How the UN Responded to the 9-11 Attacks

After the shock and dust settled on from the September 11, 2001 attacks–which, remember, occurred just a mile from UN’s Headquarters —  diplomats got down to business to craft a coordinated international response to the assault. The resolution passed on September 28, 2001 was among the most radical of all UN resolutions ever considered.

Security Council Resolution 1373 called on states to freeze terrorist financing, pass anti-terrorism laws, prevent suspected terrorists from traveling across international borders, and order that asylum seekers be screened for possible terrorist ties. It did this all under the rubric of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, thereby making these dictates binding under international law.  This is where it was a step farther than the Security Council had ever gone before.

Traditionally, international law becomes national law when countries voluntarily ratify an international treaty. Resolution 1373 was the one and only time that the Security Council forced all UN member states to revise national laws to comply with an international standard. This was a massive expansion of the powers of the Security Council, and the UN in general, and it reflected the urgency felt by the Security Council at the time. According to official records, the Council session that passed this resolution lasted only 3 minutes. There was no formal open debate about this new vision for the Security Council.

In retrospect, the haste in which this resolution was considered gave rise to two big criticisms of 1373

1) The resolution did not mention that human rights at all. And it certainly didn’t say that rights be respected while cracking down on terrorists. (Though a resolution passed a few years later remedied that.) This gave countries with questionable human rights records an excuse to crack down on legitimate political dissent by calling it “terrorism.”

2) The Council never approved adequate resources to various UN agencies to help with the kind of technical capacity building required to implement this resolution.  A country like Kenya might want to crack down on terrorist financing, but may not have the specific expertise to do so. Such a game changing resolution should have been met with a commensurate commitment by donors to support the implementation of the resolution.

As these weaknesses in the resolution became apparent, Kofi Annan lead a fairly massive endeavor at the United Nations to create a common UN platform on counterterrorism. This became enshrined in 2006 in the UN’ Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, also known as “Uniting Against Terrorism.”

The introduction to Uniting Against Terrorism by Kofi Annan gives you a sense of what it is all about.

Today, I have the privilege of presenting to you my vision on that matter, contained in the document Uniting against terrorism: Recommendations for a global counter-terrorism strategy.

These recommendations stem from a fundamental conviction which we all share: that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes, is unacceptable and can never be justified.

Uniting around that conviction is the basis for what I hope will be a collective global effort to fight terrorism — an effort bringing together Governments, the United Nations and other international organizations, civil society and the private sector — each using their comparative advantage to supplement the others’ efforts.

In formulating my recommendations, I have built further on the “five Ds”– the fundamental components which I first outlined in Madrid last year. They are:

  • dissuading people from resorting to terrorism or supporting it;
  • denying terrorists the means to carry out an attack;
  • deterring States from supporting terrorism;
  • developing State capacity to defeat terrorism, and;
  • defending human rights.

I believe all five are interlinked conditions crucial to the success of any strategy against terrorism. To succed, we sill need to make progress on all these fronts.

Implementing a global strategy requires us to dissuade people from resorting to terrorism or supporting it, by driving a wedge between terrorists and their potential constituencies. We need to launch a global campaign of Governments, the UN, civil society and the private sector, with the message that terrorism is unacceptable in any form, and that there are far better and more effective ways for those with genuine grievances to seek redress. One of the clearest and most powerful ways we can do that is by refocusing our attention on the victims. It is high time we took serious and concerted steps to build international solidarity with them, respecting their dignity as well as expressing our compassion.

Denying terrorists the means to carry out an attack means denying them access both to conventional weapons and to weapons of mass destruction. That will require innovative thinking from all of us about today’s threats — including those which States cannot address by themselves, such as bioterrorism. Similarly, it will mean working together to counter terrorists’ growing use of the Internet. We must find ways to make sure that this powerful tool becomes a weapon in our hands, not in theirs.

Our work in deterring States from supporting terrorism must be rooted firmly in the international rule of law — creating a solid legal basis for common actions, and holding States accountable for their performance in meeting their obligations. This work is intimately linked with the need to develop State capacity to defeat terrorism.

In response to a request I received last December from the President of this Assembly, the document I am presenting today elaborates on steps to build state capacity, and to strengthen the Organization’s work in this field. The UN system has a vital contribution to make in all the relevant areas — from promoting the rule of law and effective criminal justice systems to ensuring countries have the means to counter the financing of terrorism; from strengthening capacity to prevent nuclear, biological, chemical, or radiological materials from falling into the hands of terrorists, to improving the ability of countries to provide assistance and support for victims and their families.

Finally, defending human rights runs like a scarlet thread through the report. It is a prerequisite to every aspect of any effective counter-terrorism strategy. It is the bond that brings the different components together. That means the human rights of all — of the victims of terrorism, of those suspected of terrorism, of those affected by the consequences of terrorism.

States must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism comply with their obligations under international law, in particular human rights law, refugee law and international humanitarian law.  Any strategy that compromises human rights will play right into the hands of the terrorists.

My dear friends,

All States, in every region — large or small, strong or weak — are vulnerable to terrorism and its consequences. They all stand to benefit from a strategy to counter it. They all have a role to play in shaping such a strategy, in implementing it, and in ensuring that it is updated continuously to respond to challenges as they evolve.

It is also essential that Member States conclude, as soon as possible, a Comprehensive Convention on International terrorism. However, lack of progress in building consensus on a Convention cannot be a reason for delay in agreeing on a strategy.

By instructing you to adopt and implement a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, your Heads of State and Government have given you a momentous challenge, and a historic opportunity.

By rising to that challenge, you will demonstrate the resolve of the international community, and lay the foundations of a truly global response to this vicious global scourge. I hope my recommendations will help you in that vital mission.

These principals have pretty much driven the UN’s counter-terrorism work every since.