Russia makes play to become UN’s anti-terror tsar
Russia is seeking a leading role in shaping the United Nations’ global counterterrorism strategy, lobbying Secretary General Antonio Guterres to appoint a Russian national to serve in a newly envisioned post as counterterrorism tsar, according to several senior UN diplomats.
The move comes as the President Donald Trump has stressed his desire to work in partnership with Russia to combat the Islamic State and other terror groups. But the development has raised concern among human rights advocates and other observers, who fear the former rival powers, now joined more closely together under a Trump administration, may move the UN further from its role as a defender of human rights and civil liberties.
“Washington and Moscow are likely to reinforce each others take-no-prisoners approach to terrorism, to the detriment of respect for human rights and due process,” said Sebastian von Einsiedel, an expert on UN counterterrorism strategy who serves as director of the UN University’s Centre for Policy Research in Tokyo. He fears the duo would have “little sensitivity for the value of the non-military approaches that are front and centre in the UN counterterrorism strategy.”
Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the UN has built a sprawling network of some 38 agencies and programmes that deal with counterterrorism, including a Security Council terror sanctions committee, a Saudi-funded counterterrorism centre, and a special anti-terror branch based in Vienna.
In one of his first stabs at reform, Guterres wants to coordinate those myriad agencies under a single boss, several UN diplomats said. Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for Guterres, said no decision has been made on the appointment of an anti-terror tsar, but the UN chief is “considering various proposals to strengthen the UN’s role in counterterrorism.”
Russia is emerging as an early favourite, according to several senior UN diplomats. For years, Moscow has protested that it has been unfairly denied a cabinet position in New York under previous UN leaders, as the most powerful positions overseeing peacekeeping, political affairs, and the budget are reserved for Western powers. Among the few cabinet positions held by Russians outside New York in recent years was running the Geneva headquarters and the Drug and Crime office in Vienna.
In recent months, Russia has sought to consolidate its influence in the UN counterterrorism field. In December, it succeeded in persuading the United States, Britain and France, for the first time to relinquish Western chairmanship over a critical UN Security Council committee responsible for overseeing sanctions against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic state. The post went to Kazakhstan, a close Russian ally.
Among some senior European diplomats there is some sympathy for the idea that Russia is due a top post. It would also solve a taxing political problem for Guterres. By creating a new counterterrorism position, Guterres could avoid having to give Moscow one of the more important jobs, for instance the head of the Department of Political Affairs, which Russia covets but which has been held by an American for the past ten years.
But there has also been unease within the UN itself at its growing role fighting terrorism. UN development and humanitarian agencies fear it will taint their reputation for neutrality, dissuade states from working with them, and put their staff at risk. UN relief workers from Afghanistan to Somalia and Mali have been increasingly targeted by extremists. And giving the UN terror office Russian leadership, some fear, would move the UN more toward suppressing terrorism than seeking to address its root causes.
The United States under the Obama administration and its European partners promoted the need for a top UN counterterrorism official, but they saw the role differently from Russia. They wanted the new tsar to make the prevention of extremist ideology a key priority, and to promote the rules and norms. Russia favours a harder approach, as displayed in Chechnya and Syria.
In June, Russia, backed by Egypt, Pakistan and other members of the Organisation for the Islamic Conference, repeatedly blocked a proposal backed by the United States and its European allies to endorse a plan of action by the UN Secretary General for preventing violent extremism. Instead, they agreed only after the provision was watered down to recommend that states “consider” implementing some provisions of the action plan.
“They quietly, well, not so quietly, put the kibosh on that,” said Eric Rosand, a former State Department official and director of The Prevention Project.
But Europe and the United States may now be moving closer to Russia’s position. European countries stung by terror attacks from Nice to Berlin are more inclined to take a tougher line on fighting terrorism. And senior officials in the Trump administration, including the president, have long advocated a much harsher counterterrorism policy, including loosening restrictions on how suspected terrorists are targeted, as well as partnership with Russia.
“When [Trump] says that his key foreign policy priority will be the fight against terrorism, we are happy to welcome this intention. This is exactly what our American partners lacked before him,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a January 17 press conference in Moscow.
Moscow hopes the new US administration will view the challenge of terrorism through a Russian lens, particularly in Syria.
The Obama administration saw Russia and Syria, with their brutal air campaign against anti-government forces and civilians, as chief drivers of terrorism in Syria. But during his presidential
Campaign, Trump saw Syria and Russia as potential partners in the war against the Islamic State.
“What Donald Trump and his team are saying now shows that they have a different approach to this and that they will not apply double standards in the fight against terrorism in order to achieve unrelated goals.”
Richard Gowan, a UN specialist with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that the UN has little choice but to deepen its role in counterterrorism, despite the risks of undercutting core goals like protecting human rights. “The United Nations can do the right thing or the relevant thing, and the relevant thing is to appear to be doing more on counterterrorism,” Gowan said.
The United Nations has been grappling with terrorism since 1963, but its sprawling array of counterterror bureaus and agencies really mushroomed after the 2001 attacks. The Security Council has focused on measures like sanctions on suspected terrorists, while the UN secretariat has sought to address radicalization and the root causes of terrorism, all while ensuring compliance with international law and human rights norms.
But the United Nations, whether through security council resolutions or other initiatives, has seldom been more than a bench player in fighting terrorism around the world, ceding the leading role to individual states. That hasn’t stopped the counterterrorism bureaucracy from swelling, though.
“It’s become a relatively obscure bureaucracy,” said one European ambassador. “You sometimes wonder what these people do all the time. I don’t personally see what the need is” for the counterterror tsar.
That’s why there is some scepticism that the new position, if handed to Moscow, would give Russia much influence. The UN Security Council, which has established numerous counterterror initiatives, is generally loath to yield authority over programmes it establishes. And the UN’s many bureaucratic fiefdoms, which often control their own budgets, will jealously guard their turf from a new agency.
Gowan, for one, remains sceptical that the UN has the wherewithal to transform itself into a serious player on counterterrorism. In that light, he said, a decision by Guterres to create a new high-level post for a Russian may prove shrewd, essentially giving Moscow an empty chalice.
“It’s easy to imagine whichever lucky Russian official who gets the job being cut out of the loop, not least because Guterres is keen to make the most crucial decisions about crisis management himself,” Gowan said.