The Unique Role of the United Nations in Countering Terrorism


Mike Smith, Adjunct Professor, Macquarie University

Most people probably think that the UN has very little to contribute in the field of counter-terrorism.  After all to the average punter counter-terrorism would seems mainly to involve the nation’s law enforcement, intelligence, and border control agencies, not to mention in some cases, the military.  The UN is not really a part of all that.  Its strength lies in international conflict mediation, in promoting development and in delivering humanitarian assistance.  So what has drawn the world body into this field at all?


International Challenges and the UN

There are 2 main reasons why the UN has become involved in counter-terrorism to the extent that it has.  Firstly, there is often an international dimension to a particular attack. Sometimes this is planned in one country, the materials for the bombs are procured in a second country, the operatives to carry out the attack are recruited in a third country and the bombing happens in a fourth country.    There are many examples of this phenomenon but one would be the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 on the Stade de France, the Bataclan nightclub and several restaurants.  These were planned in ISIS-controlled Syria; they were led by a Belgian national; and the weapons and vehicles involved were procured in Brussels. In terror attacks such as this, the authorities in the target country can only disrupt the plot if they have cooperative arrangements in place with neighbouring countries in the relevant technical fields.  The UN is in a position to facilitate such arrangements.

The second reason the UN has been drawn into this field is tied to the nature or character of the terrorism challenge, particularly that of Islamist origin, such as Al-Qaida, ISIS, Al Shabab and similar groups.  The ideology underpinning these groups continues to inspire and motivate individuals in all parts of the world.  Different factors will be found in the motivation of specific people attracted to it in different parts of the world, but the core ideas that power this terrorism are common, know no borders and can appeal to certain people anywhere. In short the ideology is global in scope and ambition.  Faced with such a global threat, many countries automatically turn to the UN for help and solutions.


Value of the UN’s involvement

That is why countries have turned to the UN to help them deal with the challenge of terrorism, but what assets does it bring in this area?  What is its value-added?  It certainly is not its financial or human resources as these are miniscule compared to those that large high-capacity countries, even Australia, are putting into their national counter-terrorism efforts.

Essentially, there are 4 ways in which the UN could be said to have a true comparative advantage in counter-terrorism work and as a result is contributing out of all proportion to its available resources, to a coordinated international response to the phenomenon.

  • Firstly, the UN has played, and continues to play, a major role in establishing, maintaining and promoting a global norm that terrorism is never acceptable, can never be justified and needs to be confronted. Unanimous condemnation of terrorism by the 193 member states of the UN and the threat of sanctions, help to discourage countries that otherwise might be tempted to use it to support their political objectives, to refrain from doing so.  Even more importantly it undermines a narrative woven by Islamist ideologues, that terrorism is a solely Western construct that has no relevance to the vast bulk of humankind.
  • Secondly the UN has a convening power. Whenever the international community faces a problem that crosses borders and cannot be dealt with wholly on a national basis, it turns to the UN to convene a meeting to discuss a coordinated response.  There are lots of examples of this from over the years, such as the problem of climate change; the issue of piracy off the coast of Somalia; the phenomenon of the dumping of hazardous waste on the beaches of poor developing countries; and the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.  The UN has been asked to play this role in the case of terrorism also.
  • Thirdly the UN and its related agencies have some niche expertise in the field that simply cannot be replicated nationally. The World Customs Organization, (WCO) has an IT network called the CEN that enables customs services from across the globe to check the origin, contents, current location, and planned transit ports, of virtually any shipment, including those they suspect may be connected with a terrorist attack.  Similarly INTERPOL has a data base of lost and stolen travel documents that enable immigration officials to check whether a passport presented to them at the border, is in fact being used fraudulently by someone, possibly as part of a terrorist plot.
  • Fourthly, the UN carries authority and a certain legitimacy that helps governments sell to sometimes sceptical citizens, the necessity of adopting certain strengthened security measures. There is a corollary here mind you, which is that the measures must be genuinely aimed at preventing terrorism.  The UN is definitely not in the business of giving governments a license to suppress legitimate political opposition in the name of counter-terrorism.


History of UN Activity in the CT field

The UN has been active in the counter-terrorism field for nearly 50 years.  Over that time UN agencies have elaborated 18 conventions dealing with terrorism, have adopted countless resolutions condemning terrorist attacks, and have launched hundreds of technical programs that have helped countries build capacity to prevent and prosecute terrorism.

The conventions, which cover a range of technical areas from the protection of international airports, through the marking and tracing of explosives, to denying terrorists the financial resources they need to conduct their activities, are important because taken together they comprise a web of international obligations that immensely strengthens international law in this field.  Additionally though, in some cases they also contain mechanisms that enable countries that do not have bilateral extradition or mutual legal assistance treaties, to cooperate in bringing certain suspected terrorists to justice.

Much of the work in drafting and adopting these conventions has been led by the relevant UN specialised agency.   The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) for example, has been the crucible for the negotiation of a number of the key conventions.  It has also, less formally but no less importantly, been at the centre of the adoption and dissemination of  international standards and guidelines on issues such as passenger screening, international travel documents, and aircraft security.  A good example of its work occurred in the aftermath of the attempt by an individual to bring down a Northwest aircraft over Detroit at Christmas in 2009 – the so-called Underpants bomber.  Consultations were held shortly after at ICAO headquarters in Montreal and in very short order, new instructions on best practice in security screening were distributed to international airports around the world.


UN Resolutions

The dozens of resolutions on terrorism adopted in the Security Council, the General Assembly and other UN forums might, on the face of it, seem like rhetorical exercises, but sometimes they can have a profound impact.     Security Council Resolution 1373, adopted just 3 weeks after 9/11, is a case in point.  It required all countries to adopt or revise national legislation to criminalise terrorism, deny terrorist groups financial resources, prevent terrorists from crossing their frontiers and gaining safe haven, and cooperate with other countries to bring terrorists to justice.  This has had a massive impact on national counter-terrorism measures everywhere, including in Australia.

A second resolution that has, if anything, overtaken resolution 1373 in importance, was adopted in the General Assembly in 2006 and is known as the Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Terrorism.

The particular significance of the Global Strategy is that it is more holistic than resolution 1373, in that it urges countries to tackle terrorism across a spectrum of activities that it identifies under 4 pillars.    The first pillar is to address the conditions conducive to terrorism, (e.g. unresolved conflict, ethnic strife, widespread human rights abuse and poor governance).  The second pillar is to pursue terrorists and bring them to justice – essentially the measures outlined in Security Council resolution 1373.  The third pillar is to provide technical assistance to those countries that lack the resources to fulfil the resolution.  The fourth pillar urges governments to respect their international human rights obligations and humanitarian norms while fighting terrorism.

In addition to its holistic approach, what is significant about the Global Strategy is that it was adopted by a consensus of the then 192 Member States of the United Nations in its universal organ, the General Assembly, so it carries real legitimacy and moral weight.  This is something that the Security Council cannot quite claim, (even though Security Council resolutions adopted under Chapter VII – including 1373 – are mandatory, while General Assembly resolutions are not).


UN Work Today

As earlier mentioned, there are literally hundreds of programs and projects being implemented under dozens of offices and agencies in the UN with some connection to the technical fields touched by counter-terrorism.  These include the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna, the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), and the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) in New York, and the various technical specialised agencies in different cities around the world.


Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

However, the field where the UN may well play its most important role in the future is in the tantalisingly elusive area of countering violent extremism (CVE), sometimes called preventing violent extremism (PVE).  The challenge here is that without finding a way to divert people who are vulnerable to the siren call of the jihadi message; without being seen to address the key grievances that push some in our community to believe that terrible violence is a righteous and virtuous response to the situation they see around them; without building confidence and resilience  and a true sense of national belonging in the specific communities being targeted by the terrorist recruiters; and without understanding that as a society as a whole we can impact the debate for the souls of these individuals positively or negatively, by our attitudes, words and actions, this issue is going to be with us for a very long time.

Some governments get this, but many do not.  Many refuse to recognise that the very measures they are adopting to address terrorism – perhaps effective in the short-term – are sowing the seeds of a new and potentially more virulent terrorism in the future, both by alienating individuals and communities that are critical to addressing the problem today and by reinforcing a narrative being promoted by the terrorists that certain governments are irredeemably hostile to Islam.

Even the governments that do get it, (and I include successive Australian Governments here), are not quite sure what really works.  For example, they may have experience in assimilating migrants from a range of different cultural backgrounds, but that might not help them deal with communities that are feeling isolated, stressed and alienated.  They may have experience in running prison rehabilitation programs, but rehabilitating individuals who have moved down the violent extremist path, raises challenges of a totally different order and may require the intervention of players well beyond the field of prison psychology.


The UN’s Role in CVE

The UN’s role in all this is certainly not to get into the nitty gritty of CVE programs.  It is far too remote from the community for that.  Even national governments have trouble carrying out programs that should better be run at the local level.  They can provide funding and strategic direction but probably should not try to deliver the programs themselves.

What the UN can do is, firstly, reinforce the basics messages of the Global Strategy.  UN agencies – when conducting technical assistance programs, when carrying out assessment missions, and in drafting resolutions and guidelines – must constantly reiterate to governments that we will never collectively defeat terrorism without addressing the conditions conducive to terrorism, be they social, political or legal barriers to full participation in our societies or other grievances, legitimate or perceived.   Neither will we defeat it if we try to cut corners and ignore the rule of law, or conduct our counter-terrorism measures in ways that seriously undermine human rights.

In a sense, this is the corollary of the legitimacy that the UN brings to counter terrorism measures mentioned earlier.  As the custodian of international human rights, the UN must, in promoting appropriate strengthening of national counter-terrorism measures, insist that these measures only be implemented in ways that fully respect people’s dignity and guarantee their procedural and other fundamental rights.

Secondly the UN, through its unrivalled global networks, can keep its finger on the pulse of what is working in the CVE field and what is not.  A bit like WHO in the field of health, which identifies appropriate responses when new health threats like Ebola or the Zika virus pop up somewhere on the planet, the UN can note successful programs, record best practices, and quickly disseminate vital information in this respect to those countries and agencies that need it most urgently.


The above are only some of the ways in which the United Nations is contributing to global counter-terrorism efforts, but they do give a sense of where the UN is uniquely placed to assist.  The activities it is undertaking and the role it is playing will doubtless change as the threat evolves.  What we can say is that in the face of a range of new international opportunities and challenges, such an unprecendented growth in the global use of social media, new waves of displaced people flowing across borders seeking a better life, and the adoption of new technologies in fields as diverse as telecommunications, international travel and warfare, the UN’s engagement in this field is unlikely to diminish.

ABOUT: Michael Smith

msMike Smith is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in New South Wales, Australia, where he has been based since July 2013. In 2014 he was appointed chair of a UN Commission of Inquiry into alleged human rights violations in Eritrea. That commission presented its first report to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2015 and its second and final report in June 2016.

Until July 2013, Mike Smith was an Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations in New York and Executive Director of the UN CounterTerrorism Committee Executive Directorate, a position he assumed in November 2007. Prior to that he was Australia’s Ambassador for CounterTerrorism.

Mr Smith served as Australian Permanent Representative to the UN at Geneva and Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament between 2002 and May 2006. In 2004 he was Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Between 1998 and 2002 Mr Smith was Chief of Staff to Alexander Downer MP, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Overseas, in addition to Geneva, Mr Smith has served as Australian Ambassador to Egypt and Sudan, Minister (Political) in the Australian Embassy, Washington and Ambassador to Algeria and Tunisia. Earlier in his career he had postings in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria.

In addition to his responsibilities at Macquarie University, Mike Smith pursues his continuing interest in counter-terrorism issues through his membership of the Board of Advisors of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in the Hague, the Advisory Council of the Global Center on Cooperative Security (GCCS) in Washington DC, the Professional Advisory Board of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, (ICT), in Herzliya, Israel and the Panel of Experts of the UN Center for CounterTerrorism in New York. He is a member of the Advisory Council on Countering Violent Extremism set up by the Premier of NSW in January 2016 to provide feedback on government programs and projects aimed at enhancing the resilience of communities in the state and diverting vulnerable youth from paths that could lead to violent extremism.

Mike Smith has a law degree from Adelaide University and has studied both Arabic and French to an advanced level. He is married with two adult children.