a universal Islamic body that can definitively determine which interpretations are valid and should provide the ultimate guide for behavior, each state (and its affiliated religious institutions) is rendered the ultimate source of interpretation. Hence, critics argue this ambiguity actually empowers the state and impedes universality. And because states may interpret Shariah differently, rights principles could be interpreted in a manner that contravenes UN treaties but that falls in line with the ambiguous provisions of the Cairo Declaration (Samuel 2013; Kayaoglu 2012). Critics also point to the Cairo Declaration’s discrimination against women (i.e., it provides the right to freedom of movement or marriage only to men), although views have evolved since the 1990 adoption of the Declaration and more recent statements and projects do place more emphasis on promoting the protection of women’s rights as enshrined in international covenants. Similarly, the OIC's most robust legal instrument on rights, the 2005 Covenant on the Rights of the Child in Islam, does not explicitly accord Shariah supremacy, unlike the Cairo Declaration (the Covenant remains unratified by most member states). Thus, in recent years OIC leaders have placed less emphasis on the Cairo Declaration and also on the supremacy of Shariah and have underscored the importance of compliance with international human rights law (Kayaoglu 2015).

The contradictions between OIC and UN rights regimes will surely shape discussions and future legal instruments for countering terrorism within a human rights framework. The Cairo Declaration falls short of the provisions enshrined in the ICCPR that deal directly with the right to a fair trial, standards for arrest and detention, deprivation of liberty, and the prohibition of torture (Articles 14, 9, 7, and 4 ICCPR). However, OIC leadership has not directly addressed these specific discrepancies. OIC resolutions and proclamations typically avoid nuanced statements concerning particular rights, though the organization consistently encourages members to protect human rights in general. Despite the incongruence between OIC and UN rights regimes, the OIC is well-positioned to play a major role in advancing human rights in the Muslim world because it can further elucidate the synergies between Islamic law and international human rights law, especially through its commission for human rights (Petersen 2012).

The main OIC body for addressing human rights was created in 2011. The Independent Permanent Human Rights Commissions (IPHRC) serves as an expert body with a mandate to “protect and promote” human rights in the Muslim world and beyond. The Secretary General outlined five principles for the IPHRC in the 2012 inaugural speech at IPHRC’s first session in Jakarta, Indonesia:

First, the commission will complement rather than replace other national and international human rights mechanisms. Second, it will follow an introspective approach, helping OIC member states improve human rights practices. Third, it will fulfill a guidance function, providing member states with services like human rights training for the police. Fourth, it will take an incremental approach, building its credibility and mandate over time. And finally, the commission will prioritize the most pressing human rights problems. (Kayaoglu and Petersen 2013)

Although the OIC’s efforts to step up its work in good governance and human rights are of recent provenance, capacity building in these areas continue apace. For instance, in recent years the IPHRC’s members have received information and training from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to enhance the OIC commissioners’ knowledge of UN human rights mechanisms, meet members and officers servicing these mechanisms, and lay the groundwork for cooperation between UN and OIC bodies working on human rights. Nevertheless, the IPHRC lacks adequate resources to monitor abuse and is not equipped with any mechanisms of enforcement. Kayaoglu (2015) asserts that the IPHRC follows a human rights diplomacy model rather than a human rights advocacy model typically followed by many other international organizations, which renders it structurally weak vis-a-vis member states. What this means in practice is that it functions more as a consultative body. The commissioners facilitate discussions with member states and may submit recommendations but do not engage in “naming and shaming” (embarrassing governments into compliance). Moreover, although the IPHRC in theory is independent, it operates under the watchful eye of the Council of Foreign Ministers and many of its commissioners are in fact government officials rather than independent human rights experts. Because of this, some state and civil society leaders have lobbied for a more independent commission and for stronger ties between the IPHRC and independent human rights organizations in member states (OIC Body Told to Engage Civil Groups 2012).

To summarize, the OIC’s primary human rights instrument, the Cairo Declaration, has been criticized for placing limitations on rights covered in the ICCPR and ICESCR. Moreover, its main mechanism for promoting human rights, the IPHRC, is underfunded and structurally weak. Without a mandate and resources to monitor human rights abuse in member states or enforcement mechanisms to compel compliance, the organization’s ability to shape state behavior remains limited. Nevertheless, insofar as the OIC keeps human rights at the center of its agenda and continues to explore similarities and differences between sharia and international human rights law, it has the potential to significantly shape global discussions on these matters.

Protecting Human Rights While Countering Terrorism

Pillar IV of the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy underscores the importance of observing international human rights law while countering terrorism. To date, however, it has not received as much attention as other pillars. As of December 2015, UN Counterterrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) entities had conducted 295 projects in all 4 pillars of the strategy with 110 projects in Pillar I, 57 projects in Pillar II, 108 project projects in Pillar I, 57 projects in Pillar II, 108 projects in Pillar III, but only 20 projects in Pillar IV (FIDH 2017).

This is also an area ripe for growth at the OIC, and there have been some notable developments. For instance, the 11th Session of the IPHRC held in Saudi Arabia in May 2017 covered the theme of “Protecting Human Rights While Countering Terrorism.” Representatives from the CTITF, the International Islamic Fiqh Academy, the President of the Turkish Constitutional Court, and the President of the Jordanian National Center for Human Rights served as panelists during the meeting. The session’s outcome document reaffirmed the UN’s Global Counterterrorism Strategy, with emphasis on Pillar IV. Panel discussions centered on international standards and the importance of addressing terrorism in a comprehensive manner through regional and international cooperation. The OIC Secretary General spoke of the need to further link the IPHRC with other human rights bodies dealing with counterterrorism and reminded member states that counterterrorism strategies should comply with international human rights law and refugee and humanitarian laws (al Bawaba News 2017).

The conference outcome document echoes much the discourse at the United Nations and other international forums. It mentioned the importance of creating and strengthening National Human Rights Institutes and reminded members that,

…certain measures like arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, racial and ethnic profiling and discriminatory travel bans etc. pose serious challenges to human rights and the rule of law. Such measures foster an atmosphere of mistrust, resentment and marginalization in a manner that diminishes States’ long-term security. These measures impact disproportionately certain populations, including ethnic, racial or religious minorities and migrants, which undermine social cohesion and intensify radicalization and violence. Stigmatization of certain communities also leads to increase in support for terrorist groups among affected communities. (Outcome Document of IPHRC Thematic Debate 2017)

OIC Initiatives and Partnerships on Counterterrorism

In addition to the aforementioned initiatives, the OIC has stepped up efforts to prevent and suppress counterterrorism through other recently created programs and partnerships that address all four pillars of the UN Strategy. Tackling root causes (Pillar I) has garnered considerable attention. In a speech to the UNSC in October 2015, the OIC Secretary General outlined the organization’s four-pronged approach to countering radical jihadism:

OIC initiates specific projects that focus on understanding and addressing: i) the political and socio-economic contexts that bring forth conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism and violent extremism; ii) the need to counter all types of radical extremist discourse in order to delegitimize the violent and manipulative acts committed in the name of religion, ideology or claims of cultural superiority; iii) the underlying causes of sectarian violence; the attempts to politicize the sectarian differences, the emphasis on sects as the essence of identity, and iv) the potential of external actors penetrating terrorist and extremist groups for the purpose of serving their own political agenda, and the threat of non-Arab and non-Muslim foreign fighters. (OIC 2015b)

The OIC charged its research arm, the Statistical, Economic, Social Research, and Training Centre for Islamic Countries (SESRIC), to produce a report on the root causes of terrorism in OIC countries. In the 2017 report, researchers highlight relative deprivation, lack of government services, and corruption as key drivers of extremism in OIC states (Towards Understanding Radicalism and Violent Extremism in OIC Countries 2017). The study confirmed the OIC leadership’s long-standing belief that economic development and good governance are the keys to stamp out violent extremism. Consequently, the OIC has allocated more resources toward development projects in member states. OIC countries make up 21 of 48 UN-designated least-developed countries (LDCs) (Tadjdini 2012), and the OIC has introduced region-specific programs to aid economic development, such as the Special Program for Development of Africa. In addition, the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development (ISFD) is available to all members and includes the Micro-Finance Support Program, Vocational Literacy Program, Sustainable Villages Program, Save the Mother’s Program, and the Renewable Energy Program for the Poor.

The OIC has also expanded its activities in the area of conflict resolution, establishing a Wise Persons Council to assume a more proactive role in dealing with conflict situations, the cessation of hostilities, and peacebuilding processes in member states. The OIC’s response to Islamic State terrorism, for example, entails bringing the Syrian civil war that sustains its recruitment efforts to an end. Accordingly, the OIC has played a supporting role in Geneva peace conferences to devise a political solution to the civil war, submitting several recommendations for action to the UN Security Council.

The OIC also created new subsidiary organs dedicated to countering violent extremism more directly. The Center for Dialogue, Peace, and Understanding was founded to delegitimize extremist narratives via social media platforms, and the Center’s website serves as a repository of information. It also collaborates with national counterterrorism centers in member states, relevant OIC institutions, and various UN agencies. The OIC also coordinated numerous international symposia on counterterrorism for its members. For example, to facilitate information-sharing on best practices and enhance cooperation between law enforcement agencies, the OIC coordinated a series of Meetings of the Heads of Police Organizations and Agencies. The first of these was held in 2006 in Iran, the second meeting took place in 2009 in Azerbaijan followed by another in Turkey in 2013.

Another related topic that has garnered recent attention at the OIC is Human Rights Education (HRE). Perceived as a tool to prevent and counter violent extremism, the IPHRC has been involved in promoting HRE. For instance, the IPHRC in collaboration with the Indonesian government hosted a seminar on the issue in 2015 which was attended by representatives from the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN OHCHR and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Participants issued the Jakarta Declaration on Human Rights Education which underscores the role of HRE in combating extremism, terrorism, and violence based on race and religion. Participants formally recommended the creation of a Working Group comprised of the IPHRC and ISESCO with the support of UNESCO and OHCHR that works to design guidelines for the harmonization of national education strategies of member states (Jakarta Declaration 2015). The following year, the OIC’s ISESCO partnered with the International Anti-Terrorism Forum to organize a workshop in Morocco in 2016, during which the role of education in promoting peace was highlighted and the challenges pertaining to Islamophobia were addressed.

Another notable initiative is the OIC’s partnership with the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF, aka Hedayah) to promote the Abu Dhabi Memorandum on Good Practices for Education and Countering Violent Extremism, a non-binding document that focuses on education as a tool to prevent and counter violent extremism (Abu Dhabi Memorandum 2014). This Memorandum outlines steps to use primary and secondary education (and to a lesser degree higher education) as a tool to prevent radicalism by promoting civic education and humanitarian values. The GCTF was launched officially at a foreign ministerial level in New York in 2011 with the intention of creating the first ever International Center of Excellence in Countering Violent Extremism. The center, known as Hedayah, was launched the following year in Abu Dhabi, UAE, a key OIC member state. The OIC signed a memorandum of understanding with Hedayah to undertake joint activities on countering violent extremism (CVE) and promoting the Abu Dhabi Memorandum. The grand opening of the OIC-Hedayah workshop on CVE was held in July 2018 at OIC headquarters in Saudi Arabia. The workshop focused on analyzing the structure and role of the OIC through Sawt al Hikma (the operational arm of the OIC’s Center for Dialogue, Peace, and Understanding) in CVE and how this folds into broader efforts by UN and OSCE agencies (Sawt al Hikma 2018).

In sum, these developments are a clear sign that the OIC is committed to addressing counterterrorism and aiding member states with implementation of all four pillars of the UN Strategy. There are also clear indications that human rights have been placed at the center of discussions about counterterrorism. Because these initiatives are of recent provenance, however, it is too soon to evaluate their effects on member states. Some observers are highly dubious of Saudi Arabia’s (and the other Gulf states that provide the bulk of funding) genuine commitment to promoting human rights and have argued that their outsized role in the OIC and also in UN counterterrorism projects impedes real progress on Pillar IV (FIDH 2017). Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s routine arrests of prominent civil society activists in the name of countering terrorism have sparked opprobrium from activists around the world (Ní Aoláin 2018). Saudi Arabia is, of course, not the only OIC (or non-OIC) country that violates human rights in the name of security. In fact, a report on counterterrorism and civil society by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that in all cases under study, governments have “instrumentalized the vague terms of “counterterrorism,” “national security,” or “public order,” as it suits their interests, to clamp down on civil society” (Mooney 2018: 8). Within the OIC, even ostensibly moderate countries such as Turkey have a history of using counterterrorism as a pretext to silence dissent and in so doing have carried out egregious human rights violations. Hence, it remains to be seen if wealthy OIC members, such as the Gulf monarchies sponsoring most of the OIC’s recent CVE initiatives, are willing and capable of genuinely promoting Pillar IV and following its directives in their own countries.

Saudi Arabia has played a significant role not only in the OIC’s counterterrorism efforts but also at the United Nations. In 2011, through a contribution by Saudi Arabia, the UN launched the United Nations Counterterrorism Center (UNCCT). The UNCCT is located within the new Office of Counterterrorism and is responsible for carrying out counterterrorism projects. Established with an initial $10 million donation by Saudi Arabia, this was followed by an additional $100 million to finance the rest of the research and work. Although 18 other countries contributed minor donations, most of the center’s $132 million budget comes from Saudi Arabia, which results in considerable influence. In fact, the chair of its 22-member advisory board is a Saudi national. In addition to being the primary sponsor of the UNCTT, Saudi Arabia also founded the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (ETIDAL in Arabic) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Center uses state-of-the-art technology to expose terrorist’s propaganda and sabotage terrorists’ ability to recruit via internet, and it disseminates a counter-narrative to terrorist propaganda. ETIDAL also promotes tolerance and intercultural dialogue; hence, the work carried out at ETIDAL dovetails the OIC Center for Dialogue, Peace, and Understanding, also located in Jeddah. Clearly, then, considering the contributions of Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent other Gulf states, to global counterterrorism efforts, they will continue to play a dominant role in global (UN-rooted) projects as well as OIC initiatives. Critics warn, however, that it is highly unlikely these authoritarian states will adequately promote and uphold international human rights law. Moreover, even as they finance counterterrorism initiatves, they also fund numerous militant groups and thereby perpetuate and exacerbate the problem of political violence in OIC countries.


The OIC is uniquely positioned to aid in global efforts to counter violent extremism, particularly in the Muslim world. Although it remains a weak organization, internally and externally, it continues to build its institutional capacity to meet the objectives outlined in its 2025 Program of Action. As such, it is poised to play a more active role on the global stage, particularly in the area of counterterrorism. In its efforts to prevent and suppress terrorism, the OIC has created subsidiary organs, coordinated international symposia, implemented development projects to address root causes of violent extremism, and engaged in partnerships with other international organizations, especially UN bodies. It has also created institutional mechanisms by which member states share information on counterterrorism and build networks for sustained cooperation. The organization is also more proactive than in the past in promoting human rights, creating an Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission and developing programs and partnerships to support human rights education in member states as a key component of a multipronged counterterrorism strategy. Its efforts to promote human rights while countering terrorism are relatively recent and it is too soon to assess their impact on member states, though it appears their impact has been negligible thus far. The outsized role played by authoritarian states at the OIC, contradictions between Islamic law and international human rights law, and the OIC's overall institutional weakness pose obstacles to ensuring compliance with directives to promote human rights while countering terrorism. Establishing robust monitoring and enforcement mechanisms – especially for its Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission – could compel states to abide by Pillar IV best practices.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Politics & SocietyUniversity of New HampshireManchesterUSA

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