UN Counterterrorism Reform: Now It’s the Security Council’s Turn

Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the UN General Assembly on strengthening the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. New York, February 22, 2017 (Rick Bajornas/UN Photo)

Earlier this year, Secretary-General António Guterres achieved what his two immediate predecessors had been unable to: getting the United Nations General Assembly to agree on reform of a sprawling UN counterterrorism architecture. Guterres deserves credit for prioritizing this long-recognized shortcoming to position the UN Secretariat to better support countries’ efforts to implement the world body’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

The creation of a first-ever UN Office of Counter-Terrorism and the appointment of the first full-time, under-secretary-general-level UN counterterrorism official—Russia’s Vladimir Ivanovich Voronkov—should go a long way to enhance collaboration and cooperation among the dozens of UN entities working to counterterrorism and preventing violent extremism (PVE) and to allow the organization to speak with a single, louder force on a range of these issues.

However, the changes did not address the separation between the General Assembly counterterrorism bodies and the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED), along with that body’s some 40 expert and other staff and approximately $9 million annual budget. Thus, we are left with two parallel structures of roughly equal size, one supporting implementation of the Global Strategy and the other implementation of Security Council counterterrorism resolutions—1373, 1624, and 2178, among others. Although Voronkov will out-rank the also newly appointed assistant-secretary-general executive director of CTED, the latter will continue to report to the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee. It will thus undermine that single, louder voice that was a key objective of Guterres’ reform effort.

Further, the reform left the firewall between the General Assembly and CTED sides of the counterterrorism house in place. This will continue to make information sharing a challenge. As a result, much like the case with the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force Office, the new Office of Counter-Terrorism will have difficulties accessing the country-specific data that CTED has gathered and analysis of country needs and priorities it has undertaken since its establishment over 13 years ago—this is perhaps the single largest dataset on countries’ counterterrorism capabilities and needs in existence.

Although the reform efforts to date are an important first step, they don’t go far enough if the hope is to maximize the UN counterterrorism role in a manner consistent with the comprehensive Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (including so that prevention and human rights are given due emphasis). Rather, the goal should be to create a single office within the UN that supports countries’ efforts to implement the mutually reinforcing and largely similar counterterrorism and PVE mandates of both the General Assembly and Security Council. Such an office would combine the counterterrorism resources and expertise currently divided between the UN Secretariat and CTED. Absent further reform, the likelihood is that concerns about the UN’s hydra-headed approach will simply be replaced by concerns about what will in all likelihood be a Janus-like alternative.

With the secretary-general and General Assembly having done their part to realize a more efficient and effective UN counterterrorism apparatus, the time has come for the Security Council to follow suit when it considers, later this year, whether to renew CTED’s mandate as a “special political mission”—a designation the permanent five (P5) Council members used to limit UN Secretariat involvement in the Council’s work when establishing CTED in March 2004.

Much of the internal Council discussions will no doubt center on two questions: whether and how to refocus CTED’s mandate in light of the recent  counterterrorism reforms to try to limit  duplication of effort with the new Office of Counter-Terrorism, and thus maximize the resources of both.   Here, we can expect Russia to take a different approach to at least some other P5 members. Bearing in mind that the country has long looked to stop non-Security Council bodies and offices overtaking CTED as the premier UN expert entity, it will look to reinforce the Voronkov-led office. It is also likely to try to narrow CTED’s mandate—which has grown to include elements related to PVE, community engagement, gender and youth empowerment, and human rights—to what it views as its basic functions: monitoring state implementation of the core Security Council counterterrorism resolutions mentioned above.  These “softer” issues, which Russia has never been enamored with—to say the least—would then fall entirely within Voronkov’s remit, with Moscow likely relying on him to downplay their significance.

Yet, Council members, while looking carefully at the substance of CTED’s mandate, might want to avoid reflexively renewing its mandate as a special political mission, as they did in 2007 and again in 2013. They could instead give careful consideration as to whether this status, virtually unheard of for a New York-based operation, continues to be justified. An alternative would be to request that the secretary-general integrate its resources and staff into the new coordination office to include supporting the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee within its mandate. There are numerous precedents for ending special political missions—and having functions absorbed by the UN Secretariat—when the special need no longer exists.

P5 members can also expected to be reluctant to pursue an architectural realignment, including out of fear of losing their Vulcan-grip over CTED, as well as the resources and expertise within, and the information and analysis generated by it.

Before dismissing this option, however, Council members would be wise to consider the historical context of CTED’s creation in 2003/2004. This includes whether there has been any significant change in the  unique political, diplomatic, and other conditions that led to its special political mission status—a status only given to only one other New York (vice field-based) entity—as well as the requirement that the secretary-general seek Council “approval” before appointing CTED’s executive director. In short: They simply do not.

The Changed Context

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States, the Security Council dominated the UN’s response to terrorism, in particular through the adoption of Resolution 1373 less than three weeks later, which imposed counterterrorism obligations on all member states and established the Counter-Terrorism Committee to monitor implementation of this new framework. Many non-Council members criticized the 15-member body for acting contrary to the UN Charter by “legislating” new norms (something they felt was the purview of the General Assembly) and expressed concerns that it was going to try to “name and shame” those it found not complying with the new framework.

With the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) still years away, the General Assembly was not viewed as a reliable counterterrorism actor, particularly by the US. Rather, it was seen as too political, cumbersome, and divided, principally over the definition of terrorism, to be able to produce any kind of timely or meaningful, let alone timely, response.

The UN Secretariat was at best a bystander when it came to counterterrorism. At worst it was a nuisance and an impediment, at least in the eyes of some P5 members. Then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan forcefully spoke up against terrorism on various occasions in the initial post-9/11 period. He also made a good-willed, but ill-fated attempt to prod UN member states to reach a breakthrough in the General Assembly on a definition of terrorism. But with the approaching Iraq war and growing controversy around the US “Global War on Terror” that left counterterrorism a pariah issue outside of the friendly confines of the Security Council, Annan eventually preferred to assume a much lower profile on this issue, fearing backlash from the G77. The Department of Political, nominally the Secretariat’s “focal point” on counterterrorism, never dedicated full-time staff to the issue, and senior Secretariat aides were critical of the Bush Administration’s agenda and concerned that it was trying to coopt the Council and the wider UN to further it.

Against this background, it was maybe unsurprising that the US and UK insisted that any support structure of the Counter-Terrorism Committee should be set up under direct authority of the Council rather than the Secretariat. This support structure was initially a group of consultants hired on short-term contracts. It later became CTED, after the enormity and long-term nature of the challenge involved in gathering data on and analyzing all member states’ efforts to implement the requirements of Resolution 1373 became clear.

In 2003, when the US and UK began drafting plans for what became CTED, they were met with strong resistance from the Secretariat on both legal and policy grounds. As part of its strategy, the Secretariat enlisted Brazil and other elected Council members to fight its battles, which it characterized in terms of preventing P5 efforts to further expand Council’s CT role beyond what it thought was permissible under the UN Charter.

The Department of Political Affairs wrote letters to Council members arguing that the proposal to have the Council “approve” the secretary-general’s appointment of the CTED director violated the UN Charter (Article 101, which says that UN “staff shall be appointed by the Secretary-General under regulations established by the General Assembly”) and how CTED’s proposed functions were more appropriate to be carried out by the UN Secretariat with guidance from the Council.

In fact, these disagreements prevented the Council from reaching consensus on the draft resolution (1535) for many months and it was only the horrific attacks in Madrid in March 2004 –with Spain chairing the Counter-Terrorism Committee—which broke the impasse. Resolution 1535 was adopted shortly thereafter. However, the disagreements with the Secretariat left scars and mutual suspicion that were slow to heal.  In fact, Secretary-General Annan initially tried to appoint an Austrian diplomat as the first CTED director—and sent a letter to Council members notifying them of his intention to do so—only to be forced to appoint Spain’s then ambassador to Washington when it became clear that that P5 would only support the latter candidate.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the situation could not be more different. Last September the General Assembly celebrated the 10th anniversary of the UN Counter-Terrorism Strategy, reinforcing the global normative consensus on steps all countries should take to address the terrorist threat; more than 30 non-Security Council offices, bodies, and agencies are members of the UN CTITF; the UN Counter-Terrorism Center was established in 2007; and, thanks to a Saudi contribution of over $100 million, is supporting a wide range of UN-led counterterrorism capacity-building and other technical counterterrorism projects around the globe. And, of course, there is the recent establishment of the Office of Counter-Terrorism and appointment of the first-ever under-secretary general for counter-terrorism.

Needless to say, given these developments over the past 10+ years, it is hard to imagine anyone arguing today that the Security Council would need to create its own technical counterterrorism body to support global implementation of a set of counterterrorism resolutions, particularly ones that by and large mirror those of the General Assembly.  Rather, it would likely turn to the Secretariat—in particular, the Office of Counter-Terrorism—for support with work that primarily involves data gathering and analysis, technical assistance delivery and facilitation, and facilitating international and regional cooperation, which is all work not traditionally associated with the Security Council.  While the Council must of course be the final arbiter of non-compliance with its normative counterterrorism framework and be able to reliably draw on relevant UN Secretariat expertise and resources, of which there are now many, the conditions no longer exist for it to continue have its own, sprawling technical body.

Eric Rosand is the Director of the Prevention Project and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He served at the US Mission to the UN from 2002-2005, during which time he drafted Security Council Resolution 1535 and was one of the architects of CTED.