Nonviolent Responses to Terrorism: Some Recent United Nations Initiatives

“While we certainly need vigilance to prevent acts of terrorism, and firmness in condemning and punishing them, it will be self-defeating if we sacrifice other key priorities-such as human rights-in the process.” – Kofi Annan, January 18, 2002

By its very nature, terrorism is an assault on the fundamental principles of law, order, human rights, and peaceful settlement of disputes upon which the United Nations is established. Countering terrorism, therefore, is in the interest not only of States and intergovernmental institutions but also of local, national, and global civil society. – Kofi Annan, October 4, 2002

[1] As has been noted elsewhere[1], the United Nations reacted swiftly to the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States. The Security Council established a Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) to monitor compliance with counter-terrorism measures, particularly at the level of Member States. However, what is perhaps less well known are some of the UN’s other follow-up efforts to take up the problem of terrorism without resorting to the use of force.

[2] Many of these measures were reviewed by a Policy Working Group on the United Nations and Terrorism which the Secretary-General established in October 2001. The Group’s mandate was “to identify the longer-term implications and broad policy dimensions of terrorism for the United Nations and to formulate recommendations on the steps that the United Nations system might take to address the issue.”[2] Its report was issued on August 1, 2002.

[3] While there were many significant elements in the report, a number of these are particularly noteworthy with regard to the nature of terrorism and the importance of dissuasion and denial as tasks within a strategy to deal with terrorism.

[4] The Group asserted that “Terrorism is, in most cases, essentially a political act. It is meant to inflict dramatic and deadly injury on civilians and to create an atmosphere of fear, generally for a political or ideological (whether secular or religious) purpose.

[5] Terrorism is a criminal act, but it is more than mere criminality. To overcome the problem of terrorism it is necessary to understand its political nature as well as its basic criminality and psychology.”[3] They also noted that governments also sometimes use terror to control their populations and that “labelling opponents or adversaries as terrorists offers a time-tested technique to de-legitimize and demonize them.”

[6] Finding terrorism a complex matter, the Group also called for “intellectual and moral clarity” regarding attacks on civilians, asserting that they deserve “universal condemnation” and that the struggle against terrorism requires a plan of response.

[7] Bearing in mind that “the lack of hope for justice provides breeding grounds for terrorism,” the Group called for action through the United Nations as an antidote.

[8] “Where United Nations efforts to reduce lawlessness and despair in the world succeed, terrorism will find no nourishment…. Through its conventions, resolutions, statements and actions, the Organization can help to dissuade disaffected groups from choosing the terrorist path and those who aid, abet or excuse terrorist acts from maintaining those ties or sympathies. The universal character, global reach and international legitimacy of the United Nations constitute important assets upon which it can draw in this effort.”[4]

[9] They also said that the UN has various means at its disposal to “deny terrorists the tools of their trade-finance, secrecy, arms and shelter….” However, they note that these measures demand “the sustained and specific cooperation of a variety of national, regional and global agencies and arrangements.”

[10] The Group also stressed that the UN “cannot and must not retreat from the other pressing issues on its wide agenda,” such as poverty, HIV/AIDS and environmental degradation, the urgency of which predate September 11, 2001.

[11] The Group identified the promotion and adoption of international legal instruments as “the most effective and legitimate response” to the threat to international peace and security posed by international terrorism. They also noted the connections between terrorism and transnational organized crime, e.g., arms and drug trafficking and money laundering, and called for better coordination of efforts to address the two.

[12] Another area which the Group identified as essential to the task of dissuasion was human rights:

The protection and promotion of human rights under the rule of law is essential in the prevention of terrorism. First, terrorism often thrives in environments in which human rights are violated. Terrorists may exploit human rights violations to gain support for their cause. Second, it must be understood clearly that terrorism itself is a violation of human rights. Terrorist acts that take life violate the right to life set forth in article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Third, it must also be understood that international law requires observance of basic human rights standards in the struggle against terrorism. The struggle against international terrorism will be further enhanced if the most serious crimes committed by terrorists are tried before the International Criminal Court and prosecuted under its Statute (provided that the relevant national court cannot or will not prosecute). Since the Statute covers the category of crimes against humanity, which includes murder and extermination committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on any civilian population, certain terrorist acts might therefore be tried under the Statute.[5]

[13] They also concluded that “The struggle against terrorism should be carried out in keeping with international human rights obligations.”

[14] The Group noted the ground-breaking aspects of Security Council resolution 1373 which had “a focus on ensuring that any person who participates in the financing, planning, preparation or perpetration of terrorist acts, or who supports terrorist acts, is brought to justice, and that such acts are established as serious criminal offences in domestic law and regulation with punishments that duly reflect their seriousness.”

[15] They also noted that the existence of various kinds of weapons-conventional as well as nuclear, chemical and biological-may lead terrorists to seek to acquire and use them. However, they suggested that the use of less sophisticated weapons, such as anthrax or a dirty bomb (radioactive material dispersal by a conventional weapon), was more likely than the actual detonation of a nuclear weapon or a larger scale chemical or biological weapons attack. They pointed to the ongoing use of small arms, light weapons and explosives as the easier and cheaper means that terrorists would continue to employ. In that regard, they identified various UN programs and agreements to curb their use.

[16] In the area of prevention, the Group emphasized several aspects of the Secretary-General’s recent report on the prevention of armed conflict as key to “narrowing the space in which terrorists operate.” Among these are activities to alleviate crises and prevent armed conflict from developing or expanding and longer-term measures to remove the causes of conflict. With respect to the latter, they noted the Secretary-General’s observation that development assistance can:

‘… facilitate the creation of opportunities and the political, economic and social spaces within which indigenous actors can identify, develop and use the resources necessary to build a peaceful, equitable and just society.’ If such efforts assist societies to resolve conflict peacefully within the rule of law, grievances that might have been expressed through terrorist acts are more likely to be addressed through political, legal and social means. In addition, effective structural prevention measures would strengthen the capacities of States to avoid the type of protracted armed conflict that weakened Afghanistan and enabled the rise within its territory of transnational terrorist networks.[6]

[17] The Group noted the importance of various regional and other multilateral efforts to address terrorism, such as the work of Interpol in intelligence gathering and sharing as well as the Financial Action Task Force on Money-laundering, an intergovernmental organization initiated by the Group of Seven industrialized countries, which has proposed standards against terrorist financing and money laundering.

[18] In their recommendations the Group called for the ratification and implementation of counter-terrorism conventions as well as the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Concerning human rights they recommended that:

All relevant parts of the United Nations system should emphasize that key human rights must always be protected and may never be derogated from. The independence of the judiciary and the existence of legal remedies are essential elements for the protection of fundamental human rights in all situations involving counter-terrorism measures.[7]

[19] They called on all elements of the UN system to:

deliver a consistent, clear, principled message when addressing the issue of terrorism, as follows:

(a) The targeting of unarmed civilians is wrong in all circumstances;

(b) Governments must ensure that there are avenues to enable citizens to express concerns and grievances;

(c) Military force should be used only in strict adherence with the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. Such use of force must be exercised in accordance with the international laws of war. The targeting of civilians and the disproportionate use of force beyond legitimate military objectives violate international humanitarian law;

(d) Security cannot be achieved by sacrificing human rights.[8]

[20] The UN General Assembly has begun consideration of a resolution on human rights and countering terrorism. The report of the Policy Working Group provides a helpful set of international norms and standards against which to measure such proposals. The report also offers an ethical basis for citizens to evaluate further non-violent actions by nation states and the international community to address terrorism.

[1] See “Combating Terrorism”, Damaris Frehrking, Love Indeed, Spring 2002, LOWC insert.

[2] A/57/273-S/2002/875, para. 2. The entire report is available on the South Asia Terrorism Portal at:

[3] Ibid, para. 13.

[4] Ibid, para. 16.

[5] Ibid, para. 26.

[6] Ibid, para. 40.

[7] Ibid, Recommendation 4.

[8] Ibid, Recommendation 7.