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9-11 Attacks Prompted Swift UN Action on Global Terrorism - 2002-09-06

The United Nations responded swiftly and forcefully in condemning last year's terror attacks on the United States.

When terrorists struck targets in the United States last September, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan quickly condemned the attacks as acts of "terrible evil." The Security Council and the General Assembly adopted resolutions denouncing the attacks, and members of the council expressed their readiness to combat all forms of terrorism.

The response is considered unprecedented from an institution that normally weighs its reactions carefully. However, the United Nations also moved on to try to demonstrate that it is more than a "house of words," as its critics have long described it. The Security Council set up a counter-terrorism committee, requiring all governments to submit detailed reports on what they are doing to prevent terrorism.

Further, in January, the Council unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that all nations freeze the finances of individuals and groups associated with Osama bin Laden and impose arms embargoes and travel bans on them.

Edward Mortimer, a special advisor to secretary-general Annan, says this is the kind of activity that only the United Nations can do.

"Going after al-Qaida may be something that is more easily done by one state, with very effective armed forces," he noted. "But that is sort of after the event. If you want to prevent further acts of terrorism, you really need to operate from the maximum number of states. And that is really what the United Nations is for."

However, one year after the attacks, a panel reviewing progress on the counter-terrorism sanctions concluded that al-Qaida may have moved underground, but its financial resources have not been crippled.

Michael Chandler, the chairman of the monitoring group, says there is a lot of information around to cause concern. He believes al-Qaida remains a viable threat.

"When you analyze it, put it all together, and you look at what has happened historically, how they have operated, you dare not not assume, because of their attitude and their intentions, that they are not planning another strike," he said.

The anti-terrorism landscape is pitted with legal and bureaucratic constraints. Compiling a formal list of possible bin Laden associates, for example, is one area where U.N. diplomats are forced to cede ground. Some governments, including a few in Europe, report being constrained by their own legal systems in submitting names to the U.N. committee.

Still, Washington's U.N ambassador, John Negroponte, believes the U.N.'s global reach is having an impact; although tracking al-Qaida, he says, requires a continuing commitment.

"Certainly, the United States and the international community as a whole, has mobilized substantial efforts on various fronts to try and cripple their effectiveness," the ambassador said. "I think, no one has claimed that the work is yet complete. We've always said this would be a longer-term effort."

Meanwhile, U.N. officials are pressing for progress on a broader front, believing that issues such as poverty, lack of human rights, or long-standing political disputes, can breed terrorism. The secretary-general's special advisor, Edward Mortimer.

"I think the other thing one has to remember is that terrorism does not grow in a political vacuum, that it grows out of political grievances, which is not to say that it is justified," he said. "It absolutely, clearly, is never justified. But if, realistically, we want to prevent it, we have to kind of drain the water in which the fish swim. So, I think, it is very important the U.N. continue its broader agenda."

Whatever it is that professionals debate, from the root causes of terrorism to concrete measures to eradicate it, one aspect, for sure, is not moot. It is that combating terrorism is now firmly planted in the U.N. agenda. The images of last September remain vivid for U.N. diplomats even today, a reminder to many that the world needs fixing, without further delay or excuses.