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VUB alumna and fellow Michèle Coninsx, one of the world’s top counter-terrorism officials, recently travelled back to the city where it all began for her. The former Belgian prosecutor was in Brussels in her new capacity as Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) to brief the relevant EU bodies, meet with EU officials, and deliver a keynote lecture at a conference focused on the challenges of protecting national economic security interests organised by the Brussels Diplomatic Academy. VUB Today spoke to Coninsx on the sidelines of the conference about the difficulties of combating terrorism in a hyper-globalised world, and about where she first learned to think outside the box and across disciplines.
Text: Linda A. Thompson
A little over a year ago, you became the Executive Director of the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate in New York. How does your office help countries stave off terrorist threats exactly?
“We evaluate the implementation of security and counterterrorism measures taken by all 193 individual UN member countries in a neutral and objective way, and spread good practices. If we identify security lacunas in our country visits, we raise them with the member state visited. Does the gap for instance stem from training concerns, lack of capacity, or from budgetary, legal, or organisational issues? We also determine what is needed so these gaps are remediated through targeted counter-terrorism measures. This is important because one country’s failure to address these gaps can trickle down the whole security chain so that what’s happening in one country has an immediate impact on the rest of world. An example of the type of measure we might ask a country to take is to start using biometrics or implement airline passenger data collections systems.”
“We today have free movement of goods, persons, and services in the Schengen area and among several countries in Africa, for example. This free movement is a great achievement, but it also comes at a high security price because it might allow terrorist groups to operate across national and even regional borders. Yet we’re still used to thinking within the borders of the nation state and assuming that what goes on the other side of the world won’t affect our own citizens. But criminal and terrorist activities are today by definition trans-border. Especially when terrorists use information and communications (ICT) technologies, which allow them to recruit individuals they’ve never met in another part of the world with violent or inciting narratives in just a few minutes. That’s why our work is so vital. We have to come at this not from a national, but a common point of interest.” [Conintue reading below the picture]
How can we counteract the lure of terrorist groups like ISIS, Al-Qaida, and Boko Haram?
“We need a whole-of-society approach and we need to connect with tech companies. An initiative we launched at the United Nations is Tech Against Terrorism, a forum that brings together the private and public sector to identify terrorist recruitment attempts, propaganda, and incitement on social media platforms and online. The forum is also focused on what we can do to moderate and remove this content, and how we can ensure that vulnerable individuals are instead exposed to and adopt positive or alternative narratives. This is where we have to liaise with cities, mayors, schools, families, and sports centres so we can identify where propaganda incitement is taking place, and how violent extremism conducive to terrorism can be stopped in its early phases.”
How is this different from what you did as the president of EUROJUST, where you spent more than a decade?
“EUROJUST was a European regional and nongovernmental organisation focused on the international coordination and prosecution of criminal cases. It focused on anti-terrorism cases, but also on serious cross-border organised crime. We essentially brought together all the players involved in tackling a criminal or terrorist network and tried to obtain a helicopter view of its scope by quickly exchanging information, having joint investigation teams, sharing evidence, and using European arrest warrants and investigation orders. The Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Bataclan attacks in Paris, the March 2016 attacks in Brussels – the responses to those were all coordinated by EUROJUST.”
After the attacks in Brussels, the Belgian government adopted a flurry of counter-terrorism measures. Several experts subsequently warned that some of the measures infringed upon citizens’ right to privacy. How can governments balance the right to privacy with the need for effective and stringent counter-terrorism measures?
“Privacy is what we call a cross-cutting issue; it’s part of everything that we do at CTED. Human rights and gender-sensitive measures are evaluated as part of all our visits. Justice that is not just, leads to frustration and radicalisation and fans violent extremism. So whatever you do, you do in total respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and under the rule of law. Only such an approach will guarantee effective counter-measures for terrorism.” [Continue reading below the picture]
A Brussels launchpad to the world
Michèle Coninsx obtained both her master’s degree in law and her master’s degree in criminology at VUB: “Law gave me an analytical sense that helped me quickly analyse the strengths and weakness of texts, while criminology helped me approach crime from various perspectives, from that of the victims, the perpetrators, the penitentiary, the prosecution, and the law.”
She studied under both international and EU law professor Marc Maresceau, whom she credits with inspiring her to pursue an international career, and Sonja Snacken, today a VUB professor in criminology but back then a young, female assistant Coninsx was in awe of.
Coninsx lived in an apartment located close to VUB together with her older sister, who was already practising as a lawyer. The freedom she received as a student at VUB shaped her later career, she says: “Rather than teaching by the book, professors taught you how to be critical; taught you how to make use of knowledge rather than blindly repeating that knowledge,” she says. “That helped me in my later career and taught me to be very practical, very results-oriented right from the start.”
Her advice to law and criminology students today is to not be afraid to venture into different subject fields: “The more disciplines and the more diversified knowledge you acquire, the more career possibilities you gain,” she says, adding that the same advice applies to language skills. At the same time, she says, it’s also good to specialise. “Try to find a niche where you can excel. And work very hard because you shouldn’t take anything for granted. Success is a combination of luck and very hard work.”