Report

Russia Makes Play to Become U.N.’s Anti-Terror Czar

Russia Makes Play to Become U.N.’s Anti-Terror Czar

Russia is seeking a leading role in shaping the United Nations’ global counterterrorism strategy, lobbying Secretary-General António Guterres to appoint a Russian national to serve in a newly envisioned post as counterterrorism czar, according to several senior U.N. diplomats.

The move comes as U.S. President Donald Trump has stressed his desire to work in partnership with Russia to combat the Islamic State and other terrorist 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 U.N. further from its role as a defender of human rights and civil liberties.

“Washington and Moscow are likely to reinforce each other’s take-no-prisoners approach to terrorism, to the detriment of respect for human rights and due process,” said Sebastian von Einsiedel, an expert on U.N. counterterrorism strategy who serves as director of the United Nations University’s Centre for Policy Research in Tokyo. He fears the duo would have “little sensitivity for the value of the nonmilitary approaches that are front and center in the U.N. counterterrorism strategy.”

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.N. has built a sprawling network of some 38 agencies and programs that deal with counterterrorism, including a Security Council sanctions committee, a Saudi-funded counterterrorism center, and a special anti-terrorism branch based in Vienna.

In one of his first stabs at reform, Guterres wants to coordinate those myriad agencies under a single boss, several U.N. diplomats said. Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for Guterres, said no decision has been made on the appointment of an anti-terrorism czar, but the U.N. chief is “considering various proposals to strengthen the U.N.’s role in counterterrorism.”

Russia is emerging as an early favorite, according to several senior U.N. diplomats. For years, Moscow has protested that it has been unfairly denied a cabinet position in New York under previous U.N. 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 Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna.

In recent months, Russia has sought to consolidate its influence in the U.N. 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 U.N. 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 a few 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 10 years.

But there has also been unease within the U.N. itself at its growing role in fighting terrorism. U.N. development and humanitarian agencies fear that it will taint their reputation for neutrality, dissuade states from working with them, and put their staff at risk. U.N. relief workers from Afghanistan to Somalia to Mali have been increasingly targeted by extremists. And giving the U.N. terrorism office Russian leadership, some fear, would move the world body more toward suppressing terrorism than seeking to address its root causes.

The United States under former President Barack Obama’s administration and its European partners promoted the need for a top U.N. counterterrorism official, but they saw the role differently from Russia. They wanted the new czar to make the prevention of extremist ideology a key priority and to promote international rules and norms. Russia favors a harder approach, as displayed in Chechnya and Syria.

In June 2016, Russia, supported by Egypt, Pakistan, and other members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, repeatedly blocked a proposal backed by the United States and its European allies to endorse a plan of action by the U.N. 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 terrorist 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 Jan. 17 press conference in Moscow.

The Kremlin hopes that the new U.S. 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 the 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,” Lavrov said.

Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the world body has little choice but to deepen its role in counterterrorism, despite the risk 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 counterterrorism bureaus and agencies really mushroomed after the 9/11 attacks. The Security Council has focused on measures like sanctions on suspected terrorists, while the U.N. 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 U.N., 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 counterterrorism czar.

That’s why there is some skepticism that the new position, if handed to Moscow, would give Russia much influence. The U.N. Security Council, which has established numerous counterterrorism initiatives, is generally loath to yield authority over programs it establishes. And the U.N.’s many bureaucratic fiefdoms, which often control their own budgets, will jealously guard their turf from a new agency.

Gowan, for one, remains skeptical that the U.N. 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 Russia 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.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images