Countering Terrorism: Is the UN Playing Its Proper Role?

Feb 27, 2002

What is the role of the UN in countering the threat of terrorism? Sir Jeremy Greenstock discusses the newly founded Counter-Terrorism Committee and the challenges in designing a collective response to terrorism.


JOANNE MYERS: Our guest Ambassador Greenstock will monitor the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1373, which legally binds the 189 Member States to ban all forms of support for terrorism and compels states to cooperate in weeding out the terrorist threat.

Recognizing the skill that is required in working with all Member States to implement this Resolution, it is easy to understand why Sir Jeremy was asked to chair this Committee. Simply said, there are few diplomats who are as skilled at their craft or possess the artistry and vision to execute the mandate of this Resolution. He is the embodiment of what a diplomat should be: competent, effective, dynamic, and very articulate.

Sir Jeremy joined Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service in 1969 as a Second Secretary in the West African Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Since that time, he has had a very distinguished diplomatic career and has served in a number of departments, including planning and personnel operations, as well as the Near East and North African Division. He has also served in a number of U.K. Missions, including Dubai, Washington, Riyad, and Paris.

In 1995 he was appointed as the Deputy Under Secretary of State with responsibility for the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe. A year later, he served as the Political Director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Three and a half years ago, he was named the Permanent Representative of Great Britain to the United Nations. Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a very busy man on a very busy day at the UN.


JEREMY GREENSTOCK: Thank you. I propose to have a discussion on the subject of terrorism and the UN's role. It will give us a chance to look at counter-terrorism through the UN and to look at the UN through counter-terrorism, and there are some quite interesting angles.

I will cover a few of the lessons learned since 9/11 and, perhaps, one or two of the lessons not yet learned from September 11th; secondly, the campaign in Afghanistan, where it is going, and why it is getting more complex; thirdly, the long-term requirements for global action against terrorism and what that constitutes; and I will say a little bit about the work of the Counter-Terrorism Committee, without dwelling too much on the bureaucracy involved; and a bit about other international institutional action in the global field; and then, finally, come back to the UN and the overall role of the United Nations as the only global institution capable of instituting comprehensive action on something like counter-terrorism.

The lessons learned are bound to be a subjective list for all of us, but this is my list so far:

1) We can be nastily surprised by terrorism, and it will happen again. The American Administration is under no illusions about that; hence, the number of warnings that the American people have had from their government over the last few months, none of which actually have proved accurate, about specific attacks. There has only been one specific near-attack that we have recorded publicly, and that is the arrest of Richard Reed on a trans-Atlantic flight, the man who attempted to set light to his shoe to blow the side off the aircraft he was traveling in. Luckily, Brits do not seem to be very competent at lighting their tennis sneakers and it did not happen. But it was meant to happen, it was planned, and he was linked to al Qaeda. There are several hundred other people out there who would like to do something like that. Your and our and other law enforcement agencies, although they will never score 100 percent, have not done badly since 11 September to protect us, and particularly the traveling public, from terrorist attack, but it will happen.

2) A related thought, to put it in American rather than English: the offense remains ahead of the defense in something like terrorism. But you can assume that not many terrorist cells are at this moment planning to hijack aircraft to drive into tall buildings. That one is being watched, with greater or lesser competence, around the world by governments and their law enforcement agencies. But the terrorists we are dealing with, if they are still linked with Al Qaeda, have put a lot of thought into constructing what they are doing and, therefore, will be thinking of other ways to surprise governments who are now acting against them. So to the extent that we cannot do all their thinking as they do it, the offense will remain ahead of the defense. On the whole, we can only react. Anthrax has been quite a scare for the American public and those of us who live with you. There is no clear evidence that this was foreign terrorism, and the FBI is coming closer to examining American biological laboratories in that respect. It was, nevertheless, an extremely unpleasant reminder of how quite a small act can cause severe apprehension. Things get disrupted, and that is what terrorists are trying to do. It is all a very difficult area of trying to judge how much we insist on maintaining our freedom and how much we insist on extraordinary measures to defend ourselves.

3) Law-abiding nations have to strike hard when national defense is the question. The global support that the United States has had for striking hard and the realization that the superpower will do this when it is provoked, and perhaps should have done it earlier, is a remarkable facet of the aftermath to September 11th . That global support is in some respects fragile, but it has been present, particularly in support for the military campaign in Afghanistan and in support for the UN program on counter-terrorism.

4) There, however, also needs to be a long-term program creating a strategy of counter-terrorism which embraces every nation and territory. That lesson has been learned by the United Nations, but I am not yet convinced that everybody that matters on this subject in the United States is investing enough in the global comprehensive requirement to defend against terrorism.

5) A throw-away lesson learned perhaps: The United Nations can act efficiently and quickly, and it did so on terrorism.

Lessons still to be learned? There are a couple of important ones that you would expect me to mention which this audience would not find surprising:

1) To construct the widest possible defense against terrorism, there has to be persuasion and support has to be earned and organized. It will not be automatic.

2) The decision by men of violence to use indiscriminate violence is not something that comes out of deprivation, resentment, poverty and all of the things that the United Nations tries to deal with, but antagonism to the United States and the West, and what I could call the "catchment area," the support for terrorism, does come out of those things. It is one very prime example of security not just being a politico-military subject; it is also an economic and social subject, and the security of a nation has an economic and social dimension as well as a political and military dimension. That lesson has yet to be learned universally.

I said I would say a word on Afghanistan. The period October-to-December of the campaign to crush the Taliban was, in a sense, easy. It was a simple objective. The United States went for it. It did not have to be done as well as it was done. It did not have to end as soon as that in the crushing of the Taliban. But it was direct, simple, and necessary and embedded in Security Council Resolutions 1368 and 1373, which reconfirmed the justification of using Article 51 of the Charter, self-defense.

It created a vacuum in Afghanistan which, with the help of UN action, has been filled by the interim administration. The Taliban are out, but they are not necessarily down. They are still there in various guises, and most of them will pretend to be warm supporters of the new administration. But if Afghanistan goes vociferous again, the Taliban can in their remnants rejoin various factions and cause problems for the interim administration central authority and the international community.

Where is Osama bin Laden? We really do not know. There is no game being played here, although, from time to time, I like to think that the nicest way of dealing with Osama is to find his body in a quiet cave and shut up about it and let people guess.

But the negative evidence is quite interesting. Not a whisper of any attempt to send a tape to Al Jazeera or to talk to journalists. Not a whisper on the airwaves that our agencies listen on. So where is he? Probably hidden still in Afghanistan, but that is only a percentage probability.

Why I call October-to-December a simple period, relatively, is to make the point that now it is getting complex. We are going to be in Afghanistan for quite a long time.

Iraq is a connected subject in some ways, but I personally do not believe that the United States will in a military sense turn its attention to Iraq until they are quite clear that Afghanistan is a business done.

The interim administration is not able to secure the country as a whole. There are nasty people around who don't want there to be a united Afghanistan under this kind of administration.

The set of steps which the UN has set up under the Bonn Agreement, which Lakhdar Brahimi brilliantly negotiated, means settle Kabul first, have an interim and then a transitional administration with a preliminary Loya Jirga to choose the transitional administration, then have a full Loya Jirga, the Afghan Dirba, and then have an elected administration. But there are plenty of people who want to disrupt that process, and it will be difficult.

The role of the United Nations so far has been extraordinarily competent by the combined standards of Afghanistan and the United Nations in the past. We fussed and chivvied at Lakhdar Brahimi at various stages, we the British and we the international community, but his judgment was proved to be right on what he has done so far.

Yes, the UN has been slow in getting its act together in Afghanistan, but three or four times as fast as it was in Sierra Leone, the Congo or the Balkans, and probably, so far, three or four times more successful. So the UN has a good record since October in Afghanistan, and the UN-led role will continue to be a very strong one in the months and years to come.

Coming back to counter-terrorism, what are those long-term requirements that are necessary to establish really effective action against terrorism?

The American Administration has fully realized that there has to be a denial to terrorism, to terrorists, of any territory, support or finance anywhere, because if you suppress that support in 80 percent of the world, terrorists can all too easily go to the final 20 or 10 or 5 or 1 percent. That is why Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and other countries which do not fully control their own security will be a problem all the way through our attempts to construct a global approach to counter-terrorism.

We are focusing on finance, in particular, in the long term because it is remarkable how easily terrorists have been able to gather hundreds of millions of dollars and the most sophisticated small weapons. There is a lesson there that shows that all the conventions up to now have not been able to suppress that.

It is true in terms of money laundering and money collection of the drug trade and other parts of the international crime scene, but terrorism has now to be counted into that, which is why Paragraph 4 of Resolution 1373 connects what we are trying to do in 1373 with the wider international crime scene, not excluding the possibility of international biological, chemical or even nuclear terrorism.

The work of the Counter-Terrorism Committee is to construct that global response and to get every member of the United Nations taking action that does deny support, finance, shelter, slack border controls which terrorists can use, and that is why, under 1373, we are requiring of every Member State a report on its implementation of 1373 and why we will continue badgering every state until they send us a report that shows that they have reached a standard that is satisfactory under 1373. It is a long-term bureaucratic, grinding process, and Members of the Security Council have been hugely tolerant and patient in getting into that.

Those of you who know the UN will know that if you, under any Resolution, General Assembly or Security Council, ask the whole world to do something, you are doing well if you get anywhere near triple figures, the hundreds, out of 189. Normally, half is considered a good UN program. We now have 137 reports coming into the Counter-Terrorism Committee, which is the most responsive reaction that any Resolution has ever got, but we need 189. We are going to get 189 or take up as a matter of quite severe debate with any Member State who does not send in a report. We are serious about having this as a global, comprehensive requirement.

We are also beginning to work increasingly with other institutions, with the G-8, the IMF and World Bank, the Financial Action Task Force of the OECD countries, ECAU [phonetic] on aviation, and IMO on maritime terrorism. This will be a coordinated action by the UN.

So is the UN playing the role that it should be, and is there more that we should be doing? Counter-terrorism is an issue which is a further example of the role of the United Nations in creating a response to the phenomenon of globalization. No other institution that can do that.

The problem for the United Nations in providing global agreements on global problems is that there is no global government, and there never will be. Even if we as individuals can see the point of it, the United States, for one, as a people and as a government, would never ever agree to it and it will never happen.

So the highest level of decision-making in the world remains national. Politicians are national politicians. The decisions they make relate to their national constituencies first of all.

But there is a growing habit of collectivism, as we have to deal with global problems, and terrorism is one of the issues where people are prepared to make compromises and tradeoffs in order to make sure that terrorism does not win. But those tradeoffs have to be very carefully calculated, not least against civil liberties and human rights and the other areas where, when governments get an upper hand, they can be a little cavalier about it. And NGOs, in particular, at the moment are watching this very closely.

As far as the Counter-Terrorism Committee is concerned, we have had several conversations with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. We have an arrangement with her office and with her that we will remain aware of human rights concerns, but that this Committee will not be responsible for reminding Member States of their obligations under human rights. That is the job of other bodies in the UN system. But we are aware of the tradeoff between effective action against terrorism and the protection of civil liberties.

Another aspect of this and of the comprehensiveness of what we are doing is the need to persuade people to come along with us on this program because we cannot compel them. Yes, they have a mandatory obligation under a Chapter 7 Resolution, but the UN is becoming an increasingly egalitarian institution, and the world an increasingly egalitarian place as it gets freer and as democracy gets stronger and as people have genuine freedom of choice. It is no longer the case that the big countries, through their military, political, or economic might, can actually say something and have it done. You have to lead by persuading followers to follow.

That is going to take an enormous amount of work because in the United Nations, the General Assembly is 189 equal voices and votes, with no party discipline and no particular leadership, and it is chaos most of the time in terms of getting collective answers.

How do you get it on a subject as important as terrorism? I decided from the beginning to do something that is not normally expected or predicted of the Security Council, and that is to be transparent about what the Counter-Terrorism Committee is doing and to talk to all Member States who want to come along to at least a fortnightly meeting of what the CTC is actually doing. That has had an effect in persuading people, first of all, that the Security Council is not just talking from a remote tower, but is actually engaging as people; and secondly, that there is a natural self-interest which we all share, which means that everybody should want to come along with our program if they understand what it is. And that, too, is a message which has had an effect.

The UN has played a rather extraordinary role since September 11th, and has so far beaten the averages on this subject and on Afghanistan, and is capable of showing considerable leadership on this issue in the months and years to come, and in generating a collective approach which all of us as individual nations, whoever we represent, should subscribe to and make stronger.

It will be a hard, long, tough run, and when the CTC comes to the hard nuts of the international counter-terrorism scene, we will have some quite interesting battles. But we will do it by cooperation, coordination, persuasion, and transparency to the furthest degree possible because we think that that is the way that terrorism needs to be dealt with, and maybe if we are successful in that, there might be a spin-off from that experience on other forms of international crime and egregious international activity.

Question & Answer

QUESTION: What criteria will the Counter-Terrorism Committee use to evaluate each report? Will a more permanent body evolve out of the CTC?

JEREMY GREENSTOCK: On the first question, we decided not to create in perpetuity criteria, but to allow our experts to decide for themselves what was necessary from their understanding of the legislative language in 1373. The Counter-Terrorism Committee is itself composed of all fifteen Members of the Security Council. We are helped in the office work of what we are doing by the UN Secretariat.

But we are advised by the six independent experts that we have appointed, who have experience in legislation, finance, customs work, police work, in the area of terrorism. Those experts go through all the reports submitted by Member States. They then go to a subcommittee of five of the CTC, and the answers to Members States are cleared by the Committee as a whole, and I write back to the Permanent Representative.

The criteria are in 1373: "You are asked to do this. Have you done it?" The standards of the degree to which they do it are being set in practice by the recommendations of our experts who are independent, objective, and do not represent any national or regional approach.

We will gradually come on to those Member States whose legislation is clearly not there, defective or are not creating the machinery to implement their legislation. We will hone in, by a series of stages, to where the trouble lies in ineffective action against terrorism. We will increasingly do that in coordination with other bodies, institutions, and nation states who are acting against terrorism and ensure that there is a minimum of duplication or tripping over each other or difference of approach. For that we still need a couple of things.

One is a good definition of terrorism, which the General Assembly has not yet provided. We can work without it, but less effectively, and there will be some Member States who will hide behind deliberately political definitions of terrorism.

We also need other institutions to engage with us to agree on a division of tasks. We have talked now in some detail to the Financial Action Task Force, and the Committee has decided to accept any cleared countries who have satisfied the Financial Action Task Force in the area of Paragraph 1 of 1373. If they complete the FATF questionnaire and have got good marks from FATF, they are likely to be able to cut corners with the CTC. But otherwise, we will go on badgering people, showing best models of legislation, offering financial or technical assistance to Member States, and continue working with Member States until the bar of their performance is raised.

QUESTION: I would like to address the question of support for the fight against terrorism outside of the United States, specifically in Europe. This was triggered by talking to young people in Europe who expressed great doubt as to the need for this violent response of war. What can you say about to what extent such feelings play a role in European support for the effort?

JEREMY GREENSTOCK: The support within the European Union for the action in Afghanistan and against the Taliban has been unequivocal. It was expressed through NATO and the Ministers of the European Union, and has been not just political and financial, but also practical and military.

Perhaps you are referring to some of the discussion that has taken place publicly about the "Axis of Evil" and the response to that. Young people understand that you can provoke a superpower so far and no further. They also understand that the action in Afghanistan has been legitimate, as explained in Security Council Resolutions.

Many people outside the United States are nervous about how far the United States might go in assuming that there will be support if they take the fight further by extension from Afghanistan, but that is a different debate.

The degree of legitimacy with which one pursues something like military action under the counter-terrorism rubric is a very important aspect of what we are doing, and my view is that the United States needs to consider very carefully what international support it will get for any future phases of the war against terrorism.

There was no doubt that it was right to act. There are many people, not just in the United States, who believe that the failure to act more comprehensively after the bombing of the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam probably led to the September 11th events. I know of nobody in the UN system who has tried to argue in our debates here that any of that has been wrong.

But there are apprehensions that the United States will assume support in the future for things that are not exactly comparable to what has been done in Afghanistan, and that is a big debate which we need to watch very carefully.

QUESTION: The more the U.S. decides to extend the terrorist war, does that end up neutralizing or weakening the commitment at the United Nations to take a much more sustained approach of the kind that you were ultimately describing, particularly in terms of sustainability?

JEREMY GREENSTOCK: Any action that is clearly, credibly and evidentially predicated on connection with Al Qaeda will be very broadly and internationally supported. If the Al Qaeda system embeds itself in another country, there would be understanding at the United Nations that action taken to eliminate that network in that country taken in self-defense would follow on from 1368 and 1373.

If you go beyond that and if any country tries to claim that action against a particular perceived enemy is done for reasons of self-defense because there could be future terrorist actions that are unconnected with Al Qaeda itself and September 11th, support would drain away quite quickly, unless that proposition was brought to the United Nations and it was decided that actions should be taken in that instance. That is the quickest way to get international support for further military action, although there might be opponents of that action in certain circumstances.

If action is taken with no assurance of international support, with no attempt to seek international support, that was unconnected to September 11th, it would affect the comprehensiveness of international support for the long-term counter-terrorism effort.

QUESTION: You are focusing on the Al Qaeda network, but there are many parallel networks that have been operating for a long time with varying ties, and most of them have been known to law enforcement and intelligence officials in Europe. What took so long for them to finally crack down? Why did there have to be a 9/11 before Europe began to focus on its own dangers to their own national well-bring?

JEREMY GREENSTOCK: It was not acted on with the seriousness that hindsight would actually ascribe to it. There is a natural inertia built into these things. Civil liberties, human rights, the asylum question, and the courts were a drag on those parts of government that wanted freedom to take harsh action against such people.

The UK has had quite a bit of experience with this because we have been accused by a number of countries, including Middle East countries, of allowing their terrorists to sit comfortably in our cities, and the asylum question and the courts have played quite a large role in that.

The pendulum has swung the other way and perhaps too far, which is why I mentioned human rights and civil liberties. There is a mean between those two which must ensure that law enforcement agencies have the resources to act and are encouraged to act without locking up people on mere suspicion beyond what is sensible under the law. The laws also must be calibrated to that.

QUESTION: My question is on the destabilization that has taken place within Afghanistan because of the warlords and the move towards an international force that goes beyond Kabul. The British will be there only until April. Please comment on building support and extending the international force and what that implies for the international community. Speaking from the perspective of a refugee and relief agency, we find that the lawlessness is interfering with the capacity to provide humanitarian aid and to begin reconstruction.

JEREMY GREENSTOCK: The need has been analyzed and accepted. The question is: How do we respond to the need for a broader international input into helping the Afghans provide security in their own country?

The UK will remain after April 30th, but at a lower number. We are at the moment in the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul at a strength four times the strength of the next contribution. We have 2,000 troops there at the moment. The French, Germans, Italians, Turks, and others have between 300 and 500. It is a fact of military life in the UK Government that we cannot sustain that. We got it going, it is running well, and we are hoping that the Turks will take over. We will leave the same number as the next-largest contribution behind when we go, but we will not provide leadership beyond that.

Outside Kabul, we want the Afghans to understand that they must take the primary responsibility, so there is an urgent focus on training centralized Afghan security forces, and we have already begun with the first 250 in the Afghan National Guard. They are under training at this moment under British and French officers.

The Germans are doing sterling work with the Afghan police and have a large international collection of contributions.

There will not be another ISAF [phonetic] wandering Afghanistan arresting people, patrolling the streets. We are looking at the idea of putting a presence into certain major cities so that no warlord can have a free run in a major area of Afghanistan. But policing the countryside, which is important to OXFAM and others delivering goods, is not going to be a job for 60,000 or 100,000 international troops. It will not happen unless and until there is a recognized government that is accepted throughout Afghanistan and you can have something close to a UN peace-keeping operation under a peace agreement internally in Afghanistan.

There is a long way to go. It is very complex. We will not let it go by default. But neither is anybody stepping up to put huge numbers of troops in to deal with the problem.

QUESTION: Do you feel that the media and international community will put more pressure on governments for participation in the process? Does this issue mean a new environment for the UN?

JEREMY GREENSTOCK: The huge value of the UN is in its long-term global programs. The media are on the whole nowadays interested in headlines, a short-term comment, analysis and urgent stories. The UN, therefore, finds it very difficult to represent its values through the media.

I regard the Security Council and the UN's work on international peace, security, and conflict resolution as being a sub-category of development. What we in the Security Council are trying to do on peace and security is develop systems that snuff out conflict, particularly in the developing world, and to find ways of doing that in coordination with the long-term programs on eradicating poverty, protecting human rights and dealing with refugees.

If the Security Council acts only in isolation under its own ideas of what it should be doing, it is not serving the UN Charter and the UN ideal.

The media cannot particularly help the CTC in its long-term work, and therefore I see no need to have a particular arm of the CTC, except perhaps myself personally, to deal with the media on it. But I will talk to the media as often as they want to talk about the CTC, and I have held several press conferences.

Actually, we have had very decent coverage since the CTC was organized, and it is an accepted part of the counter-terrorism scene now internationally. I am afraid that the media on the whole is interested in stories that make the next day's production interesting, and I am not there to supply that. The UN is there to grind out long-term programs across a whole range of areas that make the world better in ten years' time, and the media cannot wait for that.

QUESTION: What will the UN and the CTC do if one country officially refuses to cooperate in the anti-terrorism effort?

JEREMY GREENSTOCK: The CTC will come round to looking at regional organization of counter-terrorism. Any country that does not raise its standards against terrorism is a threat to its neighbors because a terrorist cell that is present in one place can most readily cause damage to its immediate environment by geographical definition. Regional organizations are very interested in responding to the CTC to get coordination on what they want to do amongst their regional members to raise the game against terrorism.

There are debates in the Middle East about the definition of terrorism. Indeed, there is an Arab League definition of terrorism and an Arab Convention on Terrorism, which chooses a definition different from the conventions under the United Nations. But they will find that that difference from the larger global norm will create tensions for them as a region. But because Lebanon, Syria, and other countries immediately there are so caught up, necessarily and justifiably, in the Palestine question, it will affect their approach to terrorism.

The CTC will persuade people to be sensible and at least go as far as the collective norm stands in snuffing out terrorism. That is, do not let individual men of violence use indiscriminate violence against civilians in a neighboring country with your condonement. That is, don't allow people to blow up civilians on buses. If you value the resistance fight against occupation, make sure it is not done by methods which are normally represented as terrorism. At least raise your game that far and you will then mend your relationship or have a good relationship with those countries that are most concerned about terrorism

We are creating a global perception that this is important, that something must be done about it. Yes, we all agree that the standard of effectiveness must be raised for counter-terrorism, and then we will start dealing with the exceptions when that global norm has been established.

It is a calculated approach to leave the difficult cases until later, but we will deal with them.

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