Frustrations brew at un representative’s speech _ the muhlenberg weekly

On Friday, April 1, Muhlenberg hosted another speaker in the Global Health UN Lecture Series. Mattias Sundholm, the communications advisor to the United Nation Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate spoke to the College community in Seegers Union on a variety of terror-related topics.

“What is terrorism?” began Sundholm, which was followed by a long silence. Although terrorism is something we unfortunately hear about everyday, it’s not necessarily the easiest concept to define. Sundholm agreed, reminding the audience that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” and that there is still no internationally agreed upon definition.

“I cannot define [terrorism], but I know it when I see it,” said Sundholm, channeling Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s now infamous line about obscenity. But Sundholm was careful to express that while we may not have a working definition right now, the international community can define acts of terrorism and their root causes. Asked to provide root causes, students came up with “lack of economic opportunity,” “variation in culture,” “motive of revenge,” and “colonial legacy.” Sundholm, in response, added that “it’s pretty clear that there are many causes.”

The UN changed the structure of its counterterrorism committees after the attacks on September 11th. According to Sundholm, Resolution 1373 created his counterterrorism committee, which develops new resolutions to enact change. These resolutions, which are passed by the Security Council, are not technically legally binding. Although UN member states are expected to follow the provisions in the resolutions, they are essentially glorified recommendations, as Sundholm noted. “It’s in the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that member states need to follow,” said Sundholm.

From there, Sundholm described some of the specifics of his job. Although half of his co-workers have backgrounds in law, Sundholm does not; he has worked in various communications positions with the European Union and embassies of different countries. At the UN, Sundholm’s committee meets with local officials, journalists, and security border guards to draft legislation to prevent terrorism. “It’s not sexy by any means,” joked Sundholm, “but it’s very much practical and useful for our member states.”

Another significant change occurred in 2006 with the creation of the Global UN Counterterrorism Strategy, which developed 4 pillars for action and now includes the General Assembly of the UN in decision making. The pillars seek to (1) measure roots of terrorism; (2) identify shortcomings in terrorism response plans for member states; (3) address those shortcomings; and (4) respect fundamental human rights as outlined by the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights.

Sundholm also spoke about the impact of the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS, on his committee’s work. ISIS does not operate like other terrorist organizations, in that instead of attacking and leaving (like Al Qaeda and 9/11), they seize territory and proudly proclaim it as their own. ISIS also has been incredibly successful in raising revenue from a variety of sources – gas and oil, kidnapping for ransom, and human trafficking – to the tune of $2.98B U. S. dollars. “To say the least, they’re not very nice people,” said Sundholm. In terms of the functioning of both his committee and the UN, ISIS has forced a more widespread approach; since the organization has such a large geographical reach, and intelligence regarding their specific operations is typically incomplete, the UN cannot focus on any one area of ISIS’ territory.

In a style that differed from the typical guest speaker event, Sundholm only lectured for approximately twenty minutes; after that, he opened the floor up to a question and answer session. This proved interesting because students opted to ask Sundholm a variety of questions about very specific, complicated situations that the UN had either addressed poorly (in the opinion of the interlocutor) or had yet to address. Perhaps it was due to the extended time, or maybe because Sundholm was viewed as an extension of the decision-making branch of the UN, but many of the questions were far beyond the scope of Sundholm’s department. To his credit, however, Sundholm addressed those comments with “I don’t want to give you a UN bureaucrat answer, but…” before providing some communications perspective from his committee.

Sundholm’s talk proved to be rewarding for those who truly comprehended his role at the UN. He addressed an incredibly pertinent issue and how the world’s preeminent organization for international cooperation has adjusted to the ever-changing threat of terrorism. The next talk in the Global Health UN Lecture Series will occur during Common Hour on Friday, April 15.