Stewart M. Patrick

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A “Global” War on Terror: Multilateral Achievements since 9/11

by Stewart M. Patrick
August 19, 2011

A student lifts a placard as he and others line up to take part in a march to condemn the recent bomb attacks in the city (Danish Siddiqui/Courtesy Reuters).

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, many are reflecting on the strides, errors, and excesses in the fight against terrorism. During the Bush presidency, the U.S.-led “Global War on Terrorism” was often caricatured as a unilateral, made-in-the-USA undertaking. But a more positive, if unsung aspect of this struggle has been its multilateral ethos. In the decade since 9/11, the international community has shown remarkable cohesiveness and solidarity in its effort to protect innocent people from terrorist attacks, despite significant challenges that remain. Much of this cooperation has occurred under the radar, through quiet, everyday multilateral and bilateral cooperation among law enforcement agencies, intelligence services, and militaries.

In an interview with CFR.org yesterday, I summed up these bright spots of multilateral cooperation, while identifying several hurdles that continue to bedevil counterterrorism efforts:

Stewart Patrick discusses international terrorism cooperation with CFR.org. Watch this video on youtube.

The most dramatic achievement, perhaps, is a more robust legal architecture to combat this scourge.  There are now sixteen major UN conventions to combat terrorism.  Immediately after September 11, the UNSC passed Resolution 1373 forcing all UN member states to criminalize and police terrorist activity, including its financing. This resolution also created a Counterterrorism Committee (CTC), composed of all fifteen UNSC members. Assisted by a Counterterror Executive Directorate (CTED), the CTC regularly assesses UN member states’ efforts to implement relevant resolutions, evaluates gaps in state capacity, and facilitates donor coordination for technical and financial counterterrorism assistance.

In 2008, Mike Smith, Executive Director of CTED, relayed (PDF) some of the major steps to the UN Security Council:

“We have seen hundreds of new ratifications of the key counterterrorism conventions and protocols, and there has been an almost unprecedented level of international exchange of information and cooperation among relevant agencies across borders.”

Informal institutions have also contributed heavily. The Financial Action Task Force—an  intergovernmental body of thirty-six members originally established by the Group of Seven (G7) in 1989 to address money laundering—penned nine special recommendations to counter terrorist financing. These measures became the global yardstick for states’ counterterror efforts, and the threat of landing on its blacklist of Non-Cooperative Countries or Territories (NCCT) compelled (PDF) many states to upgrade domestic legislation, ratify international conventions, and monitor financial transactions.

Nuclear terrorism remains an existential threat to global security, but in April 2011 the UN Security Council extended the mandate of Resolution 1540, which requires states to protect nuclear materials and related technology from falling into the hands of non-state actors. A 2008 report had documented its success in requiring countries to ratify relevant treaties and take national action to protect nuclear sites from terrorists.

Still, real problems remain. To begin with, global threat perceptions differ (PDF). Even after two severe attacks, for example, Kenya considers terrorism as a lesser priority than other pressing challenges like HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty or high levels of crime. Even more glaring, the world lacks a consensus definition for terrorism, throwing a wrench in counterterror efforts. Too often, one person’s terrorist remains another person’s freedom fighter. Terrorist financing, too, continues to bedevil law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Notwithstanding immense success in blocking access to banks, terrorist groups are adept at exploiting “hawala” and other forms of informal cash transfer, which remain nearly impossible to monitor. Finally, human rights concerns continue to plague counterterrorism. Over the past decade, indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, ghost prisons, and enhanced interrogation techniques have all been employed in the name of defending civilians from terrorism. And some repressive regimes—including a few U.S. allies—have invoked the bogeyman of terrorism to defend brutal oppression of legitimate political opposition.

Recent reforms have partly assuaged such human rights concerns. The United States has renounced torture, as well as extraordinary rendition and ghost prisons (though still faces dilemmas in closing its detention facility in Guantanamo). Meanwhile the Security Council has passed Resolution 1456—requiring that states’ counter-terror efforts comply with international human rights law.

Next week, CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance program will release the next installment of its interactive guide to global governance. The interactive will review the history of terrorism, provide a matrix of all relevant international laws and institutions, and include an issue brief that includes five policy core recommendations:

  • Build capacity in developing countries: The U.S. and other UNSC members should provide vulnerable countries with nonmilitary security funding that often falls into the gap between traditional development assistance, on the one hand, and military spending that does not adequately combat terrorism (and often lands in corrupt pockets), on the other. The CTC must also move aggressively to refer to the Security Council countries that don’t comply with their obligations to fight terrorism. Finally, the CTC needs additional resources to be able to deploy experts to developing countries to evaluate and advise on counterterror efforts.
  • Support international technological cooperation among law enforcement agencies: INTERPOL has an international database that facilitates international intelligence sharing for counterterrorism, but developing nations cannot join it without updated local facilities—which will require external resources. The Global Counterterrorism Forum, announced at the Deauville G8 summit, must monitor implementation of law enforcement and border security standards.
  • Link human rights and counterterrorism: The United States and other Security Council members should encourage the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council to designate terrorism as a violation of human rights, given the threat it poses to human life and dignity, to freedom from fear, and to civilian immunity from deadly force.
  • Strengthen nuclear security to prevent terrorist access: UNSC Resolution requires UN states to take “appropriate effective measures” to safeguard nuclear material, but the standard remains vague and lacks provisions for effective monitoring.  U.S. officials should propose a consensus interpretation of this passage to mean: “adequate to defend against demonstrated threats from terrorists and criminals.” It should then push for regular UN reports, peer reviews, and International Atomic Energy Agency inspections to ensure compliance.
  • Fortify compliance and enforcement: The Security Council should instruct CTED to monitor enforcement of counterterror laws, so that UN member states cannot ignore legislation they have enacted. The United States should also seek to establish a UN body to investigate states’ compliance with their commitments, and publish reports of their findings that can be made publicly available. Such published reviews would give more weight to the biannual review of the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy. Additionally, as demonstrated by the success of FATF’s NCCT list, the “name and shame game” can motivate countries to fight terrorism more effectively.

The terrible attacks of September 11, 2001, elicited a wholesale transformation in U.S. national security policy, launching the United States on a massive, voluble “Global War on Terrorism.” Many U.S. successes in this campaign have reflected quieter multilateral (as well as bilateral) cooperation among like-minded governments. Continued counterterrorism achievements will require achieving greater consensus on the definition and dimensions of the threat, plugging troubling gaps in state capacity, and deepening efforts to keep the world’s most destructive weapons out of the world’s least trustworthy hands.

Note: These policy recommendations reflect the views of Stewart Patrick, Mark Lagon, Micah Zenko, as well as the authors cited by Bruce Jones, Carlos Pascual, and Stephen John Stedman in Power and Responsibility (Brookings Insitution Press, 2009).

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