Can a Divided UN Help us Fight Terrorism?

President Obama came before the United Nations hat in hand this week and got it to commit to anti-terror action, as the Security Council unanimously approved his foreign fighters resolution. He should also use the UN to promote the “antidotes” to violence he spelled out – entrepreneurship, civil society, education and youth – as part of “an architecture of counterterrorism.”

In fact, the UN has been underused in counterterrorism. Almost ten years after former secretary-general Kofi Annan declared that the UN must up the ante in counterterrorism to stay relevant, the famously unwieldy body has yet to heed his call to tackle transnational security threats.

For starters, nothing shows the UN’s political divisions more clearly than its members’ inability to agree on a definition of “terrorism.” This is because many formerly decolonized states refuse to consider peoples’ right to struggle against foreign occupation a terrorist act. Since the UN leaves it to each country to define terrorism, it can get in the way of governments to fight it; governments can also use it an excuse to impinge on their citizens’ rights.

Nor does the tree-chart maze of UN counterterrorism bodies, competing for turf and funding, inspire confidence: the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee and its Executive Directorate; Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, which Annan set up in the Secretariat; the Counter-Terrorism Center, a unit within the task force, with overlapping mandate and separate funding; the Terrorism Prevention Branch of the Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna. And that’s not counting a myriad of independent agencies whose work concerns air, road, maritime traffic, public facilities and communications.

Specialized response to terrorist threats could be useful. But Annan’s effort in 2006 to coordinate the different counterterrorism programs failed because the General Assembly couldn’t agree on the coordination strategy. Some UN experts, such as Edward Luck, have lamented the Counter-Terrorism Committee’s lack of power and resources and have argued for establishing an independent global counterterrorism organization. But the committee was designed so that it would only have a limited and supporting role of establishing a structure to combat terrorist acts.

There have been speckles of hope. Last month, the Saudis ponied up $100 million to the Counter-Terrorism Center, which it helped inaugurate three years ago, to dislodge extremist militancy. Other UN members have offered token pledges of support. But the UN’s role in counterterrorism has remained limited to answering the immediate needs of its member governments.

Rather than beefing up the UN’s counterterrorism entities, member states should focus on making the UN, through sensible reforms, shift anti-terror focus to anti-terror “prevention.” As Obama pointed out, no counterterrorism strategy can succeed if there are no other viable alternatives. And the UN has a good track record of working with governments to eradicate poverty and unemployment, major contributing factors to the rise of radicalism.

Unfortunately, while counterterrorism was being showered with attention, the largest UN development agency, the United Nations Development Program, has been quietly gutting its staff, spurred by cutbacks in Western donor funding. The UN World Food Program also has faced stiff budgetary cuts, hobbling its efforts to help those displaced by fighting in Syria.

No one seems to care, either, that the UN is poised to adopt a fresh new set of development benchmarks, the Sustainable Development Goals. Next year, these new milestones will replace the current Millennium Development Goals the world leaders signed on to at the turn of the millennium. The new goals make for an admirable if repetitive to-do-list, aimed at setting standards to build the kind of world we want to live in.

Conservative critics downplay the “soft power” of the UN, even though this traditional UN area is exactly where interstate politics don’t get in the way of things. They claim that the reason the MDGs had success was due to China’s lightening economic rise, and that such development indicators merely help assess progress. This is not true. In countries across the continents, from Nepal and Montenegro to Burundi and Uruguay, governments have incorporated these UN targets as part of their national development plan.

Surely there is room for improvement, but that doesn’t mean these goals are all rhetoric. Criticisms aside, it’s impossible to imagine responding to the Ebola outbreak without the World Health Organization.

Last month, the UN Human Rights Council released the latest report on ISIS, condemning the atrocities taking place in Syria. While these reports have almost zero impact on the ground, they do carry a moral message, one of abhorrence and dismay, from the international community. They also goad governments to help the victims. For instance, Saudi Arabia and the United States eagerly committed $500 million each to help the Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the UN. With its never-ending flowcharts of agencies with overlapping responsibilities, it’s time for the agency to streamline its efforts to provide greater security. Some degree of soft power, not just the hard power of counterterrorism, is also essential in the broad, long-hauled campaign to defeat terrorist groups like ISIS.

This article first appeared in Cicero Magazine, September 24, 2014.

(Photo credit: United Nations via Creative Commons)