UN Effectiveness in Confronting Terrorism

Human security has always been a central issue for all societies. In a special way, all governments of the world have provisions in law and departments in their structure to enhance human security. This is perhaps based on the fact that human life should not be taken for granted. Although all governments have mechanisms of dealing with the issue of security, there has always been a need for a coordinated security front. Since there is no central world government, the UN has been tasked with the responsibility of seeing that security if effectively offered to all people regardless of their race. Moreover, although the UN has been a leading global coordinator for security since after the Second World War, the American attack on September 11, 2001 led to more stringent measures in the combating of global terrorism. Since it has a considerable amount of influence over the UN Security Council, the U.S.A. immensely influences the decision regarding global terrorism. Since in spite of the UN interventions, there have been increased cases of global terrorism, questions have been put forward on the actual effectiveness of UN approaches to deal with global terrorism. Although the UN efforts face a myriad of challenges, the organization has tried its best in confronting global terrorism.

This research paper seeks to investigate the effectiveness of the UN programs in curbing global terrorism. It takes an objective perspective in investigating the issue. In other words, the paper looks into the two sides: whether the UN programs and approaches are effective or not. This also includes explanations as to why the efforts have been effective or not. To effectively investigate these two divergent possibilities, the paper begins with defining what terrorism is. It will be seen that there are various definitions of terrorism depending on who is defining it. Moreover, the malady will be approached from a UN perspective. As a result, the UN security apparatus is explored. This is necessary because unless the role of the UN in global security advancement and advocacy is understood, its assertions may be misunderstood.  This will be followed by an exploration of the two factions of the debate: whether the UN efforts of fighting global terrorism are effective or not. This will be based on the available evidence as well as detailed analyses of the evidence thereby presented. In the final analysis, a synthesized stance in the effectiveness of UN in confronting global terrorism is suggested.


Terrorism is a term that has registered a wide variety of definitions. As pointed out earlier, the definition of terrorism depends on who is defining it. This means that if the person defining terrorism supports it, he or she will offer a definition that is opposed to those, who do not support it. Due to this dichotomy, the U.S. and other worldly acclaimed bodies, such as the Federal Bureau Investigation (FBI), have offered quite detailed definitions of terrorism.

The term terrorism has both legal and political aspects. In this view, the latter takes a higher precedence over the former. According to Williamson (38), there is no single definition of terrorism. This means that it could be defined in many ways; some are correct, others are incorrect. Although international lawyers do not agree on a common definition of terrorism, it is crystal clear that terrorism is a threat to international peace and security. This is because terrorists are known to instill ‘terror’ or ‘fear’. To expound on this, other authorities have added a list of activities that constitute terrorism, such as massive loss of life, displacement of people, and loss of property among others. Yet, other authorities do not agree that mere loss of lives could be a determinant of terrorism. Due to the political aspects involved in defining terrorism, other authorities would wish to define terrorism on the basis of the weapons used. Weapons, such as nuclear weapons, may be considered to be an aspect of global terrorism, if they are used for war-related purposes.

Williamson (39) sees terrorism as a well designed system of terror. In his view, global terrorism involves a group of rebellious geniuses, who deliberately and for their own personal ambitions seek to frustrate and intimidate a government. This is perhaps directly linked with the situation of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, who were the two individuals, who seemingly sought to frustrate the U.S. government. Moreover, experts suggest that any definition of terrorism must take into consideration that fact that the events must be activities of mass destruction, such as a bomb attack, that would kill hundreds or thousands of citizens.

Other authorities adopt quite variant definitions as well as those with similarities in perspective. In defining international or global terrorism, Linden (172) considers groups that instill fear to people in more than one country as well as those, who destroy property in more than one country. Global terrorism entails politically motivated violence that is directed towards non-combat groups of people by clandestine agents or sub-national groups of individuals.

At this point, there is a need to scrutinize the concept of individual or group terrorism that has a global connotation. Traditionally, terrorism has been seen as that, which is propagated by a group. However, due to emergence of internet and development of technologies in communication, nuclear science and other fields, it has become possible for one individual to instill terror to many people. This is what has come to be known as cyber terrorism (Bidgoli 353; Council of Europe 42). It involves spread of terror-instilling messages through, for instance, social networking sites, email, community forums, and online discussion boards among others. This kind of terrorism further breaks away from the traditional definition that entailed political motivations to quite personal decisions to instill fear to others for individual reasons. In most cases, such reasons are purely selfish and ego-centric. In this category of terrorism, there is also what Linden (72) describes as ‘disabling a national computer infrastructure or penetrating vital commercial computer systems.

‘Terrorism means different things to different people’ (White 4). What at one time is referred to as terrorism could be as well referred to as war, deportation, liberation or mere crime at some other point. In the same way, terrorism means different things to media, politicians and lawyers. The latter base their arguments and definition on such things as codes of written international law and treaties, while politicians may simply consider the aspect of justice for their people that they represent. In that case, as long as they are fighting for their people and obtaining justice for them, whether their actions result in loss of life, displacement of persons and destruction of property, it is not terrorism for them. The media would like to focus on the humanitarian crises that terrorism causes, while social scientists focus on the ever-changing realities and social circumstances. In this view, what could have been considered as terrorism two decades ago may not always be necessarily terrorism today and vise versa. During the Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1921, Michael Collins used the term terrorism to refer not to discriminative attacks but to selective attacks on the British Military as well as police.

The United Nations Security Apparatus

The UN plays a very important role not only in promoting international peace and security but also combating global terrorism. To achieve this, the UN has several apparatus. Perhaps, the UN Security Council is the most pronounced apparatus that the UN puts in place to advance global peace. However, with the rise in global terrorism, special committees have been set up to increase the Council’s effectiveness in dealing with terrorists all over the world. Moreover, the Security Council is the chief body that handles global terrorism (Malone 98). The Council is comprised of 15 members and 5 of them are permanent. The latter were the victors of the Second World War and include China, the U.S., the U.K., Russia and France. The other 10 non-permanent members are elected on regular basis. In this context, the most important thing to outline is that the ‘veto’ power may have led to the ineffectiveness of UN in combating global terrorism, as it will be demonstrated.

The United Nations Security Council Website details that the Security Council has the responsibility of overseeing global security and peace. To effectively do that, the Council constitutes of 15 members. One the council makes a resolution, all member states are expected to abide by it. Failure of member states to abide by the council’s resolutions may lead to sanctions. In ensuring existence of peace, the council has a mechanism of, firstly, establishing whether something is a threat to international peace and security or not. Thereafter, a declaration is made.

Once a state of aggression is noted, the council recommends to the parties that they use peaceful means to solve the problems they face. This is because military combats are not the best options since they further disrupt the peace of those, who reside in what now becomes a battlefield. If its recommendations for peaceful settlement are not followed, the council further presents the issue for sanction imposition. The Security Council also has the mandate of recommending a Secretary General of the UN to the General Assembly. Furthermore, the council is responsible for electing judges for the International Court of Justice. In investigating the UN effectiveness, this is usually considered as a factor that could hinder fight against terrorism; especially, if the judges are elected on the basis of serving the interests of the permanent members of the Security Council.

The UN Effectiveness in Confronting Global Terrorism

In outlining the effectiveness of the UN in combating global terrorism, two factions of the debate come up. One is whether the UN confronts terrorism effectively, while the second is whether the UN has failed to confront global terrorism effectively.

The very structure of the UN Security Council may have led to some ineffectiveness in the fight against global terrorism. This is because among the 5 permanent members, one nation, a condition know as ‘the great power unanimity’, may have put forward a negative vote. When the great power does not positively vote for the Council’s to-be resolution, the decision becomes null and void. It is necessary to note that even if the required number of votes, 9, was garnered; a negative vote from the veto power state may render the whole decision unworkable. Precisely, if the motivations of the great power are pro-terrorism, this UN anti-terrorism apparatus becomes totally ineffective, at least in that sense.

Although absenteeism is not considered as veto, the council has been rendered ineffective for so many times. At the time, when Russia was holding the position, during the first 10 years of the existence of the council, it used its veto for 123 times. Other great powers have used their veto in the following manner: UK (32 times), U.S.A. (89 times), China (6 times) and France (18 times). It should be noted that most of the U.S.A.’s veto usage was recorded in the last two and a half decades. This is the time, when global terrorism may be said to have been rampant due to the rise in the number of nations that were able to make the weapons of mass destruction. It is crystal clear that these weapons are the ones that are used by the terrorists to strike. One of the examples was the U.S.A. attacks by the Al Qaeda groups of terrorists on September 11, 2001.

Since it is possible for veto power to be misused, some of regulations have been put up. As has already been seen, as a rule, absenteeism does not constitute veto. If the great power is not represented during a particular meeting and something is agreed upon, veto does not apply. In the wake of rising global terrorism, this may contribute to the effectiveness of the international body in passing resolutions that would go a long way in confronting global terrorism. Additionally, the Security Council improves the UN effectiveness in confronting global terrorism through provisions that bar the great nation from avoiding discussions on the issue of pressing international importance and urgency.

Furthermore, those issues that involve permanent members must be dispensed with regard to the provisions of the Council but not at the discretion of the permanent members. In other words, issues that must be discussed by the permanent members cannot be vetoed. This ensures that the U.N. is effective in advancing global peace including the policy confrontation of international terrorism through the Council’s resolutions.

The UN’s effectiveness in confronting global terrorism is clearly spelt out in the roles and functions of the Council. One of its roles is to use military force to curb terrorism. This has always proved effective because the great powers usually have powerful militaries that have previously been used to fight terrorists. One of the best examples is the U.S. fight against Al Qaeda’s insurgency in Iraq and Iran as a UN resolution. Through the military action of the U.S., there have been considerable levels of reduction in the most obvious acts of terrorism, such as carrying of bombs through or bombing of air ports among other instances. The UN has also yielded some effectiveness in the aspect of investigation of terrorist cases. Through the use of Interpol, it has always been possible to trace the actions of terrorists as well as intercept their communication. In a special way, Interpol has been very effective in providing security alerts and intelligence to national governments to avert terrorism.

One of the roles of the Security Council has been to expressly promote cooperation for disputes arising from political animosity or competition and facilitate the avoidance of conflict among or between nations. For instance, by liaising with the UN Security Council, the U.S. has been able to withdraw, and planned to withdraw troops from Iraq. Although it may not have been a UN’s initiative, the Council facilitated the process of backing off from Afghanistan. Precisely, the UN explicitly recommends peaceful dispute resolution procedures.

One of the most common ways of effectively dealing with terrorists has been through calling upon member nations to deliver sanctions to nations that harbor terrorists. These sanctions are mostly economic, political, and technological among others. For instance, a nation harboring terrorists or supporting terrorism would be economically relegated through severing of trade relations, being cut off from radio communications, sea, air or postal disengagements and alienation and the like. The Security Council also recommends a desired UN Secretary General to the General Assembly. A strong, vocal and dedicated Secretary General would go a long way in fighting global terrorism.

The major UN pronouncements on terrorism are based on the Security Council’s Resolutions. Since it is a well known fact that a UN Security Council’s Resolution attracts massive governmental support, terrorists are likely to back off if such resolutions are announced. This is an indirect way of advancing effectiveness in confrontation with global terrorism.

The ineffectiveness of the UN in fighting terrorism stems from the definition of terrorism as well as the question of permanent members of the Security Council. To effectively understand this, it is important to highlight that when Al Qaeda strikes the U.S. twin towers, that was seen as terrorism, but when the U.S. or the U.K. wars wherever lead to death of civilians that was not terrorism. By extension, it has, perhaps, been assumed that whenever a sub-national group bombs a national establishment using nuclear power, the group becomes terrorists, but when a government uses the same nuclear bomb to hit the group, even when it has not stricken, the government is not considered terrorist. All the five permanent members of the Security Council have nuclear power, yet they accuse other nations of terrorist intentions whenever they establish or seek to establish nuclear plants. As a result, these nations have become defensive and terrorist groups taking the advantage to strike the opponents. Since this is usually taken as a governmental project, the Council may pronounce sanctions, which may not be justified. In the long run, terrorists continue to flourish simply because the permanent members of the Security Council manufacture weapons of mass destruction and accuse others of the same crime or terrorist activity.

The other ineffectiveness stems from the fact that the UN is not a central government. Therefore, it does not actually have a police force of its own. Although the Security Council may pass military resolutions, it has to rely on its member countries for military enforcement of its decisions. Since other nations and members that are non-permanent may not always be willing to commit their forces to implement such resolutions, the fight against global terrorism may suffer serious ineffectiveness and inefficiencies. The other setback is the fact that terrorists have always found niches in the countries that are permanent members of the Council. In any case, the permanent members also harbor terrorists. Since these terrorists may be serving the interests of the permanent members, the fight against global terrorism becomes stagnated.

The UN ineffectiveness is also evident in the non-implementation of the Security Council’s resolutions. If the latter are not implemented, there is no legal force that renders the subject to prosecution. In addition, there are also practical difficulties of ‘prosecuting’ a country. In the final analysis, the fight against terrorism becomes entirely incomplete. The permanent members of the Security Council have been found out to be the world’s leading arms exporters. This means that they make more money where fighting happens many times and always. Putting in other words, they make money where there is terrorism. In this regard, it becomes difficult for the members to genuinely confront terrorism, since it is a commercial undertaking.

The war against terrorism has also been ineffective because the UN structures are undemocratic and sometimes bureaucratic. This means that a decision may either take long before it is passed, or may be not duly discussed as long as it does not attract the interest of the permanent members of the Security Council. Other authorities have termed to it as unjust and illogical. It is referred to as unjust because the less developed nations may not be protected by the statutes or the resolutions of the Council as long as they do not have the interests of at least one member at heart. Such interests are natural resources, such as minerals and oil. To exemplify this, Kuwait is highly protected from terrorists because of its oil. On the contrary, Rwanda, at the time of its genocide, was not protected because it had no resources. Therefore, these dynamics combined with others have led the UN ineffective in fighting terror across the globe.

Although the UN Security Council is the main player in the fight against terrorism, the rise in terrorist attacks culminating in the September 11, 2001 led to formation of a specialized committee dealing with and handling terrorism related issues. This committee is usually referred to as the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC). According to the UN, the CTC helps the organization to fight terrorism. This fight is not only within borders of countries but also across the borders and within the regions.

The act of terrorism itself has made the UN more effective. This is because after the September 11 attacks the committee was set up. In order to make the entire UN’s fight against terrorism more effective, the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) was set up. The directorate is tasked with the responsibility to implement the policies of the committee. In addition, the directorate also assesses the member states in relation to terrorism fight and also offers technical assistance.

The UN also seeks to enhance nations’ abilities to deal with terrorism. Through the CTC, it was possible to draft and adopt resolution 1373 of September 28, 2001. According to this resolution, countries or member states were required to freeze funds of groups that were associated with terrorism, outlaw funding of such groups, criminalize provision of safe haven for such persons or groups and share information with the relevant agencies as well as other governments of terrorism. The resolution also encourages inter-governmental cooperation in the detection, inspection and arrest of such people in a bid to secure cross-border peace. In other words, the resolution condemns any kind of assistance offered to terrorists either passively or actively.

Additionally, the resolution calls upon the states to sign up all the relevant agreements that would help in the confrontation of terrorism in local and global scenes. The member states are also called upon to deny refuge to any group of persons or any individual "with respect to whom there is credible and relevant information giving serious reasons for considering that they have been guilty of such conduct."

It could be argued that the very structure of the CTC helps in improving the UN Security Council’s effectiveness in dealing with terrorism. In a special way, the executive director of the committee helps in the implementation of policies as well as assessment of the policies that have already been implemented. In order to increase the effectiveness of the UN efforts, the committee conducts country visits to assess the state and impact of the negative effects of terrorism. These visits are augmented by country reports, which help in needs assessment for the next planning period. Furthermore, the committee conducts special meeting in order to establish ties with national, regional and sub-regional bodies dealing with issues of security and peace. Above all, the committee provides the UN with technical assistance in terms of legislative aid and expertise with regard to law on terrorism.

In order to increase its effectiveness in the fight against counter-terrorism, the UN Resolution 1535 led to the establishment of the Counter-Terrorism Committee. This was seen as an effective way of implementing Resolution 1373 and to offer technical assistance to the Security Council. In order to further increase the effectiveness, the Council set up an additional terrorism-related body referred to as 1540 Committee. The sole role of this committee was to closely monitor the compliance of the member states with the provisions of Resolution 1540. In a special way, the committee monitors the efforts of governments in making sure that terrorists on any other insurgency groups do not have access to weapons of mass destruction.

It could be posited that the UN increases it effectiveness, generally, through fragmentation and subdivision of an issue into many smaller parts that are run by experts. This ensures that although the election of the top officials, such as the Secretary General, may be politicized, there is always a functional, non-partisan and professional body that manages the key affairs of the organization. In addition to the above two committees, the Council has also set up the 1566 Working Group. As the name suggests, they pursue the implementation of the provisions of Resolution 1566, which sees that the victims of terrorism are duly compensated.

The UN, through Security Council, has continuously strengthened the work of its committees and work groups. This has greatly improved its effectiveness in the fight against the vice. For instance, on September 10, 2012, the UN Security Council convened an open debate on how terrorism affects international security and peace. In one of the debates, it was realized that the war against global terrorism may not be won through military combats, intelligence operations or enforcement of the law. In essence, one of the best ways of dealing with it was to address the conditions that make it favorable for terrorists to operate and blossom.

Although the UN has explicit provisions for the end and combat of terrorism, many factions do not think that UN approaches are effective in any way. This is because in spite of there being such measures, terrorism continues to happen. In other words, terrorists continue to strike. Some authorities have accused the UN of rigid bureaucracy that leads to the delay in the passage of the most important and perhaps urgent resolutions. In addition, all the apparatus that the UN puts in place require money to fund them. As a result, in cases, where the release of the funds is delayed or funds are not available, such interventions simply die off. Consequently, terrorism in not only not fought but also actually allowed to happen more and more frequently and intensely. Yet, other authorities have accused the UN of only having an explicit policy of terrorism after the U.S. was stricken. In other words, if it was a less developed state that was hit, perhaps, the UN would not have been much concerned as it was in the case of U.S. The ineffectiveness of the UN in fighting terrorism stems from the fact that it seeks to protect only the powerful states or nations and countries that are rich in natural resources that are exploited by the permanent members of the Security Council.

The other source of the UN’s ineffectiveness in fighting terrorism comes from the fact that some member states are only partially willing to implement the resolutions of the UN Security Council with regard to terrorism. This partial willingness or non-willingness comes from the fact that there is claimed to be not enough rationale to justify some of the sanctions to groups suspected to be terrorist. For instance, one of the UN’s resolutions towards terrorism is the fact that assets of groups that are suspected, but not confirmed to be terrorists, should be frozen. The best example of such countries is Venezuela and Mexico. Putting in other words, although the UN’s statutes are good, national implementation is faced with serious hurdles. Therefore, there is a need to develop other mechanisms of seeing to it that the resolutions so passed are duly implemented.

It appears that there must be an overhaul change in tactics that are employed in fighting terrorism. Perhaps, the UN needs to use different approaches. From the definitions of terrorism, the ‘political’ component is very important. The right approach in solving a political problem is to offer a political solution and not a military one. What UN does is offering a military solution to a political problem. In most cases, terrorists are opposed to the great powers because they feel that they are looked down upon. If UN adopts such approaches as those adopted in Saudi Arabia, perhaps, the question of global terrorism would be a thing of the past. In Saudi, dialogue plays an important role in the elimination of terrorism. This approach is based on the fact that terrorists differ ideologically with governments. Therefore, the UN Security Council may opt to use dialogue, rehabilitation and counseling to both local and global terrorists.


This research was geared towards scrutinizing the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of the UN approaches in confronting terrorism from a global front. In order to effectively dispense off this mandate, the paper began with offering definitions for terrorism and clarifying why there are many definitions of terrorism. Thereafter, the role of the UN Security Council was investigated in details. It was found out that the effectiveness of the UN in its anti-terrorism was based in its structures as well as its mandate. On the other hand, the ineffectiveness is based on the wrong approaches that the UN employs as well as the motivations of the permanent members of the Security Council. All in all, the UN is fairly effective in confronting global terrorism.

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