The U.N. Must Re-Invigorate Its Response to International Terrorism

Photo by Stefano Corso, Wikimedia Commons

by Victor D. Comras

Some 80 heads of state and foreign ministers gathered in New York City on September 11, 2001 for the opening of 56th session of the U.N. General Assembly. The meeting was to focus on the Secretary General’s first Millennium Report, and terrorism was not among the key agenda items. Fear and horror filled the Assembly chamber that morning as the occupants felt the trembling and then heard the news that two hijacked aircraft had just crashed into the World Trade Center. They quickly fled the U.N. building fearing it might also be attacked. The next day, they filed back into the General Assembly chamber with amended priorities, speeches and agendas. They pledged themselves to work together urgently to respond to terrorism’s “deadly menace” to international peace and security.

Now, 10 years later, as we take stock of the steps taken to quell international terrorism, we remain all too cognizant that international terrorism continues unabated, and that we still cannot let down our guard even for a second. While the United Nations and the international community-at-large have made great strides in dealing with terrorism, and have put in place many of the key pillars and structures for combating terrorism, the ability to implement these mandates remains seriously uneven. Far too many countries still, today, lack the political will and/or the resources to carry them out effectively. And, several still openly support groups that they know regularly employ terrorist tactics.

Many of the same delegates that were present for the 2001 General Assembly session are now planning to attend a special U.N. Counter-Terrorism Cooperation Symposium called by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for September 19th. They will, undoubtedly, use the occasion to note the progress achieved, and to highlight the numerous counter-terrorism conventions, resolutions and measures the U.N. has adopted to outlaw terrorism and terrorism financing. Many will also seek to attribute continuing terrorist activities to a “collective failure” to address its so-called root causes. But, the focus at this important session should go well beyond the documents adopted and the oft-proclaimed “apologetic liturgies” for terrorism. They must now urgently focus increased attention on the steps necessary to re-invigorate and improve compliance with the United Nation’s established counter-terrorism norms, and to hold accountable those that fail to do so. Improving counter-terrorism compliance and accountability must now become one of the United Nation’s highest priorities

According to a U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center report, there were more than 11,500 terrorist incidents last year, resulting in more than 13,000 deaths, 30,000 wounded and 6,000 hostages. And, the pace of terrorist attacks continues to grow. While many of these terrorist attacks have been concentrated in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, terrorist incidents have also been reported in more than 70 other countries. And the consequences of these attacks continue to cause staggering casualties, security implications and costs worldwide.

There are a number of steps that can and should be taken to re-invigorate the United Nation’s role in combating terrorism. Many of these steps have already been presented in various expert reports commissioned by the Security Council itself. But, the organization’s inertia and legacy from the past continue to inhibit their adoption. I have sought to focus attention on these issues in my recent book Flawed Diplomacy: The United Nations & the War on Terrorism, and to propose steps that, I believe, are essential to a successful U.N. counter-terrorism program. I believe this U.N. effort must also be founded on the following principles:

Clarity: At the top of the U.N. list of unfulfilled counter-terrorism tasks is the continuing lack of a consensus definition of terrorism. This lack of consensus severely limits the United Nation’s ability to monitor compliance with its counter-terrorism measures or to hold countries accountable for failing to implement and enforce them. So far, only al Qaeda and the Taliban, and those groups identified and listed as associated with them, have been designated by the United Nations as terrorist organizations. Beyond those Al Qaeda and Taliban individuals and entities so far listed as terrorists (and that list is also far from complete), the consensus on terrorism breaks down. This allows countries to determine for themselves which groups they choose to deem terrorists, and which they will support as so-called “liberation movements.” They remain thus able, with impunity, to continence, or themselves to provide support and material assistance to those terrorist groups whose aspirations they may share.

Several years ago a High-Level Panel of U.N. counter-terrorism experts convened by Secretary General Kofi Annan recommended that the General Assembly move quickly to adopt a straight forward definition of terrorism – a definition that would encompass:

“any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004), that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, 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.”

Unfortunately, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and many of its member countries, continue today to insist on adding a further clause that would undermine the definition by exempting so-called “national liberation movements” from its application.

Commitment: Combating terrorism and terrorism financing takes much more than conventions, resolutions, laws or regulations. It requires a dogged determination to implement these measures and to actively go after those that engage in, or support, terrorism. That requires the political will to act against those who commit or support terrorist acts even if there is popular support for their ultimate goals. U.N. programs should, therefore, be directed at encouraging and ensuring the political will necessary on the part of all countries to deal with terrorists. This entails establishing effective monitoring and oversight, clear incentives for compliance and serious consequences for non-compliance.

Capacity: Commitment must obviously be accompanied by capacity. The United Nations Counter Terrorism Committee and its Executive Directorate have carved out several programs directed at assisting countries with the resources and technical capabilities they need to combat terrorism effectively. These are among the most important programs the United Nations has adopted. But, the resources devoted to these programs remains quite modest, and program follow-up, evaluation and oversight is seriously lacking.

Cooperation and Information Sharing: Much of the heavy work involved in combating terrorism and terrorism financing remains in the hands of national regulatory, intelligence, investigative and enforcement agencies. The United States, Europe and a handful of other countries maintain sophisticated channels for sharing counter-terrorism information and intelligence. A way must also be found to assure that vital information and intelligence flows quickly to and from other potentially effected countries. The U.N. can encourage the exchange of such intelligence and investigative information by sponsoring appropriate forums to facilitate direct contact between concerned national agencies and their personnel. This might best be done by establishing new functional arrangements, outside the United Nations, that can better handle sensitive intelligence and investigative information and provide direct support for broader judicial cooperation.

Accountability is key: This means effective oversight and reporting on what is actually being done by countries to implement the U.N. resolutions and measures against terrorism. The Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committees already have a mandate to report to the Security Council on instances where it notes lack of compliance on the part of member states. Yet, they remain reluctant to do so, in part because of the diplomatic delicacy of raising such a highly charged political issue to the level of Security Council. It is time for the United Nations to establish a team of qualified objective observers, freed from the current diplomatic shackles imposed by the Security Council and its Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanction Committees. They should be appointed for fixed terms and empowered to report directly to the Security Council on the actions that countries are actually taking or not taking to carry out their counter-terrorism responsibilities.

Consequences: Finally, there must be consequences for non-compliance. Let’s start with “naming and shaming,” and letting international public opinion play a role in encouraging compliance. And if that doesn’t do the trick, then further Security Council consideration and action might be appropriate.

Let us hope that the 10-year anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11 marks a moment of serious reflection in the halls of the United Nations and leads to a serious re-invigoration of the pledges made 10 years ago to eliminate terrorism as a scourge to international peace and security.

Victor Comras is an internationally recognized expert and frequent speaker on international sanctions and the global effort to combat terrorism. His articles have appeared in numerous national and international press media, books and professional journals. His latest book is Flawed Diplomacy: The United Nations and the War on Terrorism.

Last modified: September 6, 2011 at 9:58 pm