Analysis & Opinions - Center for Public Leadership News

Kofi Annan's Legacy on Counterterrorism

| December 13, 2006

Outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s recently concluded efforts to promote the deliberation among the UN’s 192 member states on a global counterterrorism strategy may well represent the most difficult challenge he has faced in what many see as the most difficult job in the world. After months of consultations starting from a debate on Kofi Annan’s recommendations, member states finally reached consensus this past September on such a strategy, the first of its kind in UN history.

This agreement is the culmination of often acrimonious efforts dating back to 2000 to develop a comprehensive convention about addressing international terrorism, which is also intended to establish a definition of terrorism. Early in this process, Annan’s report In Larger Freedom endorsed a definition proposed by the high-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which focused on the targeting and deliberate killing of civilians and noncombatants for political purposes. This definition did not gain consensus among member states, however, so in May 2006 Annan took a different tack.

It would have been easy to sidestep contentious issues, but Annan chose to wade in. His report, titled Uniting Against Terrorism-Recommendations for a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, sent out the moral message that terrorism is unacceptable and unjustifiable. It also identified conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism—conflicts, extremist ideologies, political exclusion and socioeconomic marginalization—and called for a concrete action plan to tackle on-the-ground terrorist threats through a multiple strategy of dissuasion, denial, deterrence, capacity development and defense of human rights. In effect, Annan’s report demonstrated that the elusiveness of a definition of terrorism need not preempt an operational strategy for combating it.

Not all the member states saw this report as providing a sound basis for moving forward, Indeed, for some, it rekindled the arguments about foreign occupation and state terrorism, as well as the difference between terrorism and the struggle for self-determination. For others, the problem wasn’t the definition of terrorism but the role of the Secretary-General. Viewing the position as little more than the UN’s chief administrative officer, they resented Annan’s proactive efforts to create substantive policies and strategies.

People are often upset by a leader’s agenda because they fear loss, explains Ronald Heifetz in Leadership on the Line. In general, states fear any encroachment on their sovereignty or diversion of resources that could be channeled to their own priorities. States also fear that a definition of terrorism that does not resolve all the points of contention would carry a high price in terms of loyalty to their own roots and constituencies. Take the Islamic Organization Conference countries, for example. Adopting a definition of terrorism that blurs terrorism and the legitimate struggle against foreign occupation would mean giving up their position adopted in 2002. What would the implications of that be?

Difficulties such as this led Annan to realize that the only way he could achieve a breakthrough on the issue of terrorism was to focus on the practicalities of a counterterrorism strategy. No matter how much member states differ on the definition of terrorism, he reasoned they share the common interest in stable development. This common interest ultimately proved decisive.

The adopted strategy contains many highly operational initiatives: the establishment of a comprehensive database on biological incidents, efforts to combat terrorism on the Internet, measures to improve security in the creation of identity and travel documents, and guidelines for cooperation in the event of a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. Although many of these initiatives were included in Annan’s original report, the final credit for the strategy’s conception must be shared by the President and the General Assembly and the cochairs who led the consultations, to whom Annan delegated the leadership on this issue once his report was released. Annan’s successor as Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, will also have to play a major role here—reassuring member states that are still skeptical and ensuring that the implementation plans stay on schedule. Ban’s familiarity with such efforts should prove helpful: South Korea already heads the Counterterrorism Task Force of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

Clearly, much work remains to be done over the years to come. Even so, the UN would never have progressed this far without Annan’s persistence. His willingness to put himself on the line for the sake of a global approach to counterterrorism will be one of the enduring elements of his legacy.

Anne Wu is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wu, Xiaohui (Anne).“Kofi Annan's Legacy on Counterterrorism.” Center for Public Leadership News, December 13, 2006.

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