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The fight against terrorism in light of the United Nations

The fight against terrorism in light of the United Nations

The New York, Bali, Madrid, Paris, Istanbul and London bombings illustrate that the terrorist phenomenon has alarmingly increased in the world since September 11, 2001. The civilian population is usually the principal target of attacks that provoke massacres in streets, markets and restaurants. 

The United Nations system, including the General Assembly, the Security Council and the funds, agencies and programmes, has been engaged in combating terrorism for many decades. The Organization has worked to bring the international community together to prevent and to combat terrorism and has developed the international counter-terrorism legal framework to help States combat the threat collectively. 

On 28 September 2001, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council adopted unanimously resolution 1373, which created the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) and calls upon Member States to implement a number of measures intended to enhance their legal and institutional ability to counter terrorist activities.

Prior to the adoption of resolution 1373 (2001) and the establishment of the Counter-Terrorism Committee, the international community had already promulgated 12 of the current 16 international counter-terrorism legal instruments. However, the rate of adherence to these conventions and protocols by United Nations Member States was low.

As a result of the attention focused on countering terrorism since the events of 11 September 2001 and the adoption of Security Council resolution 1373 (2001), which calls on States to become parties to these international instruments, the rate of adherence has increased: some two-thirds of UN Member States have either ratified or acceded to at least 10 of the16 instruments, and there is no longer any country that has neither signed nor become a party to at least one of them.

In 2004, the Council created the Counter-Terrorism Committee Directorate (CTED) to strengthen and coordinate the monitoring process. CTED is headed by an Executive Director, at the level of Assistant Secretary-General. Security Council resolution 2129, adopted in December 2013, extended CTED’s mandate until 31 December 2017. 

The relationship between counter-terrorism and human rights has attracted considerable interest since the establishment of the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) in 2001 within the Security Council. In this regard, resolution 1373 (2001) calls upon States to take appropriate measures in conformity with the relevant provisions of national and international law, including international standards of human rights, before granting refugee status, for the purpose of ensuring that the asylum-seeker has not planned, facilitated or participated in the commission of terrorist acts.

In its resolution 1456 (2003) and subsequent resolutions, the Council also affirms that States must ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law, and should adopt such measures in accordance with international law, in particular international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law.

Among all human rights, the Security Council emphasized in its resolution 1624 (2005) that all States and the United Nations should take all necessary and appropriate measures in accordance with international law at the national and international level to protect the right to life. 

However, the CTC began moving toward a proactive policy on human rights when the Council decided to establish the CTED in 2004. Pursuant to resolution 1624 (2005), the Executive Directorate is mandated to take into account the relevant human rights obligations in the course of its activities. Consequently, the CTC and CTED always integrate the relevant human rights obligations in all their activities, including in the preparation of country assessment, country visits, the facilitation of technical assistance, and other interactions with Member States. 

Apart from embracing international law and upholding rule of law in countering terrorism, the Security Council emphasized in its resolution 1624 (2005) that continuing international efforts to enhance dialogue and broaden understanding among civilizations, in an effort to prevent the indiscriminate targeting of different religions and cultures will contribute to strengthening the international fight against terrorism. 

The Council’s same resolution “… calls upon all States to continue international efforts to enhance dialogue and broaden understanding among civilizations, in an effort to prevent the indiscriminate targeting of different religions and cultures, and to take all measures as may be necessary and appropriate and in accordance with their obligations under international law to counter incitement of terrorist acts motivated by extremism and intolerance and to prevent the subversion of educational, cultural, and religious institutions by terrorists and their supporters”.

In the context of terrorism, the President of the Security Council stated in 2010 that continuing international efforts to enhance dialogue and broaden understanding among civilizations can help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism, and will contribute to strengthening the international fight against terrorism, and, in this respect, appreciates the positive role of the Alliance of Civilizations and other similar initiatives. 

The General Assembly emphasized in the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review that tolerance and dialogue among civilizations and the enhancement of interfaith and intercultural understanding and respect among peoples are among the most important elements in promoting cooperation, in combating terrorism and in countering violent extremism. 

The international practice has demonstrated that there is a close link between human rights law, rule of law, the promotion of tolerance and international peace and security. A demonstrated commitment to human rights, the promotion of dialogue among civilizations and the rule of law help to promote more effective cooperation at the political level. In several States, the CTED has strongly recommended that counter-terrorism legislation be reviewed in order to ensure its conformity with human rights standards. Additionally, in several occasions, the CTED has suggested that strengthening the human rights framework could help alleviate certain conditions conductive to terrorism.

On 24 December 2015, the “Secretary-General Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism” came out, by which he appeals for concerted action in order to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. According to him, the Plan constitutes the inaugural basis for a comprehensive approach to this fast evolving, multidimensional challenge. 

The Secretary-General also wanted to stress that specific initiatives for the prevention of violent have been carried out through the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre, such as a Task Force Working Group on the prevention of violent extremism and the conditions conductive to the spread of terrorism. 

In order to apply the Plan of Action, the Secretary-General instructed UN entities to redouble their efforts in coordinating and developing activities and announced his attempt to adopt an All-of-UN approach to supporting national, regional and global efforts to prevent violent extremism through the United Nations Chief Executives Board for Coordination, as well as through existing United Nations inter-agency bodies.

This proposal made by the Secretary-General goes in the line of the “United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review” adopted by the General Assembly in 2014, which underlined the importance of enhancing counter-terrorism efforts undertaken by all relevant United Nations agencies and bodies in accordance with the existing mandates.

Finally, Martin Scheinin, former UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, underscored that the discussion on “root causes” of or even “conditions conductive” to terrorism should always be accompanied by a clear and uncompromised condemnation of all acts of terrorism. 

David Fernandez Puyana, PhD, LLM and MA


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