UNSC Resolution 2178

Fighting Foreign Fighters: New Legislations

13 Nov, 2014    ·   4736

Tuva Julie Engebrethsen Smith argues that the latest UN Resolution to fight terror, while necessary, could also be damaging to democratic values

Over the course of this year, the threat of Islamist terror changed dramatically for the worse. 13,000 people who do not belong either to Syria, or Iraq, now fight for the terrorist group, the Islamic State (IS) in its battles in Syria and Iraq. A multilateral approach to tackle and eliminate security issues arising from terrorism is therefore pressing.

In September 2014, the UN Security Council and its member states agreed on Resolution 2178. The resolution condemns violent extremism and urges international cooperation to prevent foreign fighters from travelling to and from conflict areas. It aims at preventing the “recruiting, organizing, transporting or equipping of individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning of, or participation in terrorist acts”. It is a binding agreement that requires all member states to implement changes in their national laws. The changes are expected to make it possible for the said States to impose stricter border controls and restrain people – from travelling to or transit through their territories – if they have “credible information that provides reasonable grounds” to believe that the person is involved in terrorism activities. 

The Resolution was passed unanimously without any debate. However, what does the Resolution actually entail? Is it possible to implement laws on foreign nationals without compromising democratic values?

Considering the numbers of foreign fighters and the fear they generate is a reason in itself to agree to Resolution 2178 because it would be counter-productive to veto a move that intends to combat international threats? Furthermore, whether or not Resolution 2178 will have successful outcomes depends on how anti-terrorism laws are enforced by every individual country.

What stands out among anti-terrorism laws in several countries is the restriction on travel to conflict areas and the increase in surveillance. How countries choose to respond to the legally binding agreements, varies. In order to prevent foreign fighters from crossing borders, the Australian government has implemented strict travel laws. Suspected terrorists captured during their travel to what the Australian Bill refers to as `no-go-zones´, without a valid reason can result in imprisonment for 10 years.

The Bill also allows the police to detain suspects for 14 days with any specific charges as long as there is suspicion of criminal conduct. However, Resolution 2178 does not specifically outline the definition of criminal conduct or terrorism. Thus, there is scope for racial profiling to take place, given how member states can relate criminal conducts and define potential terrorists according to their own preferences and national laws. According to Marina Portnaya, Correspondent, Russia TV, this allows countries to monitor and use more targeted surveillance against people in the name of international security. 

The unclear wording of the Resolution leaves room for countries to be biased, and decide whom to target, based on their own preferences. This can result in excuses for countries to implement repressive measures. In addition to racial profiling, the Resolution can end up giving law enforcement officers new tools to deal with activists or separatist groups by labelling them as terrorists according to their thoughts and beliefs rather than their actions. Additionally, governments have the authority to block websites that defend or encourage terrorism, exclusive of court orders, with imprisonment as the consequence. Critics view this as an attack on democratic rights and that innocent people become stripped of their rights regarding freedom of expression.

Another critique of Resolution 2178 is about the freedom of movement. Increased surveillance allows the legalisation of the collection of photographs at airports, and airlines will be legally obliged to pass on information about passengers flying to/from conflict areas. One of the concerns expressed has been that the restrictions on travelling to `no-go-zones´ can lead to the criminalisation of innocent people who genuinely go to visit family or friends.

The French Senate and its anti-terrorism laws authorised in mid-October better prepare the authorities to impose restrictions on citizens when there is a reason to believe that people are partaking or planning acts of terror. Any suspicion results in the potential listing of names on the Schengen Information System, imprisonment up to three years, and a $58,000 fine. Immigrant support organisations and human rights groups are concerned that these laws will affect migration because the Bill allows the governments to deny foreign nationals viewed as “undesirable” access to the country. Human rights specialist Simon Slama argues that France´s fear of terrorism will be taken advantage of by the government as a means to strengthen border controls and decrease immigration into the EU, especially putting restrictions on people from eastern European countries.

Regardless of the critiques, countries have legal backing for their laws because Resolution 2178 is a binding agreement adopted by the UN Security Council, which means that violation of the Resolution would imply violation of international laws. Human rights organisations might find it frustrating, but the vaguely-worded language and flexible definitions allow countries to design anti-terrorism laws to their own advantage and implement laws that suit their national politics. What is surprising is the extent to which governments are willing to compromise democratic values for the sake of security, as long as they have an international law to fall back on.