During the 1990s, the end of the cold war led to an entirely new global security environment, marked by a focus on internal rather than inter-state wars. In the early 21st century, new global threats emerged. The attacks of 11 September 2001 on the United States clearly demonstrated the challenge of international terrorism, while subsequent events heightened concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the dangers from other non-conventional weapons.
The organizations of the UN system mobilized immediately in their respective spheres to step up action against terrorism. On 28 September, the Security Council adopted resolution 1373, under the enforcement provisions of the UN Charter, to prevent the financing of terrorism, criminalize the collection of funds for such purposes, and immediately freeze terrorist financial assets. It also established a Counter-Terrorism Committee to oversee the resolution’s implementation.
The tragic events of 11 September also underlined the potential danger of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of non-state actors. That attack could have been even more devastating had the terrorists had access to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Reflecting these concerns, the General Assembly, in 2002, adopted resolution 57/83, a first-time-ever text on measures to prevent terrorists from acquiring such weapons and their means of delivery.
In 2004, the Security Council took its first formal decision on the danger of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly to non-state actors. Acting under the enforcement provisions of the Charter, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 1540, obliging states to refrain from any support for non-state actors in the development, acquisition, manufacture, possession, transport, transfer or use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery. Subsequently, the Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which was opened for signature in September 2005.
The Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) leads the international effort to combat drug trafficking and abuse, organized crime and international terrorism. It analyses emerging trends in crime and justice, develops databases, issues global surveys issued, gathers and disseminates information, and undertakes country-specific needs assessments and early warning measures — for example, on the escalation of terrorism.
In 2002, UNODC launched its Global Project against Terrorism with the provision of legal technical assistance to countries on becoming party to and implementing the 12 universal anti-terrorism instruments. In January 2003, UNODC expanded its technical cooperation activities to strengthen the legal regime against terrorism, providing legal technical assistance to countries on becoming party to and implementing the universal anti-terrorism instruments.
In the legal sphere, the UN and its related bodies — such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — have developed a network of international agreements that constitute the basic legal instruments against terrorism.
These include conventions on offences committed on board aircraft; unlawful seizure of aircraft; acts against the safety of civil aviation; crimes against internationally protected persons, including diplomatic agents; the physical protection of nuclear material; acts against the safety of maritime navigation; and the marking of plastic explosives for the purpose of detection. In addition, they include protocols on acts of violence at airports serving international civil aviation; and on acts against the safety of fixed platforms located on the continental shelf.
The General Assembly has also concluded the following five conventions: the International Convention against the Taking of Hostages; the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel; the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings; the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism; and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.
Sadly, major terrorist assaults have continued over the years since 9-11 — including attacks on UN headquarters in Baghdad (August 2003), on four commuter trains in Madrid (March 2004), on an office and an apartment block used by Westerners in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia (May 2004), the London Underground (July 2005), a seaside area and shopping hub in Bali (October 2005), multiple sites in Mumbai (November 2008), the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta (July 2009), and the Moscow Metro (March 2010), to name only a few.
As part of the international effort to stem this deadly tide, the General Assembly, in September 2006, unanimously adopted and launched the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. Based on the fundamental conviction that terrorism in all its forms is unacceptable and can never be justified, the Strategy outlines a range of specific measures to address terrorism in all its aspects, at the national, regional and international levels.
Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.
— Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism
(General Assembly resolution 49/60, para. 3)