Tackling the World’s Multiple Challenges Simultaneously: The Role of the United Nations

Assistant Secretary-General Coninsx, left, visiting Iraq on 7 March 2018, together with Under-Secretary-General Vladimir Voronkov of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office. ©UNAMI

Terrorism is a plague from which no continent or country is immune. To address this global threat to peace and security, international cooperation is crucial. The United Nations is uniquely placed to assist Member States to effectively prevent terrorist acts within their borders and across regions. The multifaceted approach proposed by the United Nations also offers means for countries to address various but interconnected issues simultaneously.

One of the tools available to address a host of global challenges is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Ambitious and crucial in their own right as a means to tackle serious development-related challenges, a number of these Goals can also directly or indirectly help efforts to counter terrorism by addressing conditions conducive to its spread. Some of these conditions have been identified as lack of socioeconomic opportunities; marginalization and discrimination; poor governance; violations of human rights and the rule of law; prolonged and unresolved conflict; and radicalization in prisons.

Whereas the 2030 Agenda is crucial for meeting the numerous development-related challenges facing our world, the responsibility to address threats to international peace and security, including terrorism, lies with the United Nations Security Council. Since 2001, the Council’s dedicated Counter-Terrorism Committee oversees the implementation of resolutions relevant to preventing and addressing terrorism by all Member States. The Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) carries out the policy decisions of the Committee, conducts expert assessments of Member States and facilitates counter-terrorism technical assistance to countries. Between 2004 and 2014, three major resolutions have been guiding the work of CTED; in the last three and a half years, over 20 additional Security Council resolutions have been adopted, not only affecting the work of CTED but having a bearing on larger international efforts.

The considerable growth in the number and scope of resolutions adopted by the Security Council in this area is linked to global events. As the global terrorism landscape has evolved significantly in recent years, the Council has responded by taking decisive action.

A serious development over the last few years was the emergence of ISIL (Daesh) and its subsequent territorial decline. Yet the terrorist organization’s retreat from the conflict zones of Iraq and Syria poses a range of different challenges for the world, such as foreign terrorist fighters; terrorism financing; threats to aviation security and critical infrastructure, including “soft” targets; terrorists acquiring weapons; trafficking in persons; terrorist narratives; and the exploitation by terrorists of information and communications technologies (ICT).

One of the more critical challenges related to the evolving landscape of terrorism concerns returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). Although only a small proportion of returnees and relocators from Iraq and Syria have engaged in terrorist acts, those who did were responsible for some of the most lethal attacks carried out over the past three decades. FTFs have also played a significant role in creating and strengthening terrorist groups, and in radicalizing and recruiting terrorist networks. It is particularly difficult for States to assess which returning individuals currently pose a threat, or can act as radicalizers, recruiters or creators of terrorist groups in the future. Even if imprisonment could mitigate, or at least delay, the risk that some of the returning or relocating foreign terrorist fighters pose, many States have struggled to secure criminal convictions against them. This is linked to the difficulties of securing evidence that could be used in a court of law from what is more frequently a battlefield than a traditional crime scene—an issue that Security Council resolution 2322 (2016) seeks to address. Following Council resolution 2396 (2017), Member States are encouraged to share information and evidence, as well as to develop tailored prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration strategies, including programmes that address radicalization in prisons. The Council also focuses on the needs of children affected by foreign terrorist fighters’ activities, including those born on territory controlled by a terrorist organization.

Another serious issue is the exploitation by terrorist groups of the Internet and social media not only to incite acts of terrorism, but also to facilitate a range of illicit activities, including recruitment, or to fund, plan, commit and facilitate terrorist acts. Although these challenges are not new, scrutiny is growing as companies and governments alike struggle to find a balance between securing an open environment and preventing abuse.

The “Tech Against Terrorism” initiative was launched in 2017 as a direct response to terrorist abuse of technology. A joint private-public partnership that aims to help Member States and companies address these and related issues, it enjoys the support and active involvement of key industry leaders, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter. It was initiated by CTED and the Swiss non-governmental organization ICT4Peace, with the aim to build bridges between partners, ultimately leading to the development of a normative framework of self-regulation that can guide responses to terrorists’ use of the Internet. “Tech Against Terrorism” will also offer smaller tech and social media companies that face a host of challenges—be they human, financial or management-related—to develop and implement measures to address terrorist activities online. The initiative has been recognized by the Security Council in its resolutions 2395 and 2396 (2017). Council resolution 2354 (2017) is also important in this respect, as it focuses on countering terrorist narratives and preventing terrorist use of the Internet.

Since its creation, CTED has conducted over 140 visits to more than 100 Member States, located in every region of the world, on behalf of the Counter-Terrorism Committee. An important member of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF), CTED works very closely with the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, in charge of coordinating the efforts of the United Nations system in this sphere. We possess a wealth of knowledge, particularly in terms of Member States’ counter-terrorism capabilities. Given the numerous challenges that we are currently facing globally—including those related to development, security, the rule of law and human rights—we all need to work simultaneously on several fronts. At the same time, no one can address all of these issues alone. Cooperation is crucial. Only through persistent action and by delivering on our shared commitments, can we achieve a secure, prosperous and sustainable world.

CTED stands ready to share the knowledge and good practices that we have collected over the years, including technical expertise on how best to implement relevant Security Council resolutions. In my capacity as Executive Director of CTED, I urge all parties to seize this opportunity.