Reviewing the UN’s Counterterrorism Efforts

The recent General Assembly review of the United Nations’ Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy was noteworthy simply for reaffirming the status quo. That is not in itself a bad thing; support for the Strategy should not be taken for granted. Indeed, it is no small measure of success if member states are reenergized in their support for the UN. However, the bureaucratization of the review risks prioritizing process over substance. Moreover, the complacency of several states and the continued reluctance of several UN entities to commit to the Strategy in more than name, threatens to undo the positive momentum achieved in past years.

When the GA first adopted the Strategy by consensus in 2006, it was groundbreaking in bringing together the “harder” and “softer” elements of counterterrorism. In four distinct “pillars” the Strategy urges states to address the conditions conducive to the threat of terrorism (pillar one); to take measures to prevent and combat terrorism and to develop the necessary capacity to do so (pillars two and three); and to ensure that human rights are upheld in all counterterrorism efforts (pillar four).

Each of these pillars was not revolutionary in itself. It was the combination of the four that made the Strategy more innovative, a quality not often associated with the UN even in the eyes of its more ardent supporters. Moreover, by including civil society in its plan of action, the Strategy provided states and the UN a valuable window to interact with the broader public, media, rights groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and others, whose buy-in and expertise could be vital to addressing a broad range of challenges, especially those delineated in “pillar one.”

The composition of the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF), charged with helping states to implement the Strategy, also reflects the inclusive nature of the Strategy. Now comprising thirty entities, the CTITF brings together parts of the UN system traditionally associated with countering terrorism alongside those less so and has promoted a synergistic relationship among them.

The adoption of the Strategy and the first review in 2008 generated a lot of creative energy, which resulted, eventually, in the institutionalization of the CTITF office. This was no mean feat. The allocation of dedicated posts and regular budgetary resources was the outcome of strategic planning and the proactive engagement of several key states and stakeholders, including IPI, whose Blue Paper on Global Terrorism strongly advocated the institutionalization of the office.

In 2010, little of that energy was visible in anticipation of the review. Moreover, timing and process conspired to make substantive debate difficult within the confines of the GA. The resultant resolution was therefore little more than a reiteration of known positions. It is clear that many UN embassies are too underresourced and oversubscribed to always make the most of opportunities; capitals might consider facilitating a more constructive biennial review by allocating more resources or staff for the exercise.

Nonetheless, discussions at side-events at IPI and on the margins of meetings highlighted the potential benefits of the review exercise; but for these to be maximized, stakeholders should come to the review prepared to challenge, critique, and support, where applicable, UN initiatives in order to help shape them constructively. Progress on two key points will determine the value of the Strategy and, ultimately, the UN’s comparative advantage in addressing terrorism.

First, the Strategy is not an end in itself but a valuable political instrument. As such, it should be applied to addressing challenges outlined in all four pillars, including highlighting the impact of terrorism on victims; addressing terrorist use of the internet and countering extremist narratives; supporting efforts to build law-enforcement, legislative, and technical capacities; and foster increased engagement by civil society to help address these challenges, among others. To that end, promoting awareness of the Strategy in capitals and regions is a vital step, but states and stakeholders must then be encouraged to use it to further their counterterrorism efforts.

Second, the holistic approach urged upon states must also be mirrored within the UN system itself. CTITF entities have made a positive start, but need to redouble efforts to marshal the resources available within the multilateral system more effectively and comprehensively. The participation of all entities in CTITF initiatives does not mean labeling all their work “counterterrorism.” Indeed it is widely agreed this would be inaccurate and counterproductive. However, inputs drawn from the expertise, experiences, and networks of field-based organizations would greatly enrich the UN’s discourse on countering terrorism.

It is never too early to prepare for 2012. Fluctuations in terrorist violence, the financial crisis, and wariness of the “War on Terror” approach has led to the diminution of terrorism as a policy priority for many states. Consequently, fewer resources have been devoted to initiatives like the Strategy. However, while this particular process may be over, the challenge continues to evolve and grow more complex. Daily headlines indicate several regions facing the combustible mix of fragility, conflict, and political violence––“conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.” Failed terrorist attacks tell us as much about the perpetrators’ creativity and persistence as they do about our own vulnerabilities; our tendency to counter the last attack rather than think creatively about future threats.

The biennial review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy can therefore be a valuable opportunity to revitalize collective efforts to address the terrorist threat, if states choose to use it as such. After all, as states are accorded the primary responsibility for implementing the Strategy, the UN can only help those who help themselves.

Read more about IPI’s work on counterterrorism