The United Nations and Counterterrorism in the Post-Pandemic World

Under-Secretary-General of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism Vladimir Voronkov, addresses the opening of the High-level Conference on Counter-Terrorism on June 28, 2018. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

On June 30 the General Assembly adopted its seventh consecutive consensus resolution (A/RES/75/291) on its 2006 Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. The COVID-19 pandemic had delayed the General Assembly’s review by a year, creating a syzygy with the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001), the fifteenth anniversary of the strategy, and the tenth anniversary of the founding of the UN Centre for Counter-Terrorism. Not surprisingly, the seventh review and the events the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), organized as part of the second Counter-Terrorism (CT) Week, prompted a great deal of reflection regarding the United Nations’ response to post-Cold War terrorism.

In 1998, Al-Qaida killed 500 people and wounded 4,000 in Tanzania and Kenya, prompting the Security Council to adopt its first-ever terrorist sanctions regime (S/RES/1267). On 9/11, Al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people from some 90 countries and injured 25,000 others. And in 2014, Da’esh (also known as IS, ISIL or ISIS), seized large parts of Iraq and Syria and attracted more than 40,000 “foreign terrorist fighters” from nearly 100 countries; the Security Council responded with resolutions 2178 (2014), 2199 (2015), and 2396 (2017); it was in the context of the third that the General Assembly approved the Secretary-General’s 2017 recommendation to create UNOCT and bring high-level leadership and coherence to the UN’s inchoate approach to countering terrorism.

Today, member states are concerned about two main threats. First, the spread of virulent Da’esh and Al-Qaida affiliates in Africa and their still potent progenitors in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—all of whom have proven to be highly opportunistic, adaptable, and intent on reconstituting external operations capabilities. They are also concerned about the nearly 10,000 suspected ISIL fighters in detention and the tens of thousands of affiliated family members stranded in camps in northeast Syria, even though they lack a common position on what to do about them.

Second, the rise in what is colloquially called “far-right” terrorism, or as agreed in the seventh review resolution “the rise in terrorist attacks on the basis of xenophobia, racism, and other forms of intolerance, or in the name of religion or belief,” such as those in Christchurch or El Paso. Lone actors and small groups adhering to these hateful, conspiracy-driven, and often misogynistic ideologies display the same kind of tech-savviness as Al-Qaida and Da’esh, and, as more comes to be known about them, the active transnational links they appear to have.

This year’s CT Week, encompassing the review, a high-level conference, and 36 side events, allowed member states, UN entities, civil society, and the private sector to better discern the evolving trends in terrorism and the consequences of a year in which terrorists were able to adapt quickly. They specifically looked ahead at the impact of the digital transition accelerated by COVID-19, the benefits and risks of using transformative technologies to prevent and counter terrorism in the next decade, and what is needed to stop terrorists from exploiting those same technologies.

CT Week also assessed the counterterrorism legacy of the last 20 years. While member states reaffirmed the importance of multilateralism in combatting transnational terrorism, they debated the degree to which human rights and the role of civil society should be elevated in the resolution. Although ensuring respect for human rights for all and the rule of law is one of the strategy’s pillars, some states have sought to use vague counterterrorism provisions against political opponents and human rights defenders. Others have come to view civil society organizations (CSOs) not as the useful expressions of a vibrant and healthy polity that they are, but as potential agents of regime change. Thus the fact that the resolution recognizes civil society’s roles in preventing and countering terrorism, providing support to victims of terrorism, and contributing to democratic oversight of counterterrorism efforts represents important progress. The resolution also added new language on the deprivation of liberty and nationality and the prohibition of torture and discriminatory profiling. It included stronger language on gender equality and called for the development of “comprehensive, gender-sensitive national assistance plans.” It made support to victims of terrorism, including victims of sexual violence in conflict, a high priority. And it added unprecedented language calling for increased national and international action to ensure compliance with human rights and the rule of law, creating and maintaining an “enabling environment” for civil society, and ensuring accountability for alleged human rights violations while countering terrorism.

The review included a candid debate on much-needed resources for UNOCT to carry out its core functions, including an allocation from the regular budget that would enable the office to have a dedicated capacity to mainstream human rights and gender and engage with civil society. Member states asked the Secretary-General to assess UNOCT’s resource requirements to perform its mandated functions, and emphasized the need to provide additional resources to UN entities with a human rights mandate so they can step up their engagement and technical assistance with respect to counterterrorism.

The review also enabled discussions around grant authority for UNOCT. Such authority, which other UN entities exercise, would reduce transaction costs and save time, allowing donor funds to go further and be implemented more quickly. Yet some human rights and civil society organizations expressed concern that giving UNOCT grant authority would instrumentalize them. Others argued that the UN should instead have an independent apparatus that provides human rights oversight of the hundreds of programs and projects conducted by the 43 entities that make up the UN’s Global CT Coordination Compact. For their part, some member states were concerned that such a mechanism would in effect assess their compliance with human rights obligations, which is the role of treaty bodies, the Human Rights Council, and its special procedures.

The debate on these topics occurred in a context of concerns that the UN is itself contributing to member states’ shrinking of civic space and erosion of human rights or helping “securitize” the response to terrorism. Some even suggest that the creation of UNOCT is evidence of that, even though all UN capacity-building and technical assistance is carried out in furtherance of Security Council and General Assembly mandates that require compliance with human rights. What’s more, UNOCT’s capacity-building and technical assistance is provided almost exclusively to civilian authorities, and when it does involve military forces, it almost always involves human rights-focused training. Moreover, while UNOCT and partner entities help member states and regional organizations develop national and regional counterterrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) strategies, it has no involvement in actual CT operations.

Applying the “do no harm” principle to human rights and civic space is not enough, however. UN staff are duty-bound to promote human rights and the involvement of civil society, in line with the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights and the UN Guidance Note on Civic Space. Although lacking dedicated resources, UNOCT has developed a program to mainstream human rights and apply the UN’s Human Rights Due Diligence Policy across all its programming and to continue human rights training for law enforcement officials in Iraq, the Philippines, and a number of African countries. Meanwhile, together with Morocco and the Netherlands, UNOCT has been leading the Global Counterterrorism Forum initiative to develop good practices—with input from human rights practitioners, CSOs, and the private sector—for effectively countering the financing of terrorism while safeguarding civic space.

Our work is not just about the here and now, though. CT Week underlined the need to better anticipate, prevent, and respond to the use of transformative technologies for terrorist purposes but to also harness responsibly their counterterrorism potential. The General Assembly requested UNOCT to increase its capacity-building support to member states on these challenges and opportunities, including their human rights aspects. The office is already addressing with its diverse partners the use of social media and the Darknet by terrorists, the counterterrorism implications of Artificial Intelligence, the human rights-compliant uses of biometrics, the threat from unmanned aerial systems, the use of virtual assets for terrorism financing, and the risk of terrorist cyber-attacks.

There is perhaps no better example of how UNOCT weaves human rights compliance in with high technology than in the multi-agency UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme it launched in May 2019. CT Travel helps member states comply with obligations under Security Council resolutions 2396 (2017) and 2482 (2019) to use advance passenger information and passenger name record data in combination with biometrics and watchlists to detect and interdict the travel of known and suspected terrorists and other serious criminals. The program provides requesting member states with a complete package of legislative and regulatory assistance, support for setting up and operationalizing a passenger information unit through training, advice on data connections with air carriers, establishment of real-time links with INTERPOL and other databases, and the installation and servicing of the UN’s goTravel software system. In each of these systems, and not only due to the inclusion of personal data, program partners include human rights provisions in each component, from ensuring data privacy protections in the legislation, to data retention limits and safeguards, audits for compliance with ICAO standards, INTERPOL’s own regulations on the use of data, and legitimate use limits on the software.

While the CT Travel program includes robust human rights protections, it is of course designed to identify and stop individuals designated as terrorist, who are among some of the most heinous abusers of human rights themselves. Today’s terrorists kidnap children. They torture. They murder. They enslave. They defile religion, destroy world heritage and devastate communities. This fundamental truth sometimes gets obscured by the self-reflection needed each time the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy is reviewed by member states. Nevertheless, this year’s forward-looking, consensus resolution makes clear that member states still agree on the need to counter terrorism in all its forms and manifestations with the sort of reinvigorated, networked multilateralism the Secretary-General called for during the landmark seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly.

This article is part of a series on the role of the UN system in preventing violent extremism and countering terrorism (PVE/CT), done in collaboration with the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations.

Raffi Gregorian is Deputy to the Under-Secretary-General for Counter-Terrorism and Director, UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT).