Multilateral Responses to Terrorism: The United Nations
Posted on July 9th, 2016

The United Nations Posted: October, 2004

With universal membership and a commitment to global security, the United Nations is uniquely poised to play a critical role in the international struggle against terrorism. Unlike its member nations, which often face domestic political, economic and bureaucratic constraints, the UN, as an independent international organization, is more free to pursue an anti-terrorist agenda. On the other hand, the UN itself is beset by extreme internal politicization, factionalism and bureaucratization which do hinder its counterterrorist functions.

This analysis examines both the constructive actions the UN has taken against terrorism and the obstacles it faces in tackling the threat in amore significant way. It concludes with several policy recommendations for strengthening the UN’s role in the anti-terrorist struggle.

UN Responses to Terrorism

UN Security Council

As the principal international organ dealing with international peace and security, the UN Security Council has passed several significant resolutions on the counterterrorist front. More recent resolutions have instituted sanctions against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, affirmed the right of self-defense, found terrorism to be a threat to international peace and security, stressed the accountability of the supporter as well as the perpetrator of terrorist acts and required member states to limit the ability of terrorists and terrorist organizations to operate internationally by freezing assets of terrorist-affiliated persons and organization and denying them safe haven.

Resolution 1267 (1999), created a sanctions committee that maintains a list of individuals and entities belonging or related to the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The resolution obliges all states to freeze the assets, prevent the entry into or the transit through their territories, and prevent the director indirect supply, sale and transfer of arms and military equipment with regard to the individuals and entities on the list. As of July 2004, the list included 144 individuals and entities associated with associated with the Taliban and 285 with Al Qaeda.

In the wake of September 11th, Resolution 1368 (9/12/01) recognized “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense in accordance with the Charter” and expressed “its readiness to take all necessary steps to respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and to combat all forms of terrorism, in accordance with its responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations.”

Resolution 1373 (9/28/01) declares that “acts, methods, and practices of terrorism are contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations and that knowingly financing, planning and inciting terrorist acts are also contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.” The resolution calls on member states to “prevent and suppress the financing of terrorist acts” and “refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts.” Member states are obliged to criminalize terrorist activity and financing, freeze terrorist-related funds and assets, deny safe haven to those who “finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts, or provide safe havens,” prevent the movement of terrorists or terrorist groups, cooperate with other governments and the international community on the anti-terrorism front, and become parties to all terrorism-related conventions and protocols.

It is important to note that the terrorism financing prohibitions of the UN refer only to the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda-affiliated organizations designated under Resolution 1267. The UN does not maintain a general list of terrorist organizations. It is therefore legal, according to the UN, to finance and provide safe haven to, for example, Hamas terrorists.

Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC)

Established by Security Council Resolution 1373, the CTC is made up of all 15 members of the Security Council and is charged with monitoring states’ implementation of Resolution 1373 and bringing member states to an acceptable level of compliance with terrorism-related conventions and protocols. The Committee is required to help states remedy any deficiencies they may have regarding legislation, funds or personnel.

States must send reports to the CTC stating the specific steps they are taking to fight terrorism. The reports are supposed to include progress in seven areas: legislation, financial asset controls, customs, immigration, extradition, law enforcement and arms traffic. Specific questions include:

  • What steps have been taken to establish t ensure that the punishment reflects the seriousness of such terrorist acts?
  • What laws in your country prohibit (i) recruitment by terrorist groups and (ii) the supply of weapons to terrorists?
  • What legislation exists to deny safe haven to terrorists?
  • What legislation exists for freezing the assets of terrorists?

As of June 30, 2004, 71 UN member states had not met the deadline set for submission of their reports to the CTC .In July 2004, the Security Council issued a Presidential Statement inviting the CTC to accelerate its work on assessing the assistance needs of member states. It called on the Committee to identify and address states’ problems in implementing resolution 1373 and to facilitate the provision of technical assistance to states with difficulties.

The CTC provides assistance to member nations; it is not an enforcer of UN policy and it does not institute sanctions against countries that violate anti-terrorism norms. There is currently discussion within the UN and the international community as to whether the CTC should adopt more of an enforcer role such as “naming and shaming” countries that violate international standards or lag behind in implementing anti-terrorism legislation.

International Conventions on Terrorism

Intended to strengthen the international legal basis for the fight against terrorism, there are currently 12 international conventions that criminalize some of the most significant acts of terror: offenses against aircraft and airports, attacks on internationally protected persons, hostage-taking, misuse of nuclear material, attacks on ships and offshore platforms, misuse of plastic explosives, bombings and financing of terrorist acts. Negotiated from 1963 to 1999, the conventions define a particular type of terrorist violence as an offense under the convention; require signatories to penalize that activity in their domestic law and create an obligation on them to prosecute or extradite violators of the convention. The CTC is charged with encouraging states to become parties to the conventions and to implement their provisions in national legislation.

The most recent convention, the International Convention on the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999) makes it a criminal offense in signatory countries to provide financial assistance to terrorist organizations. Each signatory is required to identify, detect, and seize or freeze funds used or allocated for terrorist purposes, prosecute or extradite individuals suspected of involvement in the financing of terrorism, cooperate with other states in the investigation and/or prosecution of such suspects and ensure that their domestic laws require financial institutions to implement measures that identify, impede, and prevent the flow of terrorist funds.

The convention marks the first time that fundraising for terrorist activities is considered a crime by international law. As of March 2004, 132 countries had signed the convention and 112 had completed the ratification, acceptance, approval or accession process.

UN Office on Drugs and Crime/Terrorism Prevention Branch

The Terrorism Prevention Branch (TPB), an arm of the Vienna based UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), works with the CTC top provide legislative, legal and technical assistance to UN member states in the counterterrorism arena. Created in 1999, the TPB researches terrorism trends and assists countries in upgrading their capacities to investigate and prevent terrorist acts. In October 2002, the TPB launched The Global Programme Against Terrorism as the framework for UNODC’s operational activities. The Programme:

  • reviews domestic legislation and provides advice on drafting enabling laws;
  • facilitates and provides training to national administrations with regard to new legislation;
  • provides in-depth assistance on the implementation of the new legislation against terrorism;
  • maintains a roster of experts to supplement specific expertise where required;
  • maintains model laws and examples of relevant legislation;
  • provides guidance for legislating and implementing the international instruments pertaining to terrorism.

Obstacles Facing UN Counterterrorist Efforts

The UN faces numerous challenges in translating its resolutions, conventions and programs into effective actions.

Lack of a Clear Vision

Within the UN and the international community debate is currently waging as to what role the UN should play in the international fight against terrorism According to veteran UN political analyst Edward Luck, the UN system is facing three broad strategic options:

  • embrace unconditionally the struggle against terrorism and make it a core priority for the institution;
  • continue to muddle through as a marginal but useful player in the global counterterrorism effort, while attempting to stay out of the crossfire;
  • distance the institution from the war on terrorism as distracting from the organization’s traditional priorities and competencies.

Whereas, Luck argues, in the post September 11th climate, the UN sought to increase its role in the antiterrorist struggle, the August 2003 car bomb attack against UN Headquarters in Baghdad weakened UN resolve on the counterterrorist front. Twenty two people, including the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, were killed in the attack.

The Secretary General’s Policy Working Group on the UN and Terrorism argued that the “UN must project a clear and principled message that terrorism, whatever the cause in whose name it is undertaken, is unacceptable and deserves universal condemnation.” The group identified three areas in which the UN could make a distinct contribution:

  • Dissuasion: helping persuade states, groups, and individuals not to assist terrorists;
  • Denial: assisting member states in their efforts to deny terrorists the money, space, and means to threaten peace and security;
  • Cooperation: using the UN’s convening power to facilitate counterterrorist cooperation at the global and regional levels.

One of the United States’ core reservations about the UN’s role in the antiterrorist struggle is the international body’s unwillingness to use military force to prevent, punish and deter terrorism. While the U.S. recognizes the merit of establishing international legal and legislative norms against terrorism, it also acknowledges the value of military action as another significant tool on the counterterrorist front.

Lack of a Definition of Terrorism

One of the main obstacles in forging a united front against terrorism is that there is no internationally accepted definition of terrorism. The decades old refrain “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” still reverberates throughout the institution. As a result, there is also no internationally recognized screening mechanism for identifying terrorist groups.

There are two camps within the UN: those who think that the UN should deal with the causes of terrorism and those who want to focus on outlawing specific acts of terrorism.

In October 1999, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1269 which “Unequivocally condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, in all their forms and manifestations, wherever and by whomever committed.” While the resolution condemned terrorist acts, it failed to define what constitutes such an act.

Political Divisions

The UN is beset by political divisions and factionalism that greatly aggravate its efforts to achieve an effective antiterrorist leadership role. In particular, the hostility of the Arab/Muslim bloc toward the United States and Israel continues to impede an effective global strategy against terrorism.

For decades, the various UN bodies and agencies have refused to recognize Palestinian violence against Israel as constituting terrorism. While the U.S., the European Union and others favor a definition of terrorism that includes all violence against civilians, the 56 member Islamic Conference Organization insists on exempting “national liberation movements” and “resistance to foreign occupation” from the definition.

Whether through its harsh condemnation of Israeli responses to Palestinian terrorism or its forging of moral equivalencies between Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli army countermeasures, the UN remains hostage to global politics. The recent International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that condemned Israel’s antiterrorist barrier and effectively denied the sovereign State of Israel the right to protect its citizens from Palestinian terrorism is but one example among many that taint the UN’s efforts in this regard.

The political divisions and ideological alignments contribute to the UN’s application of double standards. As Sergey Rogov of the Russian Academy of Sciences noted in a Columbia University forum on the UN’s Response to Terrorism, “… There are also double standards for freedom fighters, who were pushing for self-determination, which was allowed for Bosniaks and Palestinians, but not for Kosovars, Chechens, Tamils, or Kurds.”

Resource Allocation

The issue of terrorism is tackled within many UN bodies, agencies and offices including the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Maritime Organization, the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the Universal Postal Union.

On the one hand, it is constructive for the specialized UN agencies to address the terrorist threat. On the other hand, there is no single address within the UN system for anti-terrorist action. There is neither a separate counterterrorist agency within the UN nor is there a staff member at UN headquarters in New York who has been assigned to work fulltime on terrorism.


In recent years, the United Nations has strengthened its antiterrorist agenda. Its criminalizing of terrorist financing and its outreach work to member states in providing the resources needed for them to adopt and enforce antiterrorist legislation are the most significant recent UN initiatives. The world body’s list of Al Qaeda affiliated organizations that require asset freezing is a positive model for member states.

Nevertheless, the UN’s many weaknesses on the counterterrorist front impede its ability to become a more effective antiterrorist force in the international community. In general, the world body’s consistent failure to overcome anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment within its walls contributes to a legitimization of Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians. More specifically, the lack of an agreed upon universal definition of terrorism, and the UN’s restriction of its terrorist list to Al Qaeda affiliated organizations, serve to ignore and condone other terrorist groups and terrorist activities.

Some observers contend that the UN will never be able to overcome its political divisions and should therefore focus on antiterrorist activities that can rise above politics.

In The UN Role in Fighting Terrorism, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests the UN should concentrate on the creation of common security standards for air, road, rail, and maritime traffic, airport security, port security, security for container ports and shipments, energy and hazardous material shipments. He sees a role for the UN in recommending global standards for the protection of key commuter facilities, critical infrastructure facilities, public facilities and government buildings.

Whichever course the UN chooses, it will certainly have to allocate additional resources for its counterterrorist agenda.

3 Responses to “Multilateral Responses to Terrorism: The United Nations”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    The Conclusion in this article says it all !

    Note in particular the following words :

    (a) “….. UN’s restriction of its terrorist list to Al Quaeda affiliated organizations, serve to ignore and condone other terrorist groups and terrorist activities”.

    (b) “Some observers contend that the UN will never be able to overcome its political divisons and should therefore focus on antiterrorist activities that can rise above politics”.

    As such, is the UN Agency competent enough to judge the LTTE acts of Terrorism of nearly 30 yrs in Sri Lanka ?

    Is the UN Agency biased in favor of the terrorist group the LTTE in the Sri Lanka conflict with the LTTE Terrorism and against the actions taken (however careful to save civilian lives) by the armed forces under the last govt in its final confrontation with the LTTE, ignoring the fact that over 300,000 Tamil civilians were taken as hostages by the LTTE (taking of hostages is counter to the principles of the UN).
    The UN seems to also ignore the fact that the Human Shield of over 300,000 Tamils civilians taken as hostages by the LTTE were saved by the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka.

    This whole episode with the UN must serve to wind up the so called Tamil issue in Sri Lanka, once and for all.

  2. plumblossom Says:

    Not only this, the treacherous Ranil, Sirisena, CBK, Mangala, idiotic UNPers, those INGOs working for thousands of dollars and even the JVP are trying to dismember the country via constitutional changes. We patriotic Sri Lankans should demand a strong central government, no more powers to provincial councils, no merger between provinces, ideally abolition of the 13th amendment to the constitution and absolute safeguarding of the sovereignty of the country.

    The army did not commit any war crimes. it is the LTTE who committed war crimes. However, it is high time that Sri Lanka rejected the US imperialists UNHRC resolution and state at the UNHRC to leave Sri Lanka alone to get on with reconciliation as Sri Lanka sees fit.

    Actually Sri Lanka today being accused of committing war crimes by the US, UK, EU, Norway, Sweden, Canada, India etc. is very similar to the way Saddam Hussein and Iraq was accused of possessing non existent WMDs. Although Iraq did everything possible to show the US, UK, EU, Norway, Sweden, Canada etc. that it did not possess WMD it was bombed anyway, regime change brought about since Iraq has massive amounts of oil which the US, UK, EU, Norway, Sweden, Canada companies wanted to extract at cheap rates by bringing on a puppet regime. A similar scenario is unfolding in Sri Lanka since Sri Lanka is located at a strategic location, the US wanting to establish a naval/air base at Trincomalee, the US wanting to establish further US army, navy, air force bases in the island, mineral resources, marine resources, control of the Indian ocean sea routes etc. For this, the separatist, terroristic Tamils who are subservient to the US are who the US is favouring to help them with this task. This is why the US favours eelam. All patriotic Sri Lankans should therefore tell the government to withdraw from carrying out the US resolution and to tell the US to leave Sri Lanka alone.

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    A financially ‘broke’ EU is the most dangeorus event for the entire world. Two world wars started in Europe.

    At the end of World War II, US President Harry Truman and his team wrote out the Constitution for Germany. In it workers’ rights were safeguarded via the Constitution of Germany. In the new German Constitution, any company with over 2,000 employees had to have 51% Worker Representation at the Board level – and that is how Germany flourished after WW II. The world can see that internal dissent in Germany became minimal with the new Constitution adhered to with zeal.

    Also, Britain leaving the EU is proof that the EU is not working out …. the sense of security for European countries is less now.

    The world is watching with apprehension the European scene unfold.

    Lanka needs to learn lessons from such events. Can Yahap people, headed by earlier politicos rejected by the People, who are now constantly destabilising Lanka through Central Bank scams, humiliating war heroes & their families, breaking the existing laws of the country, etc., stabilise the country to avoid future conflicts ?

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