How Effective is the UN in Counter-Terrorism Operations?

The role of the United Nations (UN) counter-terror strategy seems to primarily involve aiding its members (national governments) with strategy prior to an attack and then providing assistance in response to actual terror attacks. Many see the UN as largely a talking shop; this image is not currently alleviated when the topic of counter-terror arises. If the UN, a global legislative body, is able to make resolutions and yet still lack the power to enforce their resolutions against terrorism, then what powers does the UN actually have in preventing counter-terrorism? For now, the United Nations acts as an intermediary in supplying technical information, country reports (which provide a comprehensive snapshot of the counter-terrorism situation in each country) and by conducting country visits to monitor progress of laws implemented (UNCTC 2011). The United Nations has long been criticized that it does not take a more proactive role in countering terrorism. Enforcing sanctions imposed by countries and securing political support for sanctions as well as their humanitarian efforts has appeared to be the primary strength of the United Nations. Consequently, we might ask what could be done more effectively?

Critics will suggest that one of the most serious weaknesses of the UN contribution in the overall effort against terrorism seems to be the total absence of due process in listing suspected terrorists (Terlingen 2010). For the United Nations to overlook such things as indefinite detention without trial has sidelined many of the basic human rights mandates of international law. This has brought further criticism of the United Nations in that they have allowed the Bush and now Obama administration to conduct extraordinary rendition without sanctions being placed against the United States.

The UN has accomplished some useful objectives, such as in their creation of an international framework for the provision of common, agreed upon international law on terrorism. This aspect of the international assembly has always been an important contribution; a few examples of the UN’s international terrorism goals are listed below:

  • criminalize the financing of terrorism
  • Deny all forms of financial support for terrorist groups
  • Cooperate with other governments in the investigation, detection, arrest, extradition and prosecution of those involved in such acts; and
  • Criminalize active and passive assistance for terrorism in domestic law and bring violators to justice (UNCTC 2011).

The United Nations needs to take a stronger role against terrorism, in my opinion, because if they fail to do so there is the potential for the loss of credibility. Since the United Nations is supported through donations from its membership throughout the world, the United Nations has faced image concerns because roughly 20% of its revenue comes from the United States. This is likely to cause some to believe the US has disproportionate influence over a supposedly international body. This may be partly ameliorated in the wake of the financial crisis, as the United States has proposed cutting some of the aid provided to the United Nations. An additional threat to the UN’s credibility has been the failure of the United Nations to take sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been a polarizing conflict in counter-terrorism debates. This may also have led to speculation that the UN is yet another political and military arm of the United States. In order to create a stronger international voice and presence, the United Nations will have to appear that it can make decisions against terrorism independently and make choices that may be unpopular but necessary to quell the threat of terrorism around the world.

For further information regarding the UN’s role, see the home page of the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee at


Terlingen, Y. (2010). The United States and the UN’s Targeted Sanctions of Suspected Terrorists: What Role for Human Rights? Ethics & International Affairs , 24 (02), 131-142.

United Nations Security Council. (2001, September 28). Retrieved August 29, 2011, from

About Chris Rottenberg

Master of Arts in Diplomacy: Possesses broad knowledge in International Terrorism and has fluid knowledge in U.S. foreign and national security policy. Specializing in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Cambodia.

9 Responses to “How Effective is the UN in Counter-Terrorism Operations?”

  1. Callie Davis Reply 2011.08.31 at 15:25

    UN is not elected and does not levy taxes in a way that is meaningful to most individuals; has no effectual standing army. It is somewhat like a Masonic society or a church. Private club[s] engaged in just the right mix of do-goodery and skullduggery to stay in the peripheral vision of the public. The nature of the organization leads people to credit– or bitterly discredit– its power regardless of the actual part it plays in a situation. Over time, the organization becomes identifiable with power itself. Can we really be shocked at the UN’s ineffectiveness? Or does it do some good? I doubt that the UN can develop authority much further than it has at present.

    • Callie, you seem to be judging the United Nations in the same way that we might judge a national government. The problem with looking at it in that way is that it is not intended to provide the same functions that a national government does. This is why we say that the international system as a whole is anarchic; there is no central all-powerful authority. This is contrary to national governments, where in most government types, the head of state leads a national entity that projects power from its capital. The UN does not do this, as it is powerless without its member states. Most national governments do not need the agreement from any form of membership to project power. The role of the United Nations is primarily to facilitate peaceful interactions between states. In this way, it is similar to the head of the European Union at present. The EU has no standing army that can attack an enemy, nor does it have a central authority that can force national governments in Europe to accept its bidding. The EU and the UN are both dependent upon their member states’ approval to function. As such, the UN is primarily the referee for international relations, in the same light that there is a referee in a boxing match. Like boxing, the referee upholds the rules and attempts to enforce them. If the boxers refuse to accept the rules, there is little the referee can do to stop trained fighters on his own in the short term. What the referee can do is call upon reinforcements (typically the UN Security Council) and enforce discipline on the rule-breakers after the conflict. This eventual discipline serves to curb future misbehavior, thus encouraging order even in a technically anarchic system.

      • Callie Davis Reply 2011.09.07 at 16:24

        Let’s say the UN is chartered to be a functional network of nations, with the concept of statehood itself being supreme. This is evidenced by UN operations. Moving beyond any referees, human dignities, anarchies, or other ideals, we know that certain events suitable for mass perception tend to legitimize concepts of political power. The difference between normative governance and terrorism is life and death. [‘Normative’] Governance is legitimized by protecting life. Terror is legitimized by control of perception, whether or not it extends life. Terror is big business because it taps into the trappings of statehood to garner power without actually having to govern. Like to a virus, life and death of the host/victims cease to matter. This is also what makes it useful for states that sponsor terrorism; as long as the perceived damage occurs outside the identity/borders of the sponsor. So how can the UN do more to combat terrorism? From Chris’ article above, it looks like UN is doing what it can to facilitate diplomacy amongst member states. I’m not sure how it could do more, because I do not believe that UN authority can be legitimated much further than it already has. The mechanisms for UN legitimacy are under the control of states, and they are basically the same mechanisms used by states: Law and order, protection of human life, etc. I realise I have grossly simplified matters here, so I am open to enlightenment as to how the UN could do more.

        • Callie,

          You brought up one additional detail that deserves mentioning, primarily because others may feel the same way as you did. You had suggested that no one votes for the United Nations and they have no meaningful method of taxation. This is a simple, but very common misunderstanding of the nature of the UN. Though the United Nations offers some services for individual people in member states, the organization was primarily designed to be a tool for governments to use. Because of the larger function of the UN being state-related, member states select appointees to the UN frequently based on either merit or the political desirability of the candidate or both. If you’d like an American equivalent of the UN that’s designed for the individual states in the United States, see the Council of State Governments at This group was designed as a forum for states to create a uniform standard for state policies creating a simpler and more consistent set of rules among American states.

          Similarly, the United Nations has a method of “taxation” (more appropriately called dues) that only affects its members, the nations who are utilizing its services. Consequently, you and I have never directly received a bill or filled out a tax form to pay for the UN, but instead, membership dues are paid by us indirectly through general national revenues.

          Finally, the desire for the UN to increase its focus on terrorism is solely Chris’ opinion based on his formal study of the subject. I’m sure he’ll be happy to address that in more detail for you.

          Barry A. Saturday

  2. Callie,

    You have to remember that the UN’s standing army is comprised of a conglomeration of soldiers from many countries around the world. For example, during the Balkan conflict, it was UN forces that came in and secured and ultimately lost some of its armed forces because they initially went in unarmed. Currently, UN forces are occupying Somalia and are trying to restore a formal government. They have been doing so since the United States left in the mid-1990’s. This has led to many of the claims that the UN has become an extension of US foreign policy and ultimately is more vested in what the United States wants over their humanitarian enforcement policy.

    It is quite shocking that the UN does not do more with the power it currently has and I think that many of the countries are taken back by requests for further funding to the UN and extension of powers than they have. Although the UN is limited by its range and overall scope, they have far more power and leverage than most lend them credit for. It is how they use their power and influence to effect change and policy which becomes the larger problem.

  3. To quantify my last statement, the UN has ability and mandate to go in and help restore law and order to states that are in utter chaos. For example Somalia, the Balkan region, and now Libya. In Somalia they sent in an additional 20,000 troops to restore peace and try to establish a democratic society. In the Balkans, they tried to intervene with a peace time mission, however, going in with no weapons proved to be an egregious mistake on behalf of their commanders. With Libya, they could come in and aid the current political group establish a new regime that is democratic in the absence of Gadhafi and continue with their mission. But if they do, the UN must remember they are there to keep order and restore justice, and not push the policy of any one nation.

    • Callie Davis Reply 2011.09.07 at 16:45

      Chris, I hesitate to agree with your assessment of UN forces. NATO had much to do with the situation in the Balkans; and the Somalia (1993) situation went bust after the US handed the mission over to UN control. The mission creep debacle at Mogadishu created serious political repercussions for the UN. Later, when Rwanda was imploding, the Clinton Administration wouldn’t so much as speak the word “genocide” in public. The domestic politics of one nation (US) was all it took to leave General Dallaire high and dry. They couldn’t even get printer paper.

      As it stands, I suggest there are some substantial systemic impediments to the expansion of UN forces, especially with regard to command and control. Are there any other ways that the UN can do more to deal with terrorism? I am interested in your opinion.

  4. Honestly I do not think so, I think they should return to their primary function of humanitarian aid. And now they face a major crisis as the US may have to cut their operational financial support in wake of the debt crisis. And since the United States is the primary supplier, 20% of the operational budget for the UN I am not sure what they will do. Like everyone one else right now, the UN needs to restructure itself so it can continue to be effective without becoming another financial burden for countries who are looking to cut expenses.

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