Counterterrorism and the UN: The rise and hapless fall of American leadership

Front of the headquarters of the United Nations Office in Geneva. Geneva, Switzerland, March 04, 2020.Facade du siege de l office des Nations Unis de Geneve. Geneve, 4 Mars 2020.NO USE FRANCE

President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization — like his persistent threats against NATO, or his imposition of sanctions on the International Criminal Court — have faced sharp criticism internationally. This administration has inflicted considerable damage to the international rules-based system that was designed after World War II to address complex global challenges, a system that America helped create and has clearly benefited from.

Less visible, but also harmful, are instances where there has been a lack of principled U.S. leadership and engagement. The United States in recent years has withdrawn from the U.N. Human Rights Council; reduced funding for (and thus influence in) U.N. peacekeeping and U.N. agencies dealing with human rightsPalestinian refugeespopulation controlsustainable development, and global warming; and made erratic decisions in the anti-ISIS coalition, for instance. This has created a vacuum that has too often been filled by authoritarian and other undemocratic regimes eager to leverage the multilateral system in ways that legitimize their own behavior and/or promote their priorities that are often at odds with those of democratic countries.

This was on full display during the U.N.’s virtual counterterrorism week recently, which focused on the “strategic and practical challenges of countering terrorism in a global pandemic era.” The United States is prioritizing building global support outside of the U.N. to counter Iranian-sponsored terrorism and is apparently no longer interested in playing a leading role in shaping and driving the U.N. counterterrorism system — a role it has played for two decades. Countries with questionable (at best) human rights records and ones that more broadly refuse to acknowledge the counterproductive role that repressive counterterrorism approaches play have increasingly filled the void.

Washington’s perspective, now and then

In his opening remarks during counterterrorism week, Secretary-General António Guterres underscored the importance of “harness[ing] the power of multilateralism to find practical solutions” to terrorism and counterterrorism challenges amidst COVID-19. He said that “ISIL, Al-Qaida, their regional affiliates — as well as neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups — [are] seek[ing] to exploit divisions, local conflicts, governance failures and grievances to advance their objectives.” Many other senior U.N. and national government officials echoed this sentiment.

One noticeable exception, however, was the United States. The State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales did not use his remarks — which focused on Iranian-sponsored terrorism — to address the pandemic’s impact on terrorism or counterterrorism, nor to mention the value of multilateralism (let alone the U.N., beyond its role in internationalizing U.S. terrorist designations). Instead, he stressed how the United States continues to be the “security partner of choice” for countries, and an “indispensable counterterrorism partner.” It was a Trumpian statement at an event designed in part to showcase the ways in which different U.N. entities can help countries address the terrorism and violent extremism challenges in the COVID-19 era.

The Trump administration’s outlook on the U.N. and other multilateral bodies when it comes to counterterrorism (and beyond) is clear: Those institutions are to be leveraged with the aim of advancing short-sighted, narrow U.S. counterterrorism priorities, ignoring the benefits of strategic partnerships and burden-sharing for America and its allies. Thus, the United States continues to tout the significance of discrete U.N. initiatives in which Washington had a heavy hand. One example is U.N. Security Council Resolution 2396 from 2017, which requires countries to collect and use biometrics and traveler data, including passenger name record data, to identify and disrupt terrorist travel and to develop watch lists or databases of known and suspected terrorists. Yet, the administration fails to recognize that in many instances, the United States is actually not countries’ counterterrorism capacity-building partner of choice, and that the U.N. and other multilateral organizations may have expertise, credibility, and access that Washington lacks.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama appreciated that the U.N. can play roles that reinforce U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts, roles related to setting norms, coordinating, and building capacity. Central to this was ensuring that the U.N. architecture was fit for purpose. Under President Bush, Washington led the charge to create the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee’s Executive Directorate, a group of some 40 U.N. experts and staff that has spent the past 15 years working with countries to identify gaps in their counterterrorism capabilities and help address them. Under President Obama, the United States championed U.N. counterterrorism reforms that led to the creation of the U.N.’s Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and the first-ever under secretary-general position dedicated to counterterrorism shortly after President Trump took office.

Bush and Obama, like all recent presidents, preferred to work through the smaller, more efficient Security Council — but they recognized the comparative advantages of the other parts of the U.N. system. In some instances, the U.S. had less control, but still had influence. In others, U.S. leadership was pivotal to getting something done or preventing bad things from happening. For example, the 2006 U.N. Global Counterterrorism Strategy, the secretary-general’s Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE), and a major UNESCO-led initiative on PVE and education were among the byproducts of this strategic engagement.

New leaders emerge

Since 2017, however, U.S. attention to the intricacies of the U.N. counterterrorism system has been sporadic, leaving others — such as China, Egypt, Hungary, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia — to fill the void.

It’s notable, for instance, that Under-Secretary-General of UNOCT Vladimir Voronkov thanked only two countries by name in his closing remarks during counterterrorism week: Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Why? As Voronkov revealed in a press conference last week, less than 4% of UNOCT’s budget comes from countries’ assessed contributions — the rest comes from voluntary contributions, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar accounting for some $200 million (more than 80%) of those funds.

An entire session during counterterrorism week, chaired by the Saudi ambassador to the U.N., was devoted to showcasing the capacity-building projects of the U.N. Center on Counter-Terrorism, which is funded almost entirely by the Saudis and has been chaired by the Saudis throughout its nearly decade-long existence. When the center was launched in 2011, the Obama administration worked behind the scenes — often with its democratic allies on the advisory board — to minimize the center’s influence within the U.N. counterterrorism system. It was fully aware of the damage that could be caused by having a country, often seen as a champion of repressive, human-rights-violating counterterrorism methods and the chief exporter of violent extremism, could do to the U.N. counterterrorism brand if left unchecked. Since 2017, however, catalyzed in part by the Trump administration’s embrace of Saudi Arabia, the center’s public profile has increased.

I have written elsewhere that UNOCT’s heavy reliance on Qatar and Saudi Arabia as donors could hinder its ability to speak out when countries’ counterterrorism laws or practices violate human rights. Moreover, it could reduce the role for civil society, which has been excluded in the past from important conversations on counterterrorism. In a Just Security blog post published during counterterrorism week, the leader of a prominent international human rights organization found that “there was no attempt [by UNOCT] to consult with civil society on the agenda or [civil society organization] participation, and the conference agenda utterly lack[ed] broad and diverse civil society representation.” Of the more than 80 speakers listed on the agenda, less than a handful were local voices who could provide first-hand perspectives on the impact the pandemic is having on recruitment and radicalization to extremist violence in different communities around the globe — a topic the virtual gathering specifically sought to explore. Most of those listed were representatives of national governments, the United Nations, or another multilateral institution.

Finally, the line-up of U.N. conference agendas often speaks volumes, and China and Egypt were the event’s closing speakers. This was likely the first time this has ever occurred at a U.N. counterterrorism conference. China, which has escaped any UNOCT criticism about its mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang province, highlighted how it will “continue to strengthen its political and financial support to UNOCT” and encouraged UNOCT to focus its capacity-building projects on security issues such as cyber-terrorism, bio-terrorism, and law enforcement cooperation. Egypt likewise welcomed its close cooperation with UNOCT, and announced that it will host the first in-person UNOCT counterterrorism conference, when conditions allow, on “counter-narratives.” This is a topic that Middle Eastern governments sometimes use to deflect attention away from political, economic, and social grievances — as well as human rights abuses — that drive violence. These root causes need more attention during the pandemic, including from the U.N. counterterrorism system.

A chance to change course

The counterterrorism week agenda was balanced on its face, with sessions on bio- and cyber-terrorism, the rise of violent and hateful speech, the plight of victims of terrorism, challenges associated with repatriating foreign terrorist fighters, human rights issues, preventing violent extremism, and civil society and media perspectives. In other words, there was enough to satisfy everyone, with some harder security topics to appeal to authoritarian regimes and human rights and prevention topics to satisfy to the democratic ones. That underscores the increasing divide within the U.N. members on the most effective strategy for preventing terrorism and violent extremism.

This divide could come into stark relief next July, when the U.N. General Assembly conducts its seventh review of the 2006 U.N. Global Counterterrorism Strategy. Authoritarian regimes have used previous reviews, often successfully, to water down the strategy’s human rights pillar, eliminate references to prevention, limit the role of civil society, and focus the U.N. on state-centric, security-oriented approaches to counterterrorism. With Egypt set to co-chair the 2021 review, reversing or at least slowing down the authoritarians’ influence will require the United States to re-emerge and return to the kind of principled and strategic counterterrorism leadership and engagement it demonstrated for  decades prior to the Trump administration.