Politics & Policy

Obama’s U.N. State of Mind

The ideology that is shaping U.S. national-security policy

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.

#ad#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.


In September 2006, the General Assembly adopted its anti-terrorism roadmap — the “global counter-terrorism strategy.” The very first part of the report worries about the poor terrorist. It is called “Measures to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism,” and it lists items such as “poverty, and socio-economic marginalization” as well as “youth unemployment.” U.N. members promise to “reduce marginalization and the subsequent sense of victimization that propels extremism and the recruitment of terrorists.” U.N. members could not agree on who was a victim of terrorism, but they could agree that alleged terrorists are victims.

The U.S.-U.N. two-step began on day three of the Obama administration. On Jan. 22, 2009, as a U.N. press release announced, “U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay welcomed Thursday’s decision by the new U.S. administration to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.” Pillay declared that “those suspected of crimes are entitled to an expeditious and fair trial before the regular courts.” On June 24, 2009, she continued: “There is still much to do before the Guantanamo chapter is truly brought to a close. Its remaining inmates must either be tried before a court of law like any other suspected criminal or set free.” On Aug. 25, 2009, after Attorney General Eric Holder tapped a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogation practices at Guantanamo and elsewhere, Pillay said, “I warmly welcome this responsible decision by the U.S. government to open a preliminary investigation.”

#ad#With Obama in the White House, U.N. agents are doing more than directing traffic from the diplomatic lounge at Turtle Bay. On Feb. 24, 2009, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, had “several meetings” with State Department officials and some members of Congress “to discuss the latest developments relating to the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention facilities.” Nowak told the U.N. Human Rights Council on March 10, 2009: “I am happy to say that, whereas the previous United States administration . . . made only half-hearted efforts to follow our recommendations . . . the new administration has markedly changed the policy. . . . When I recently informally met with representatives of the administration in Washington, they reassured me that all the 241 detainees remaining in the Guantanamo facilities would be subjected to a review aimed at either bringing them to justice before criminal courts in the United States, voluntarily repatriating them to their countries of origin, or resettling them in third countries.”

Lo and behold, on March 13, 2009, the Justice Department announced a new policy on dealing with terrorists that would “not employ the phrase ‘enemy combatant.’”

At the same time, Obama policymakers have been selected for their positions precisely because of a shared credo with U.N. officials. State Department legal adviser Harold Koh testified against confirming Alberto Gonzales as attorney general back in 2005. During his testimony, Koh spoke disparagingly about “so-called ‘enemy combatants’” and told the senators that al-Qaeda members “are not POWs, and they should then be treated as common criminals and prosecuted.”

The Obama administration’s hand-in-glove approach with the U.N. on handling terrorism did not materialize 50 minutes after Abdulmutallab started talking. It runs deep.

– Anne Bayefsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and executive director of Human Rights Voices.

Anne Bayefsky — Professor A.F. Bayefsky, B.A., M.A., LL.B., M.Litt. (Oxon.), is a Professor at York University, Toronto, Canada, and a Barrister and Solicitor, Ontario Bar. She is also an Adjunct Professor at ...

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