Australia and UNSC sanctions: another tool to disrupt foreign terrorist fighters
29 Oct 2014|

At a summit held at the level of Heads of Government, the Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2178 (2014), calling on all Member States to cooperate in efforts to address the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters.Australia will rotate off the UN Security Council on 31 December 2014. As previously outlined here, there have been several high-profile political successes during our term, including leading the adoption of resolutions tackling illicit small arms and light weapons, authorising the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Syria, and calling for a full investigation into the downing of flight MH17. Australia has also been engaged in efforts to improve UN sanctions. But sanctions are not the type of high-profile work that garners much attention. That might explain why Prime Minister Abbott’s inaugural remarks to the UN Security Council and General Assembly last month made no reference to Australia’s work on sanctions. Still, it was a missed opportunity, particularly when sanctions will form part of international efforts to disrupt foreign terrorist fighters and could be an enduring legacy of Australia’s Security Council term.

Resolution 2178 (PDF) on foreign terrorist fighters identified a series of measures to be undertaken by member states and the UN system to strengthen counter-terrorism efforts, many of which Australia’s already in the process of implementing. Those include the establishment of domestic laws to prosecute nationals travelling (or attempting to travel) to perpetrate, plan or participate in terrorist acts, or nationals who may be providing funding for such purposes. The resolution also calls on countries to engage in efforts to counter violent extremism (further analysis here).

Domestic reforms by member states will be of limited impact without a uniform set of economic measures or embargoes targeted at foreign terrorist fighters. Indeed, any immediate gains achieved by Coalition military action against ISIL in Iraq and Syria will be short-lived without concerted international efforts to restrict the flow and financing of foreign terrorist fighters. That’s why resolution 2178 also directed the UN Security Council’s Al-Qaida sanctions committee to ‘devote special focus to the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters’. And since Australia’s Ambassador to the UN will continue to chair that committee until the end of 2014, it presents a window of opportunity for Australia to strengthen its effectiveness in response.

The Al-Qaida sanctions committee was concerned about foreign terrorist fighters well before last month’s Security Council meeting. In January, the Al-Qaida Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (which supports the committee’s work) reported (PDF) that emerging ties among al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra could result in ‘new pan-Arab and pan-European networks of extremists’.

The last few months have witnessed considerable activity in the committee. Just days before the adoption of resolution 2178, the Al-Qaida sanctions committee listed 16 individuals and entities known to be associated with ISIL, al-Nusra Front and other al-Qaeda linked terrorist organisations. According to Australia’s Ambassador to the UN, it was the biggest action taken by the committee in over 10 years. It followed Boko Haram’s designation as a terrorist organisation under the regime in May.

Those are welcome developments. But if the al-Qaeda sanctions regime is to have any effect in disrupting the networks of foreign terrorist fighters, member states need to identify individuals and entities for listing (and de-listing). They also need to implement effective national compliance frameworks to apply the sanctions (asset freezes, travel bans and arms embargoes) to the individuals and entities listed. That presents a particular challenge for the countries and regions most directly affected by the operations of al-Qaeda affiliates, as often they lack the capacity effectively to use and implement sanctions for their benefit.

Australia has used its position as chair of the Al-Qaida sanctions committee, to introduce some innovative approaches to try and address some of these concerns. It has invited representatives from countries in the Sahel, the Maghreb and adjoining regions to discuss the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the region. Such endeavours can improve information sharing and the transparency of the sanctions regime, thereby making them more effective.

Efforts underway to share those practices across the 14 other UN sanctions committees have been hampered by the lack of a formal mechanism for exchanging lessons on sanctions. The High Level Review—which Australia is co-sponsoring—could provide an opportunity to address that gap.

While Australia has just two months remaining on the Council, the presidency in November provides some scope to shape the agenda. The monitoring team is expected to present its preliminary findings on the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters next month, although it’s not clear at this stage whether those findings will be publicly available. Counter terrorism and sanctions have been identified as priorities during Australia’s upcoming presidency. Further Council engagement on those issues will provide useful occasions to highlight the crucial role of sanctions in targeting foreign terrorist fighters. They’re opportunities that shouldn’t be missed.

Lisa Sharland is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the United Nations.