December 17, 2021
IntelBrief: A Pivotal Mandate Moment in the UN Security Council
Over the next few weeks, United Nations Security Council members will make some key decisions regarding multilateral counterterrorism efforts. In particular, the Security Council will need to determine the mandates of two key counterterrorism bodies—one focused on monitoring the threat posed by al-Qaeda and ISIL and the related sanctions regime (the “1267 Monitoring Team”), and one focused on wider counterterrorism efforts and assessing compliance, the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED). In addition, states are reportedly deliberating the possibility of creating a carve out for humanitarian action in the Taliban sanctions regime under resolution 1988. These mandates not only decide the very existence of the bodies in question, but also determine the scope and nature of their activities—essentially shaping the role that the Security Council can play in countering terrorism.
In places like Somalia and Afghanistan, the international sanctions regimes play an important role in shaping the space for humanitarian actors and civil society organizations whose work becomes ever more important as international actors like the US and EU reduce their footprint in country. For example, Kenya has long called for the designation of al-Shabaab as a terrorist group under the UN’s “1267” counterterrorism sanctions regime, as many states, including the U.S., have done in their domestic contexts. However, the U.S. and likeminded Security Council members have resisted, citing concerns that a UN designation would unduly impede humanitarian aid in Somalia. Afghanistan faces a separate sanctions regime peeled off from the wider counterterrorism sanctions—as an incentive for the Taliban and to reflect ongoing negotiations—under which even international NGOs are struggling to receive funds for critical lifesaving aid amidst a deepening humanitarian crisis. While positioned as zero-sum game between counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance, it should in fact be possible to do both with appropriate checks and balances in place and ensure a humanitarian carve out for all contexts where humanitarian efforts might intersect with counterterrorism dynamics.
Moreover, there is a risk that perceiving the goals of counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance as mutually exclusive actually damages both objectives. Delaying and denying humanitarian assistance and shrinking the space for civil society—whether by risking criminalization for material support or losing access to financial institutions—will lead to lives lost, futures imperiled, and a stronger set of grievances that can be exploited by violent extremist and terrorist groups for recruitment. Moreover, it forces organizations to move money through invisible or less supervised channels, defeating the aims of more stringent efforts to counter terrorist financing. These potential contradictions speak not only to the divergence of views among Security Council members but within their capitals, particularly of the permanent members, where the various strategic objectives are not always reconciled before they get to the UN.
The Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) is a body of experts supporting the Security Council, which has passed several binding resolutions in the wake of September 11, 2001. These oblige states to review and amend their own legal and criminal justice frameworks, strengthen border security and countering terrorism financing measures, and ensure these are adopted in line with international law. CTED’s role is to monitor and assess compliance, facilitate technical assistance to address any gaps, and identify emerging trends and dynamics. While the mandate itself is a technical document, it essentially sets out the TORs for a body that has access to intelligence, law enforcement, legal, border, financial, and human rights experts in 193 countries and a staff of experts whose work should—but doesn’t often enough—inform the wider deliberations of the Security Council on peace and security. Moreover, the mandate provides an opportunity to institutionalize certain norms or course correct. For example, past mandates have stressed the importance of human rights (absent from the original keystone resolution following 9/11), engaging with civil society, and ensuring greater transparency; such guidance creates the political space for the kinds of interactions usually hotly contested by the Security Council’s permanent members—China, France, the U.K., U.S., and Russia.
The imperative for international counterterrorism cooperation following the East Africa bombings, the attacks of September 11, 2001, and then the rise and fall of ISIS prompted the U.S. and the P5 to make greater use of the Security Council to forge a common framework where none existed previously. To support this goal, CTED was created at a time when no UN body focused on counterterrorism issues or included experts on the specific related issues. As a “Special Political Mission,” CTED is an exceptional body whose role and function needs to be reviewed and confirmed every four years. However, in practical terms, there is likely to be little change to its mandate. The pandemic and the shrinking attention to counterterrorism in the U.S., when it is the “penholder” on counterterrorism in the Security Council, means that attention to multilateral bodies is stretched and limited, and the coincidence of multiple counterterrorism negotiations has given capitals and diplomats little time for big picture strategic thinking. Particularly since 2016, Russia and China have been increasingly active in this space with the West rushing to play defense, but there appears to be no real game plan, particularly when great power competition and counterterrorism are inexplicably treated as mutually exclusive phenomena.
At the height of international attention on counterterrorism, the United Nations was for many states an afterthought, if at all. The painstaking and often hidden work of forging international cooperation, harmonizing legal frameworks, and boosting capacity building projects has not been the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. But, in places like Afghanistan, the UN is often left picking up the pieces left behind as international actors rush to exit protracted and politically unpopular conflicts, and its role and resources warrant closer examination. There has not to date been any independent assessment on what two decades of Security Council counterterrorism has achieved, objectively identifying what has worked, what has not, and the various impacts on both the threat and for communities on the ground. However, Security Council members owe it to their citizens to ensure that the instruments they created add value and are serving their broader purpose of maintaining international peace and security.