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The UN's War on Terrorism

For four years, the UN has developed its own counterterrorism capabilities; the question is how far it wants to go.

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 4:00 AM EST

In October the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1636, demanding that Syria stop stonewalling a UN investigation into the car-bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri—in which several Syrian officials are prime suspects. Since the Security Council had no protocol for responding to acts of terrorism, the resolution came only after days of heavy political bargaining. It was one of many signs that, despite its inefficiencies, the UN has made a continued effort to piece together new counterterrorism policies since September 11, 2001, as concerns and crises arise.

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Only a week before the resolution against Syria, the UN celebrated its 60th summit in New York, where Secretary General Kofi Annan counseled that the UN must address the new security demands posed by terrorism to ensure that the organization will "remain relevant to the world" in the 21st century. Member states unanimously agreed for the first time to condemn terrorism "in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever, and for whatever purposes"—a distinct political victory that cannot be overemphasized. They failed, however, to agree on a definition of terrorism, due to disagreements over whether "freedom fighters" should be included or "state terrorism" excluded. But despite the bickering, common in an organization often mocked for its recurrent deadlocks, the United Nations is making progress in agreeing to take action on difficult security issues.

Since 9/11, the UN has developed an array of counterterrorism capabilities and is now on the verge of developing a comprehensive strategy to deal with terrorism. But the organization is still deciding whether to push forward and emerge as the primary center for coordinating international counterterrorism efforts, or fall back on its traditional mission, limiting its concerns to the "soft issues" of fighting poverty and alleviating the "root causes" of violence, leaving only half-equipped institutions in place to fight terrorism.

The 9/11 attacks forced UN member states to realize that they must cooperate over security issues that were once considered the exclusive domain of individual nation-states—since a breach of security in one state poses an increased risk to all. In the years after the Cold War, the US had filled the security vacuum as the guarantor of world security, but al-Qaeda represents a new threat, which, as Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy, argues in his new book, Illicit, takes advantage of the advances in technology, communications, and liberalization during the 1990s, a development that requires more than one strong arm to protect many weak states. These transnational threats often call for cooperation between states that may lack a history of bilateral negotiations and have seemingly dissimilar foreign interests. In this respect, the UN is well-suited to filling in the gaps.

Shortly after the attacks, with uncharacteristic alacrity, the Security Council unanimously passed several counterterrorism resolutions, and a record number of member states signed on to three existing counterterrorism treaties which had previously been held up. The most sweeping resolution passed was Security Council Resolution 1373, which, among other things, required states to undergo periodic assessments of their national security programs and their vulnerability to terrorist attacks, and to submit a list of needed improvements. The resolution also established the UN's Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), which is charged with monitoring the ability of member states to evaluate their counterterrorism capacities; the committee also assists states in implementing UNCR 1373, and recommends sanctions or other enforcement measures needed to combat terrorism.

Member states submitted the first round of reports unanimously, leading the first CTC chairman, British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, to remark, "Counter-terrorism has now gone global, with the UN at the center." The CTC, though not without its inefficiencies—it overlaps with other UN agencies—has become a clearinghouse for international security expertise, where donor states and NGOs can be linked up with developing nations that lack the resources to close the gaps in their domestic defenses. And the CTC is continuing to expand: after adding an Executive-Directorate, it undertook fact-finding missions in Morocco and Kenya this year, and plans for more.

Even after the flurry of post-9/11 responses to terrorism, the UN has continued to pass resolutions aimed at inducing states to bolster their domestic security and cooperate on matters of prosecuting and terrorism-related activities. New UN policies regulate the freezing of financial assets of terrorist suspects, tighten border controls, and oversee the transport of arms. In addition, UN bodies that sit beyond the control of the Security Council, including the UN aviation, maritime, drug and crime prevention offices, are also reevaluating their strategies, with a new focus on terrorist-related activities.

Among the most important recent resolutions is UNSCR 1540, passed in April 2004, which requires states to forbid non-state actors from acquiring weapons and related materials of mass destruction. Significant in several respects, 1540 combines separate bans on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons into one blanket prohibition on WMDs, streamlining existing law. It also overcomes gaps in earlier nonproliferation regimes by covering all UN member states. Unlike existing multilateral arms agreements, UNSCR 1540 is an edict, passed only by the Security Council but mandatory for all. Finally, according to the British think tank Chatham House, 1540 is only the second legislative resolution passed by the Security Council since 1945. In ordering states to develop domestic monitoring tools for the production, movement, and sale of WMDs within their borders, the UNSC has charged states with criminalizing security violations by international standards, maintaining domestic agencies to monitor illegal activities, and effectively enforcing those laws.

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