Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office Vladimir Voronkov: Differences on definition of terrorism make situation in UN tense
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office Vladimir Voronkov, who was appointed to the post six months ago, has given his first big interview to Interfax. He discussed tasks that the UN Counter-Terrorism Office faces in countering global terrorism.Question: Mr. Voronkov, the General Assembly‘s decision to establish the Counter-Terrorism Office you head followed fr om the need for closer counter-terrorism coordination under the aegis of the UN. The need to improve mechanisms in this area was repeatedly urged at the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly. How would you assess the efficiency of the reform launched six months ago? What problems have you encountered?
Answer: UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said multiple times that preventing and fighting terrorism are one of his main priorities. This is why his first reform supported by the General Assembly established the Counter-Terrorism Office. We are doing a lot in the context of this reform.
Let me start at the beginning. First of all, we are building the entire structure of our Office practically from scratch. It will provide day-to-day operations, do the planning, form the budget, which is 90% voluntary donations from member states, monitor the efficiency of projects, and build the management. All of these efforts are crucial for meeting the high counter-terrorism expectations of UN member states, especially since the Counter-Terrorism Office has a rather small staff, just over 60 people, including four Russians - one of them being me.
Our second focal point is better coordinating the efforts of UN agencies that have some kind of connection to counter-terrorism. There are 38 agencies of that kind in all, including the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) operating under the Security Council (our Counter-Terrorism Office is an executive branch of the UN General Assembly), the United Nations Drug and Crime Office (UNDCO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), UNESCO, and others. I would mention Interpol among non-UN agencies that work closely with us.
Third, we are accumulating counter-terrorism projects consistent with the agenda proposed by member states. They address such issues as international terrorist fighters, border management, aviation security, preventing radicalization, especially among young adults and women, human rights in the context of counter-terrorism, the application of new technologies to the fight against terrorism, and the prevention of financing for terrorism. As you understand, this is the matter of using so-called "soft power" in the context of counter-terrorism: we are helping strengthen government agencies at the request of member states in accordance with our mandate. We have no counter-terrorism forces.
Fourth, we are elaborating the future agenda of our efforts. Terrorism has turned into a network following the defeat of the so-called "caliphate." There‘s the phenomenon of solo terrorists. They are not easy to fight. The prevention of radicalization acquires paramount importance in this light. We also concentrate on criminal law and human rights in relation to international terrorist fighters.
I want to stress that we have to address all of these tasks simultaneously.
Q.: You mentioned the budget of the new agency. The Russian government recently decided to contribute $2 million in 2018 and then, starting in 2019, give $500,000 annually for the operations of the UN Counter-Terrorism Office. What could these funds be used for?
A.: First of all, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Russian side for the decision to make such a contribution. As I said, 90% of the agency‘s budget is voluntary contributions that, at the moment, 22 countries are making. In order to ensure the sustainability of the office, both political support and financial contributions are required. And 193 countries made a consensus decision to establish the UN Counter-Terrorism Office; however, things are much more complicated as far as finances.
Russia‘s contribution could be spent, for instance, on developing the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office‘s projects in Central Asia and strengthening the Office‘s potential.
Q.: On the subject of strengthening potential, UN Secretary General Guterres has announced an intention to develop a new global UN agreement on counter-terrorist coordination. Could you provide more details? What is this document about? And when will it be prepared? What are the goals of this document?
A.: It deals with the interaction among the 38 UN-based international agencies countering terrorism that I‘ve mentioned. We agreed with our partners to reach a totally new level of cooperation: from the regular exchange of information, which has been working alright, to the joint implementation of projects. That is, to realize in practice the principle of a "unified UN" that‘s free of artificial intra-UN competition, overlapping actions, and irrational expenditures.
We expect to proceed to signing a comprehensive agreement between the aforementioned agencies within the next one or two months. The project has in general been agreed on. It‘s expected that this UN Secretariat and the heads of these agencies will sign this document.
The improvement of interaction between the Office and the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) is particularly important to us. UN Security Council Resolution 2395 from December 2017 on the mandate of this agency defines the logic and the order of such cooperation. The CTED is responsible for analyzing the fulfillment of UN Security Council resolutions on anti-terrorism and delivering recommendations regarding gaps, while the UN Counter-Terrorism Office is involved in project activities to eliminate these gaps. We expect that the aforementioned resolution will give grounds for the CTED to join the global agreement.
Q.: UN Secretary General Guterres also spoke about the initiative to hold the first summit of the chiefs of counter-terrorist agencies of UN member states in the history of the UN. When will it take place? Are preparations for this meeting been under way? What issues will be on the summit‘s agenda?
A.: The idea of the summit - and UN member states have actively supported it - is that it be professional rather than political in nature. Then it will be useful; otherwise, there‘s the risk that the forum will sink over futile discussions over wording - what is international terrorism, state terrorism, violent extremism, and so on. There are still insurmountable disagreements and different interpretations, which exacerbates the already complicated situation at the United Nations.
Not a single country, however, denies that terrorism is a global threat. Moreover, UN member states have concluded 19 various anti-terrorism conventions. This is the significant common denominator for joint actions of the international community, and it could help build trust among countries. A professional discussion of the best way to develop global counter-terrorism cooperation in light of the serious threat constituted by international terrorist fighters who fled Iraq and Syria after the defeat of ISIL (banned in Russia), exchange relevant information more efficiently and faster, and share best practices on preventing radicalization and suppressing terrorism on global networks could help achieve this goal.
There is a problem, however. That is how to invite summit participants who are tackling terrorism 24 hours a day. Things are different in different countries. For example, the National Antiterrorism Committee coordinates antiterrorist activities in Russia, while in Mali, these issues are addressed by the Religious Affairs and Worship Ministry. That‘s why it‘s countries‘ sovereign decision who they send.
The invitations to the New York summit [of the heads of counter-terrorism agencies of UN member states] in the last week of June will be addressed to heads of government. It‘s important to gather colleagues who speak the same professional language in order to have a comprehensive, meaningful, and extensive discussion.
Q.: Let‘s return to the political discussions around antiterrorism. In your opinion, is there a chance of agreeing on a single definition of terrorism at the UN level?
A.: Every UN member state is making an effort to adopt the fullest definition of the notion of "terrorism." The UN General Assembly Sixth Committee [Legal] is considering this issue. Although some aspects of defining terrorism are present in relevant UN General Assembly and UN Security Council resolutions and protocols on the fight against terrorism, the adoption of an agreed-on and exhaustive definition is of paramount importance for the further strengthening of international counter-terrorist cooperation.
Q.: Is it justifiable to deal with terrorists, to enter into negotiations with them, pay ransoms, and so on, if the goal is to save human lives?
A.: Protecting civilians‘ lives is within the area of responsibility of the state in whose territories a particular act of terrorism has been committed. International legal mechanisms embedded in international conventions on opposing terrorism provide a definition of "acts of terrorism," and the UN member states that sign and ratify these conventions are obliged to criminalize such acts and judicially prosecute those who commit them.
The problem of ransom payments is treated similarly, as, in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 2133, all member states are forbidden to allow terrorists to gain direct or indirect benefits, which also concerns political concessions.
The global set of regulations serves as a deterrent, but every act of terrorism has its own specifics, and the government of each particular country should choose the most efficient action plan to provide security and protect its citizens as well as take punitive measures against terrorists, which should be proportionate to the crimes committed.
Q.: Has the UN been discussing steps to bolster security and stability in Syria and Iraq after the complete defeat of the ISIL and Jabhat ul-Nusra terrorist organizations (both banned in Russia) and to create conditions that will protect these countries from another outburst of terrorism?
A.: The UN Security Council is paying constant, close attention to both topics. The UN Assistant Mission is deployed in Iraq. As for Syria, the UN Security Council has vested the UN special envoy for Syria with vast powers.
At the invitation of the Iraqi side, I‘m going to visit this country to discuss the possible assistance of the UN Counter-Terrorism Office in strengthening relevant agencies.
Q.: You‘ve stated the need for an urgent, concentrated, and multilateral response to the global challenge of countering international terrorist fighters. What measures is the UN Counter-Terrorism Office taking, and what measures does it plan to take in this sphere?
A.: International terrorist fighters are an extremely dangerous phenomenon. The cutthroats who have learned how to kill in Iraq and Syria and acquired terrorist methods and skills, who have been stupefied by the ideology of death, have done many terrible things and can do more. Look at what‘s happening in countries with a high risk of terrorism. Terrorist attacks have become almost commonplace.
There‘s a significant number of such militants. The numbers reached 40,000 at the peak of war for the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and they came from 110 countries. At least 5,600 international terrorist fighters have returned to 33 home countries. This is a danger to everyone, and we realize that, which is why one of the main tasks of the UN Counter-Terrorism Office at the current stage is helping member states protect their citizens from the increasing danger posed by international terrorist fighters.
Adhering to the principle of a "unified UN," we‘ve worked out a comprehensive plan for countering this threat. For now, the plan consists of 50 projects for increasing counter-terrorism potential and rendering technical assistance to interested countries; 31 of these projects are up and running.
Q.: As it loses its positions on the ground, ISIL is moving to cyberspace, wh ere it recruits people to the "virtual caliphate." How dangerous is this? Does the UN see efficient tools for countering the use of new technologies by terrorists?
A.: Many terrorist groups are using the Internet for radicalization, propaganda, and funding, and to other illegal ends. We have to recognize that chances are high that terrorists will develop their skill in recruiting the young to their criminal networks still further in the future.
The UN understands the need for comprehensive efforts in this field, and at the request of member states continues to bolster its potential to use the Internet and social networks in the war on terrorism.
This is a unique opportunity to conduct the current expert monitoring of the online content in the rapidly changing world, and engage the digital business community in cooperation.
The most frequent format for such discussions is events on the sidelines of global forums, which, in their way, provide a unique opportunity to produce real-time expert monitoring of online content in a rapidly changing world and to involve the business community working in the digital sphere in tight cooperation. One such event that was organized by the United Kingdom, Italy, and France (they were represented at the level of the heads of state) took place within the framework of the UN General Assembly meetings in September 2017. As far as I know, Belarus plans to organize a similar event in the UN-OSCE format in Minsk this fall.
Q.: What legal consequences could the support of terrorist groups entail for countries and organizations? Is there any mechanism for holding them responsible, introducing sanctions, or starting an investigation in this regard through the UN?
A.: It‘s noted in Chapter VII of the UN Charter that the Security Council has powers that allow it to impose sanctions on countries or organizations that support terrorist groups. According to Article 41 of the UN Charter, sanction measures include many options not related to the use of armed forces - for example, economic and trade sanctions, embargos on arms supplies, bans on movement, and restrictions on financial or raw-material markets. The Security Council has imposed sanctions in the context of countering terrorism; it imposed sanctions, for instance, on ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.
Since 2001, the Security Council has stressed the importance of an efficient system of criminal justice in order to counter terrorism on the national level and the importance of international cooperation in this sphere.
The Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy that the UN General Assembly adopted in 2006 also calls on counties to detain, prosecute, and extradite people found guilty of committing terrorist attacks in line with current provisions of national and international legislation, particularly in the sphere of human rights, rights of refugees, and international humanitarian law.
As a rule, prosecution on the national level is the main mechanism of holding a person responsible for a terrorist attack. However, such attacks are a crime against humanity, implying, as they do, genocide and war crimes, and suspected criminals could also be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court.