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May 9, 2006


Annan's Response to Terrorism

By Marvin Hutchens | May 9, 2006

In what is presumed to be an effort to combat terrorism and the forces behind it, the UN Secretary General has recently published a document detailing the UN's strategy. The document is entitled "Uniting Against Terrorism: Recommendations for a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy".

As Secretary General, Annan is responding to the General Assembly's request for a recommendation for UN guidance for countries combating terrorism. At the center of his strategy are the five D's - Dissuasion, Denial, Deterrence, Development (of State capacity) and Defense (of human rights). And while there are political jibes in the document, primarily aimed at the US and the Bush administration, the primary focus of the document is to describe a possible role for the UN in the War on Terror.

While reviewing the five D's it is worth noting that the UN believes a pillar of its being is the defense of human rights. With this in mind, we will see the trend throughout each of the five components of the strategy to address actions and policies with respect for and increased awareness of human rights. Many will find this reference a continued reference to the Bush administration and events which have brought into question the conduct of the war and the treatment of combatants, prisoners and states involved or not. There is most likely some level of justification in that belief. Even so, one of the primary objectives of the UN - and likewise one of its potential strengths - is the singular focus on the empowerment and protection of the weak. So, for the sake of this review, we'll assume that the cause is the legitimate defense of the weak - rather than bias either politically or otherwise motivated.


The objective of "dissuading groups from resorting to terrorism or supporting it" has the built in question of the causes behind terrorism and role of political and economic issues in the individuals decision to become a terrorist - even if he is unaware of them. To counter the inherent weakness in the UN's position Annan draws the symbolic line and calls for the UN to take the "moral high ground." Annan correctly notes that the UN must "project a clear, principled and immutable message that terrorism is unacceptable". The difficulty here, for the UN, is that as a body the General Assembly permits States that are incapable - thus far - of agreeing to any reasonable definition of terrorism and thereby placing the UN in a position where it cannot "project a clear, principled and immutable" message on terrorism.

The primary aspect of dissuasion that Annan focuses on are the individuals and groups who, while not actively engaged in terrorism, are the expected constituencies of the terrorist. This corresponds directly to the ideological component of the US led War on Terror. We might, rightly, question the UN's ability to effectively impact opinion in such places as the Palestinian Territories or Iran, yet the understanding that this aspect of the war must be actively engaged by all interested and capable players is significant. Most significant is Annan's statement that no cause "no matter how just" can excuse terrorism - including the "legitimate struggle for self-determination."

The struggle for self-determination is often used as an excuse for terrorism and support of terrorism and in making this statement - and perhaps guiding policy accordingly - Annan marks the line at which Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other groups who blend political aspirations for self-rule with the tactics of terror are unacceptable and morally illegitimate in their efforts. And while Annan calls for and applauds efforts by political and religious leaders to support the victims of terrorism - it is clear that he recognizes that the UN's role here is limited to awareness and influence campaigns as opposed to boots on the ground and direct intervention. This is perhaps most clear in the ambiguous language used in describing efforts to prevent and stop the dehumanization of victims of terrorism. Preventing terrorist organizations and supportive ideologies from viewing their victims as less worthy of life - or inhuman - is not a task that blue helmets or UN decrees is likely to accomplish. Yet the potential mobilization of religious and political leaders to counter the views held by terrorists is long overdue and can only benefit from further UN efforts.

Annan follows his call for an ideological counter movement with a look at a commonly used "root cause" behind the development of terrorists organizations. War. As Annan notes, most wars resolved through mediation do not result in long-term peace and the resulting destruction of normality often is seen a precursor to the movement toward or acceptance of radical ideologies. Two things are worth noting here. First, the fundamental precursor to accepting an ideology that devalues those who do not share the same viewpoint is not directly related to having lived in a war zone. Moral men of any faith or none - are unlikely to deny the sanctity of life from others due to beliefs. Second, the resolution of conflicts and wars is not the ceasation of combat. Rather it is the resolution of the issues that fueled the conflict and it is in this regard that the UN fails most often in peacekeeping efforts. Annan notes that 50% of the countries who have "ermerged out of civil wars revert to violence within five years." While the UN should be acknowledged for the many settlement of conflicts they've taken part in - we should also note that when peace is bought and agreement becomes the priority - clarity and propriety are lost. The moral high ground requires that the UN take sides on occasion, and in this regard they have failed too frequently.

The essence of dissuasion should be - as Annan states - to "project a clear, principled and immutable message that terrorism is unacceptable" while also taking the moral high ground in the development and protection of the civil, political and human rights the UN so dearly respects. The UN's history is not repleat with examples of their success in this regard and the current Secretary General is as challenged on the moral high ground as any have been. Yet the statement shows an awareness previously lacking.


"Denying terrorist the means to carry out an attack" directly focuses on the financing, arming, operations, promotion and training of terrorists. The UN plays a less significant role in this area of combating terrorism. Foremost among the challenges before the UN here is the complicity of some states who are in good standing with the UN. The UN's means of providing for the criminalization of acts in support of terror offers little in the way of punishment to State sponsors or those who turn a blind eye, and further no terrorist is likely to be concerned that he is violating the UN's regulations.

The majority of the ideas behind the denial component of the strategy are not for the UN's explicit action but rather continued positions of advocacy for increased individual State actions. States that have not taken action to deny terrorists the tools and moneys needed are unlikely to be moved by this document, yet further pressure - and a finding of the moral high ground - may prove to valuable at a later stage. The UN does present a significant amount of political and diplomatic weight if it chooses to use it.


"Deterring States from supporting terrorist groups" as an objective is an under-achievement for the UN. Taking the position that terrorism is never acceptable should require the UN to place a higher importance both diplomatic terms and in legal terms to hold terror supporting states responsible for the actions of the terrorist. The General Assembly would never follow this course, and the UN Security Council has as of yet shown no great clarity of purpose on this issue. Annan is correct that the UN should deter such states, but he is unable to move the giant body to act decisively to do so.


The UN should, of course, work at "developing state capacity to prevent terrorism." The limitations on doing so are as varied as resource limitations, agreement on necessity and national sovereignty. Annan's strategy focuses on enhancing the individual states or regional groups of states capacity for preventing terror. Essentially this is the effective creation, operations and management of the police, intelligence and justice systems necessary to find, apprehend and try those involved in acts of terrorism. As with the prior sections, the UN's role is essentially to advocate action here rather than performing the acts necessary.

A particular challenge here, as with the other portions of the strategy is the determination of the moral position the UN should advocate. Too often hidden in the veiled language of the UN's discourse on human rights are ideas counter to the individual's civil liberties and the proper moral roll of governing bodies. While advocating tolerance or education the UN reinforces the state control of institutions that are highly personal and should be sovereign to the individual. In many parts of the world this advocacy simply leads from one form of despotism to another. Simple advocacy of peace, human rights or reporting on the efforts of member states is not enough to tanglibly alter the effectiveness of the war.


The final of the five D's is "defending human rights in the context of terrorism and counter-terrorism." Annan is sincerely concerned that the human rights agenda of the UN and its member states may be jeopardized by efforts to combat terrorism, as evidenced by this component of his strategy. In each section of his strategy proposal he reiterates that efforts must be taken to ensure that none suffer human rights violations due to the efforts of the member states to combat terrorism. Many will read this, as with other components, as a statement aimed at the US and the Bush administration. It might also be due to the very real actions in states less well grounded in the rule of law - such as Russia. The US and its citizens are protected by Constitutional limitations on the power of the government, by our freedoms to speak and assemble, and by our generally agreed upon respect for the rule of law. Nations without such restraint and values may step across the line in the name of fighting terror. The question for the UN might then be are they doing it to fight terror or to remain empowered over their citizens. Again leaving the UN in the position of determining a moral high ground and being prepared to act accordingly.


Any effort by the UN to become a part of the solution to international Islamic terrorism is likely to yield little in terms of dead or captured terrorists. Yet their efforts and the effectiveness of their political influence around the world, if properly and morally directed towards the education of those who support to one degree or another those who employ terrorists tactics and toward a more moral and liberty enhancing model of governance has the potential to produce results for future generations. Is it enough? By no means and under no standard. It is a belated start to engagement in the less quantifiable component of the long war. As such, it is likely to be unnoticed and when it is, it'll be maligned. For our part, the opportunity to welcome the Secretary General's attempt as a start – and to call for more from him and the body he leads – is a better approach.

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