If the UN were to form an anti-terrorism group dedicated to attacking the menace on a global scale, who do you think would be asked to lead it? A nation with a proven track record of anti-terror initiatives? A nation that esteems human rights and freedoms above all else? Unfortunately, in the case of the UN Centre for Counter Terrorism (UNCCT), the answer is emphatically neither.
The UNCCT was formed in September 2010 with the purpose of executing
the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, adopted by the General
Assembly in 2006. In a move more befitting Alice in Wonderland than the United Nations, Saudi Arabia was named chair of the organization.
The Resolution that created the UNCCT highlighted four key "pillars"
in the fight against terrorism. The first of these pillars, "tackling
the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism," was undermined
almost immediately upon the organization's establishment. Three months
after the UNCCT's formation, WikiLeaks exposed a trove of diplomatic
cables in which Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wrote
"Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa'ida,
the Taliban, LeT, and other terrorist groups, including Hamas."
Clinton's US embassy cables also revealed Saudi resistance to
prioritizing the issue in terms of its own domestic policy.
These revelations are perhaps not so surprising in light of the Saudi
kingdom's lukewarm response to terrorism funding and recruitment within
its borders. Remember when, in the months following the 9/11 attacks,
Saudi Arabia denied the fact that 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudi
citizens, before eventually confirming the undeniable truth in 2002? Even worse, this
past February two former US senators involved in the 9/11 inquiries
suggested in separate affidavits that the Saudi government may have
played a direct role in the attacks themselves.
It's an ironic twist that the UN appointed Saudi Arabia, a country
historically labeled by groups like the CATO Institute as a state
sponsor of terrorism, to chair the flagship effort to end such
practices. The UN's actions speak to a certain cluelessness it exhibits
as a governing body: the organization bows to diplomatic and political
courtesies while ignoring what's happening on the ground.
The designation is also farcical in another sense. Saudi Arabia's
human rights record blatantly contradicts the UNCCT's fourth pillar,
"ensuring respect for human rights against the backdrop of the fight
against terrorism," as evidenced by the nation's treatment of its own
citizens. Amnesty International's 2012 Report details
the state's numerous abuses: public demonstration is forbidden, females
face harshly oppressive discrimination in both the law and society,
citizens are subject to torture and confinement for excessive periods of
time without due process of law, etc. And the Amnesty International
report is not even comprehensive.
For example: it fails to mention LGBT
rights or the fact that homosexuality in the Saudi kingdom is a capital
Moreover, Saudi Arabia's state-sponsored curriculum continues to
foster a learning environment of intolerance and discrimination. As
detailed in the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom's
recently published report, the Saudi Kingdom's academic curriculum for
grades 1-12 contains textbooks that disparage Christianity and Judaism and tutors on the subject of jihad and war against nonbelievers. In 2010, a special investigation by the BBC's Panorama discovered
that part-time schools "teaching the official Saudi national
curriculum" in the United Kingdom were imparting messages of
anti-Semitism and homophobia to young Muslim students, as well as
illustrating how to punish thieves by cutting off the criminal's hand or
It is no secret that Saudi Arabia holds a strong anti-democracy
stance, as exemplified in March 2011 when the kingdom sent troops into
Bahrain to help repress protests during a government crackdown. Freedom
of expression is nearly non-existent; a draft of the nation's own
anti-terror law leaked in July 2011 would suppress free speech and could punish blasphemy with death.
The greatest irony of all is the UN's failure to come up with a legal
definition for the act of terrorism while purporting to fight it with
projects like the UNCCT. While the Comprehensive
Convention on International Terrorism has been in the works since 2000,
the UN General Assembly Sixth Committee (Legal) has reached an impasse in negotiations. The result is that the UNCCT exists without any clear international definition the word "terrorism."
The standoff is the outcome of maneuvering by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation
(OIC), a 57-member voting bloc that represents itself as the
"collective voice of the Muslim world." The group refuses passage of any
Sixth Committee Resolution defining terrorism unless it exempts certain
kinds of conflicts, such as "armed struggle against foreign
occupation." This means that, according to the OIC, attacks on civilians
would not constitute terrorism as long as they were citizens of a
so-called "occupying power." This is obviously unacceptable.
The UN must first facilitate a consensus between states on the
definition of terrorism if it is to effectively combat the threat.
Furthermore, it's incumbent upon all Western democracies and especially
the Obama administration to lobby for the removal of Saudi Arabia from
the UNCCT. The UN needs to stop playing political games when human lives
are thrown into the mix; terrorist groups will continue to survive as
long as there are nations that remain lax on enforcement and bodies like
the UN that reward complacency. Only an international campaign that
possesses both legitimacy and resolve has the potential to eradicate --
or at least suppress -- terrorism.
By Brooke Goldstein and Zack Kousnetz