How the United Nations Can Show Its Support for America's War Against Terrorism

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How the United Nations Can Show Its Support for America's War Against Terrorism

September 18, 2001 9 min read

Authors: Michael Scardaville and Brett Schaefer

President Bush has called the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "acts of war." In a show of support, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution the day after the attacks that "unequivocally condemns in the strongest terms the horrifying terrorist attacks."1 Calling them "threats to international peace and security," the resolution declares that "those responsible for aiding, supporting or harbouring the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these acts will be held accountable."2

This response is welcome, but it merely reaffirms what is already codified in customary international law and in the Charter of the United Nations. Reflecting customary international law, which recognizes that sovereign nations have the right to defend themselves from attack, Article 51 of the U.N. Charter states: "Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member."3

Terrorists like Osama bin Laden have publicly proclaimed that their organizations are at war with the United States, and the four terrorist actions on September 11 confirmed their intent to put their declaration into effect. America is legally entitled to respond by mounting a sustained counterattack against all forms and sources of international terrorism.


Regrettably, many left-leaning activists are trying to dispute this fact, claiming that the United States must either receive a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force or leave the matter up to international courts. For instance, Professor Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Law argues that the President must have the approval of the Security Council--as much as that of the U.S. Congress--to engage in military action. On September 13, Professor Boyle stated on the Fox News show, The O'Reilly Factor, that "if we go to war in a hasty manner here, we could see thousands of U.S. military personnel being killed without proper authorization by Congress or by the United Nations Security Council."

Similarly, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court meeting in Asia during the attack rejected "indiscriminate, unilateral military reaction" by the United States. It favored instead "massive cooperation throughout the international community in outlawing, investigating, prosecuting and bringing to justice those who commit these most serious crimes against humanity."4

Some former U.S. officials have also shown a willingness to subordinate U.S. action to an international body. For example, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke has called for the United States to brand the attackers as "international war criminals" and to "start an immediate effort in the U.N. today to make sure that these people can get the same kind of treatment that people like Milosevic and other murderers have received."5

In addition, some foreign leaders are making similar arguments. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has argued against U.S. action, stating that "It would be better to hold an international conference against terrorism under the auspices of the United Nations to adopt binding resolutions for all the countries of the world" than to undertake military action against terrorism.6

Such statements are misguided. Moreover, President Mubarak contradicts himself. In arguing against a small efficient coalition, he notes that coalitions tend not to "permit decisive and collective international action against terrorism."7 He is correct in pointing out the inefficiencies of coalition warfare but wrong in assuming that a broader U.N. coalition would solve them. In fact, conducting any operation through the U.N. would amplify these deficiencies.

America's experience in the Gulf War shows that international coalitions tend not to be decisive or lasting. Furthermore, the terrorists who crashed the passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not mere murderers; they were part of a network that seeks to cripple America as an economic and military power. Their horrible acts directed against the United States were no mere crimes to be debated at the U.N. or judged at an international court. They were acts of war against America, and the United States must respond in self-defense with strong and resolute measures that are not subject to the vagaries of international support.


After the attacks of September 11, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that "All nations of the world must work together to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice." He also said that "a terrorist attack on one country is an attack on humanity as a whole."8 While his statements are sincere, however, the U.N. is not a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism. The reasons:

  • The U.N. welcomes known terrorist states, and its members regularly side with them to discredit U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. For example, the General Assembly has repeatedly condemned America's bombing of Libya 15 years ago despite the downing of Pan Am flight 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. In March 1998, several nations called on the Security Council to "lift the sanctions regime against Libya until a final solution was reached in the dispute over the trial of two Libyan nationals suspected in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103."9 This would have rewarded Libya for refusing to turn over the terrorists for trial.

    In October 1998, the General Assembly "reiterated its call for the immediate repeal of unilateral extraterritorial laws that impose sanctions on corporations and nationals of other States."10 Clearly, this resolution targets U.S. sanctions against Iran, Cuba and other terrorist states. It was approved it by a vote of 80 to 2, with 67 abstentions. Only the United States and Israel voted against it.

  • U.N. tribunals are slow to act and offer little deterrence to terrorists. The threat of international justice dispensed by U.N. tribunals has not deterred terrorism. These courts are ineffective and slow. For example, it took 12 years to convict Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi for orchestrating the bombing of Pan Am flight 103. That verdict did not deter terrorists from killing thousands of Americans on September 11.

    Similarly, the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia took nine years to arrest Slobodan Milosevic, and though he is in custody, he has successfully demonstrated that the actions of the tribunal are politically motivated rather than judicially impartial. Americans cannot wait a decade to bring Osama bin Laden and officials of states that support his terrorist network to trial. Too many American lives will remain at risk in the interim.

The Security Council's support rings hollow when sponsors of terrorism remain members of the United Nations. All of the seven "state sponsors of terrorism" officially recognized by the United States--Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria--are members of the U.N., and they frequently push that body to condemn America's efforts to combat terrorism.

The United Nations can best demonstrate its support during this dark time by expelling nations that aid and abet terrorism from its ranks. The primary purpose of the United Nations, according to Article 1 of its Charter, is to maintain "international peace and security."11 According to Article 6, any member that "has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council."12

Security Council Resolution 1368, approved on September 12, specifically labels the terrorist attacks on America as "threats to international peace and security." On this basis, the Secretary General should initiate proceedings to eject those states that support terrorist groups, such as Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. The United States should also make clear that it will seek similar recourse against any state that is found to have supported the perpetrators of these attacks.


The United States is not legally bound to consult the U.N. before responding to these attacks. While it should thank the Secretary General and the Security Council for their condolences for the brutal attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States does not require moral, material, or legal permission to respond to an act of war and should not feel obligated to seek the U.N.'s approval before acting.

The best way for the U.N. and its member nations to demonstrate their support for the United States is to support America's war against terrorism and to keep its efforts unimpeded by U.N. resolutions that are designed to protect terrorist groups and their sponsors. Although the Security Council can discuss U.N. action in response to any threat to international peace and stability, as a permanent member of the Security Council with veto authority, the United States can and should block any Security Council resolutions designed to blunt its efforts to respond to these acts of war against the United States by terrorist groups.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics, and Michael Scardaville is a Policy Analyst in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The
Heritage Foundation.

1. United Nations Security Council, "Security Council Condemns `In Strongest Possible Terms' Terrorist Attacks on United States," Press Release No. SC/7143, September 12, 2001, at

2. Ibid.

3. United Nations Charter, at .

4. Marwaan Macan-Markar, "Regional Worries About U.S. Retaliation for Attacks," Inter Press Service, September 12, 2001.

5. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, televised interview, Today, NBC, September 12, 2001.

6. "Gulf Nations Balking at U.S. Campaign," Special to World, Middle East Newsline, September 17, 2001, at

7. Ibid.

8. United Nations Security Council, Secretary General Condemns Terrorist Attack on the United States in `Strongest Possible Terms , SG/SM/7949 SC 7142, September 12, 2001.

9. United Nations, "Speakers Urge Security Council to Lift Its Sanctions Against Libya Stemming from 1988 Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103," Press Release No. SC/6491, March 20, 1998, at

10. United Nations, "Assembly Urges Repeal of Unilateral Extraterritorial Laws Imposing Sanctions, Voting 80 in Favor, 2 Against, 67 Abstentions on Text Introduced by Libya," Press Release No. GA/9486, October 26, 1998, at

11. United Nations Charter, at

12. Ibid.


Michael Scardaville

Former Policy Analyst

Brett Schaefer

Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center