Border security and arms trafficking

Border security and arms trafficking

Effective border security and timely information-sharing at the national, regional and international level are key in preventing the movement of terrorists and terrorist groups and to the effective implementation of counter-terrorism measures pursuant to Security Council resolution 1373 (2001) and other relevant Council resolutions. Border security is the first line of defence against the illegal cross-border movement of terrorists, including foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), goods and cargo.

Maintaining secure air, land and maritime borders is a challenge faced by all Member States. In their efforts to protect their air borders, many States struggle to ensure basic aviation-security measures, including the screening of goods and the cross-checking of travellers against national and international counter-terrorism watch lists and databases. This requires financial and human resources, equipment, specific regulations, and specialist skills, as well as intra-State and inter-State cooperation. Security Council resolution 2309 (2016) was the first resolution to focus specifically on terrorist threats to civil aviation. It highlights a number of steps which should be prioritized by Member States in order to strengthen their implementation of security-related International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs), including forging better coordination among their related domestic departments and agencies. In 2017, the Council adopted its resolution 2396, in which it welcomes ICAO’s approval of the Global Aviation Security Plan (GASeP).

Land borders can be very lengthy and porous and thus difficult to monitor. Border security includes controls on the movement of people and goods across borders, as well as the prevention of unlawful interference in maritime navigation and international cargo movement. Maintaining secure maritime borders and policing sea and coastal areas requires a high level of technical capacity and resources in order to effectively patrol vast marine spaces and maintain a presence at physical borders and checkpoints. Special measures to enhance maritime security are also set forth in the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, which is a mandatory instrument for the contracting parties to the 1974 Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention. The aim of the ISPS Code is to ensure that the applicable ocean-going vessels and port facilities of International Maritime Organization (IMO) member States are implementing the highest possible standards of security, according to a system of survey, verification, and control.

The threat posed by FTFs continues to require Member States and the international community to strengthen border security and prevent FTF travel. Following the Security Council’s adoption of resolutions 2178 (2014) and 2396 (2017), aimed at stemming the flow of FTFs, the Counter-Terrorism Committee and its Executive Directorate (CTED) further strengthened their engagement with, and analysis of, States’ counter-terrorism capacities, including in relation to border security. Analysis conducted by CTED has revealed major gaps in a number of States’ implementation of the border-security requirements set forth in resolutions 1373 (2001), 1624 (2005), 2178 (2014) and 2396 (2017), including the analysis of passenger data, the screening of individuals against watch lists and databases, and the use of biometrics in counter-terrorism.

A number of States have taken steps to strengthen border security and prevent the travel of FTFs. Those steps include passport confiscation, the introduction of a requirement for transit visas, and making more effective use of the databases of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) to conduct screening in order to detect and identify FTFs. Some States, for example, have integrated the INTERPOL I-24/7 police information network into their national systems and extended access to the network beyond the National Central Bureaus to other national law enforcement entities, including frontline officers. More States are populating the INTERPOL Counter-Terrorism Criminal Analysis File (CT CAF). Yet, many States continue to lack access to relevant databases, including INTERPOL databases, and the ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Lists.

In enhancing border security, the use of advance passenger information (API) is an important tool. The introduction of API is required by Council resolutions 2178 (2014), 2396 (2017) and 2482 (2019) and by ICAO’s standards. In its simplest form, API is an electronic communications system that collects biographical passenger data and basic flight details from airline carriers and transmits the data to border-security authorities in the destination country prior to the flight’s arrival. This gives border-security authorities additional time to perform sufficient checks of all in-bound passengers against relevant sanctions and watch lists while minimizing delays in the processing of inbound passengers. Furthermore, in its resolutions 2396 (2017) and 2482 (2019), the Security Council decides that Member States shall develop the capability to collect and process Passenger Name Records (PNR) data and ensure that such data is used by and shared with all competent national authorities. This data can be used to create a “link analysis” capability, which can illuminate hidden connections in order to identify previously unknown risks.

Even though many States have begun to develop API and PNR capabilities, many also continue to struggle with the coherent implementation of these highly complex and technical systems and frameworks. CTED is a partner of the UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme, which supports Member States in the holistic implementation of API and PNR.3. Through this programme, support is provided to Member States in the areas of legal and administrative assistance, development of operational capacity, transport industry engagement and technical capability through the delivery of the GoTravel software solution.

The ability to compare biometric data collected during the course of border and immigration vetting and investigations against data gathered through broader national and international databases, including biometrics, is critical to effectively detecting and identifying terrorists, including FTFs. The adoption of resolution 2322 (2016) marked the first time that the Council had called on Member States to share biometric data to detect and identify terrorists, including FTFs. Council resolution 2396 (2017) made that call a requirement under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. The UN Compendium of Recommended Practices for the Responsible Use and Sharing of Biometrics in Counter-Terrorism is the first of its kind and aims to assist States in their efforts, not only with the implementation of biometric systems, but also with the use and sharing of biometrics in a responsible and proper manner, including by adopting clear human rights-based frameworks for the use of biometric technology that include the use of procedural safeguards, data protection and respect for privacy, and in accordance with resolution 2396 (2017). Further ways to prevent the movement of terrorists or terrorist groups include strengthening control of the issuance of identity papers and travel documents and the introduction of measures to prevent counterfeiting, forgery, or fraudulent use of identity papers and travel documents. However, many States lack clear policies and measures to ensure the security and integrity of the identity and travel-document issuance process.

Security Council resolution 1373 (2001) requires States to refrain from providing any form of support to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts, including by eliminating the supply of weapons to terrorists.  In its resolution 2370 (2017), the Council urges States to act cooperatively to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons and calls upon them to counter threats posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and to become parties to related international and regional instruments. because of the constantly evolving nature of the operational terrorist environment, denying terrorists access to weapons is a complex and multifaceted challenge. Illicit trafficking in weapons is often associated with, and facilitated by, other forms of organized crime, including terrorism. Weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists because of poorly secured stockpiles and weak border controls. The activities of FTFs further increase the probability that weapons and ammunition will cross borders.

Coordinated and comprehensive border management (CBM) strategies, which require close coordination among the competent authorities, have proven to be a highly effective tool for efficiently and effectively managing national borders. CBM strategies provide for coordination of policies, programmes, and delivery among cross-border regulatory agencies with the aim of strengthening the management of trade and travel flows, while also addressing security concerns. The Security Council’s 2015 Madrid Guiding Principles (S/2015/939) call on States to consider incorporating CBM principles in order to enhance the effectiveness of border security aimed at stemming the flow of FTFs.

Ensuring effective border security is an integral part of any comprehensive and integrated national counter-terrorism strategy and requires collective action by States and relevant international and regional organizations. The Committee and CTED can assist States to identify gaps, needs and challenges, as well as to facilitate the sharing of good practices in this area and facilitate the delivery of technical assistance to ensure implementation of the relevant Council resolutions and the Committee’s related recommendations.

All measures to counter terrorism, including in the field of border management, must be taken in accordance with domestic law and international obligations and in full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. All efforts related to border-management should be comprehensive, human rights-compliant, non-discriminatory and include gender- and age-sensitive perspectives.

The Addendum to the guiding principles on foreign terrorist fighters (2018) (S/2018/1177provides further elements for States to strengthen their implementation of measures under border security and information-sharing, including ensuring effective use of API and PNR; developing watch lists and databases; and developing biometric systems and ensuring their responsible use. The Addendum also includes guiding principles on preventing and combating the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons.

Download the CTED factsheet about border management.


[1] Developed by CTED and the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT/UNCCT), in association with the Biometrics Institute, under the Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact Working Group on Border Management and Law Enforcement Relating to Counter-Terrorism, chaired by CTED.

Additional Resources

Technical guidelines to facilitate the implementation of Security Council resolution 2370 (2017) and related international standards and good practices on preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons

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Publication Date: 
Friday, 18 March 2022
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