A junket in Geneva


The five-star Hotel President Wilson stands on the shores of Lake Geneva, offering "exceptional" views of Mont Blanc, and its three restaurants are said to provide "unparalleled culinary delights". Room prices in the Wilson hotel start at around £250 a night, ranging up to £52,000 a night for the Royal Penthouse Suite.

On February 15, some 200 delegates from 67 countries began arriving here for a two-day conference entitled: “Balancing counter-terrorism and human rights: Challenges and opportunities”.

The event was hosted by the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), an obscure but well-funded organisation which is based in Norway but has numerous links to the United Arab Emirates.

Four months later, however, GNRD and its autocratic founder-president, Loai Deeb, stand accused by the Norwegian authorities of money laundering. The amount involved is said to be $13 million – money which allegedly came from the UAE. Following his arrest, Deeb left Norway for the UAE, allegedly to attend business meetings. His lawyer, Kjell Brygfjell, denied that he had fled and insisted he would be returning to Norway shortly.

[For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the background, my previous blog posts about GNRD are compiled into a single file here.]

All expenses paid

The Geneva conference was almost certainly the biggest and most expensive gathering organised by GNRD in its seven-year history. GNRD clearly attached great importance to it, having spend (by its own account) two years on the preparations.

British MEP Julie Ward was among those flown in for a panel discussion at the conference. GNRD paid for her £525 business class ticket from Manchester to Geneva via Brussels, and provided her with two nights' accommodation at the Wilson. 

Assuming the 40-or-so people listed alongside Ms Ward in the conference programme as "VIP guests and speakers" received similar treatment, the cost of getting them all to the event was probably in excess of £50,000. On top of that, of course, there was the not inconsiderable cost of hiring the Wilson's "renowned" conference facilities and GNRD's own administrative and organisational costs.

Besides questions about where the money came from (since GNRD doesn't disclose its sources of funding), there are several puzzling aspects to this event and trying to make sense of them may eventually lead to a better understanding of GNRD more generally.

An 'out-of-the-ordinary' organisation

GNRD was established in 2008 and, in the words of its website, "uses out-of-the-ordinary and unique approaches to achieve real changes in the field of human rights and development". Its founder, Loai Deeb, is a Norwegian citizen of Palestinian origin who speaks English with some difficulty. He claims to have a doctorate in international law but refuses to say where he obtained the degree. Before setting up GNRD he was head of a fake university in Stavanger which closed following threats of legal action by the Norwegian authorities.

Nevertheless, GNRD expanded rapidly after its inception, opening offices Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Sudan, Jordan, Britain and the UAE, and hiring more than 100 staff. Despite its founder's penchant for fakery, it also passed a major milestone a few days before the Geneva conference, winning consultative status at the UN – mainly through support from Sudan.

For the first few years of its existence GNRD had shown little interest in counter-terrorism but in November 2013 it launched an initiative "aimed at establishing [a] new international mechanism, guaranteeing human rights in countering terrorism". The initiative, it said, "involves a series of events, conferences, workshops, research and official consultations on the matter and is designed to result in an international convention and the establishment of an intergovernmental overseeing body".

The purpose of this overseeing body, it explained, would be to ensure a common position worldwide over the labelling of suspected terrorists and terrorist organisations – thus preventing "international tensions and conflicts that result from differences in listing terrorists and terrorist organisations". 

In doing this, GNRD was lighting a well-known problem – one that others who have far more experience than GNRD have tried to solve without success. International differences arise partly because there is no universally agreed definition of terrorism but also because governments often find it useful to apply the terrorism label to their political enemies, regardless of whether there is good evidence to support that designation.

According to advance publicity for the Geneva conference, GNRD's draft international convention (including its plan for a body to decide who is or is not a terrorist) was to be "the main topic of discussion". But it didn't turn out that way. Discussion of the draft's content was confined to two closed workshops which only "country representatives" were allowed to attend. While the closed workshops were taking place, ordinary delegates were invited to discuss such general topics as “Violent Radicalisation and the Challenges Of Foreign Fighters” and “Data Privacy, Surveillance and Counter Terrorism”. One obvious effect of this was to restrict open debate or criticism of the draft.

Copying the Human Rights Council

The draft's core proposal was to set up a new body under UN auspices – the International Council for Counterterrorism – to decide which individuals and organisations should be classified as "terrorist" and maintain an official worldwide list.

One intriguing feature of GNRD's plan for an in international counterterrorism council is that its proposed structure bore a striking resemblance to one of the UN's most ineffectual bodies – the Human Rights Council.

The counterterrorism council envisaged by GNRD would have 47 elected members, chosen on a regional basis with 13 seats for African states, 13 for Asian states, six for Eastern European States, eight for Latin America and Caribbean States, and seven for Western European States and others.

It's presumably not by coincidence that the UN Human Rights Council also has 47 elected members, chosen on a regional basis with 13 seats for African states, etc, etc.

There are textual similarities too. For example, GNRD's proposed rules for non-member states to report terrorism to the counterterrorism council (Article 29) is an adaptation of the rules for reporting rights abuses to the Human Rights Council. One of the HRC's rules, for instance, says complaints must be "not exclusively based on reports disseminated by mass media". GNRD's Article 29 (3e) says they "must not be based entirely on reports issued by the media".

Given that the Human Rights Council has proved so ineffectual, you might be wondering why anyone would want to create a new body modelled on it. But that depends on how you look at it. From the point of view of rights abusers the HRC has been a resounding success. Its structure has helped to minimise what authoritarian regimes see as western interference in their abusive practices.

In a similar way, the structure of the counterterrorism council (as set out by GNRD) would give Asian and African states more influence over counterterrorism efforts and reduce the influence of western states, especially the US.

Political motivations?

There is a political background here which may shed some light on the motivations behind GNRD's proposal. Various Arab regimes have become disgruntled at the reluctance of other countries (most notably western powers) to treat local opposition movements as terrorists and the crack down on members who live and agitate in exile. 

This came to a head in 2013 when General Sisi overthrew Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi and, with backing from several Gulf states (Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular), declared the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organisation. Under pressure from the Saudis to ban Muslim Brotherhood activities in Britain, prime minister David Cameron agreed to order an investigation but in the end took no further action.

Last November the UAE issued a "blacklist" of 82 organisations which it claimed were engaged in terrorism. Some of the names on the list were greeted with scepticism outside the UAE, but the compilation of this list shows that the UAE and GNRD were at least thinking along similar lines.

However, there may be a further dimension to GNRD's plan for a counterterrorism council. For almost 10 years, efforts have been under way at the UN to negotiate a "Comprehensive Convention on Terrorism", but without much progress. A history of the first few years of negotiations is here, and an early draft of the convention is here.

One major problem has been the lack of international agreement on a definition of terrorism. GNRD's draft convention sidesteps this completely by not attempting a definition. Designation as a terrorist, as set out in GNRD's draft, seems to depend not so much on whether individuals and organisations fit specified criteria as on the voting patterns of counterterrorism council members. It is easy to see how this could lead to bargaining and trade-offs between member countries over who to include in the list: it might well end up as the FIFA of counterterrorism.

An ego trip?

After ploughing through GNRD's draft (full text here), my own impression is that it is riddled with flaws and is basically a non-starter in terms of improving the way terrorism is dealt with at an international level. I could be wrong, of course, and I would welcome views from any experts on international law or counterterrorism. But here's another puzzle. If GNRD's proposal is really as feeble as I think it is, did Loai Deeb seriously believe he could persuade the world (beyond a few Arab autocrats) of its merits? Maybe he did. Or maybe it was enough just to have his anonymous backers funding him on a gigantic ego trip.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 15 June 2015