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UN: Security Council Begins To Assess Country Actions On Terrorism

  • Robert McMahon

A group of independent experts has begun to review reports from UN member states to see if they are in compliance with counter-terrorism measures mandated by the Security Council. A Security Council diplomat overseeing the effort says about one-third of the UN membership failed to turn in their reports as required last month. And many of the states that have responded, he said, will be in need of international assistance in improving antiterror legislation. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports on this separate front of the war on terrorism.

United Nations, 14 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As military efforts continue in the former base country of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, the UN Security Council is moving forward with its long-term campaign requiring UN members to establish effective antiterror measures.

A group of experts chosen by the council's counter-terrorism committee last week began reviewing reports from member states to determine their level of compliance. A council resolution passed shortly after the 11 September attacks requires members to demonstrate action against financing or harboring terrorists.

The chairman of the council committee overseeing the experts' efforts, British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, said last week he was encouraged by the response so far. To date, 117 of the 189 UN members met last month's deadline in reporting on their counter-terror efforts. Many of the remainder are still formulating their responses. Those countries that have not yet responded to the council include Iran and Sudan, which have been listed by the United States as state sponsors of terrorism.

Greenstock stressed that so far, the council is promoting a collaborative process aimed at helping states become more capable of suppressing and preventing terrorist acts. But he said UN members need to respond with more urgency: "It is the obligation of member states to deal with it on their territory and that obligation has got to be catalyzed and realized and made effective everywhere and there's no time to be lost."

Greenstock told reporters a large number of states will require help in drawing up legislation to comply with the counter-terrorism measures mandated by the council, especially in the area of financial controls. Terrorism experts say it is crucial that no state be overlooked in the effort to track down terrorist funding and clamp down on money laundering and illicit money transfers.

Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network is estimated to operate in about 60 countries, including the United States and Western Europe. Elements of Al-Qaeda's financial network are believed to be in most of these countries. The primary sources of money for Al-Qaeda, investigators say, are located in the world's predominantly Muslim states.

Compliance with the Security Council mandate will require some sweeping institutional changes, says Rachel Bronson, an expert on Middle East affairs and terrorist issues at the Council on Foreign Relations. She told RFE/RL: "These are very difficult things that we're asking states to do and there's no doubt that most of them will need significant help. Very few have good institutions for tracking money even when they're well-established banks and you just have to look at the United Arab Emirates. You know, [it has] very well-established banks, lots of money coming in and out, [but] terrible tracking in terms of where the money's going."

Terrorist experts believe Al-Qaeda moves its money through cash smuggling, regular banking systems, money-laundering havens, and the Islamic banking system. They also make use of the hawala underground banking system.

In the hawala system, there are no contracts or transaction records, but those who use the networks can move large sums of money around the world in a brief amount of time.

The hawala system is well-known in Muslim countries but functions throughout the world, including in the United States. William Wechsler, a former special adviser to the U.S. treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001, told RFE/RL that reform of such systems is essential to the tracking of terrorist funding, "These underground systems have to be brought above ground, because there's nothing inherently illegitimate about them but because of their underground nature, because of the secrecy involved in them, because of the lack of record keeping, it makes them particularly attractive to terrorists and criminals."

The United Nations and United States are expected to provide the main assistance to countries writing up new laws aimed at suppressing the financing of terrorism. Once the laws have been passed, institutions will need to be set up, which will require technical and financial assistance.

Wechsler said the incentive for many countries, in addition to serving in the coalition against terrorism, is that the new regulations are likely to lead to more profitable banking sectors.

"Banking is a profitable business and if your banking isn't profitable enough for you to underwrite the necessary regulatory activities then you don't have a good banking system and you probably shouldn't be in the business of international banking. But if you do have a good banking system, which many countries do, then you have enough money to do this. It's simply a requirement of doing business."

But in trying to raise the overall global standard of government action against terrorism, the UN Security Council at some point is going to be confronted with differences over what constitutes a terrorist act.

Syria and Lebanon, for example, in their reports to the council last month said they did not interpret the council's resolution as disallowing support for Palestinian groups fighting Israel. They said in the absence of a universally accepted definition of terrorism, they were basing their commitments on their signing of the 1998 Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism. That convention distinguishes between terrorism and "legitimate struggle against foreign occupation."

Greenstock, the chairman of the council's counter-terrorism committee, told reporters last week there will eventually need to be a clear signal from the United Nations about what constitutes a terrorist act: "There is a line that has to be drawn and if any group is allowed to believe that any action is excusable if you are taking action against an occupied power -- even the indiscriminate killing of civilians through some bomb attack -- then the world should not tolerate that."

The UN General Assembly next month is due to resume discussion on a comprehensive resolution on terrorism that seeks to define it.

Greenstock said another worry as the council's counter-terrorism efforts gain momentum is that some states will use the campaign to crack down on domestic opposition. Greenstock said his committee will not get involved in such cases but he expressed confidence that other international organizations would be prepared to deal with states that exceed their authority.

(For a sampling of country responses so far to the council's request for reports on counter-terror efforts, see the following website: