Obama’s U.N. State of Mind
The ideology that is shaping U.S. national-security policy


Anne Bayefsky

The Obama administration and top White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan are casting around for scapegoats after botching the treatment of al-Qaeda bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. But their decision to treat him not as an enemy combatant but to accord him American constitutional rights, as well as their plan to entitle Osama bin Laden henchman Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to his day(s) in a New York City court, were well-scripted. American counterterrorism moves are in lockstep with proclivities at the United Nations and are being duly executed by handpicked officials who have long expressed the same ideology.

The idea of finding inspiration for U.S. national-security policy by looking to the U.N. is a troubling development. The world body still cannot even agree on a definition of terrorism. Islamic states continue to insist, in the words of the Islamic Terrorism Convention, that any “struggle” in the name of “liberation” is exempt. This means that at the U.N., identifying an enemy, let alone an enemy combatant, is virtually impossible.

On Dec. 17, 2009, just a week before the al-Qaeda Christmas bomber almost succeeded in killing 289 people, administration officials teamed up with U.N. operators to create the new U.N. post of “Delisting Ombudsperson.” This individual will be charged with helping suspected persons or groups remove themselves from a sanctions list, initiated in 1999, of Taliban and al-Qaeda members. Though there are undoubtedly thousands and thousands of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, the list currently contains a grand total of 501 names. The U.N.’s priority? Improving the process of getting off, or staying off, the list.

While Western democracies have been kept on the defensive, the states that sponsor, harbor, finance, and otherwise encourage terrorists have been on the offensive. Since 2003, the U.N. Human Rights Commission and its successor, the Human Rights Council, as well as the General Assembly, have adopted annual resolutions entitled “on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.” Countering terrorism, from the U.N.’s perspective, is set against protecting human rights.

In 2005, these annual resolutions spawned the appointment of a “special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights . . . while countering terrorism.” He has the job of writing reports about what’s wrong with efforts to counter terrorism. In 2007, for instance, Rapporteur Martin Scheinin reported to the U.N.: “[T]he international fight against terrorism is not a ‘war’ in the true sense of the word. . . . [T]he categorization of detainees as ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ is a term . . . without legal effect.” He also urged the closure of Guantanamo Bay and promoted the use of “ordinary courts to try . . . offences . . . such as conspiracy and terrorism.”

The chief U.N. body charged with addressing terrorism, created shortly after 9/11, is deceptively labeled the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC). It is composed of Security Council members donning a different hat. To this day, the CTC has never managed to name a single terrorist, terrorist organization, or state sponsor of terrorism.