The 1999 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism – better known as the Terrorist Financing Convention – is one of the most widely-adopted treaties in the world, with 187 states having signed and ratified it.
It may be about to move up in the rankings as one of its longest-standing recusants, Iran, moved to join the Convention in November 2017. If this sounds odd, it is probably because it has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the US since 1984, and shows no sign of moving off that list any time soon.
Although the government claims Iran has suffered greatly from terrorism – most recently in the June attacks in Tehran, which killed 17 civilians – Iran’s notorious support for Shia militias such as Hezbollah and some Sunni groups like Hamas might make one sceptical of such a statement. Is this likely to make any difference at all?
It is important to bear in mind that terrorist funding is a very tense issue in the Middle East.
The June attack in Tehran triggered a severe diplomatic incident between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who the former accused of funding and directing the Islamic State organisation which claimed responsibility for the attack.
Meanwhile, in the very same month, many Middle East states promptly cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar over its alleged funding of terrorism. No country, least of all its chief opponent Saudi Arabia, has clean hands in the Yemeni and Syrian civil wars from which much of the recent diplomatic argument stems.
With this dense web of funding carrying on quite unabated despite every country involved – except Iran – being party to the Terrorism Financing Convention, it makes superficial sense to assume that the treaty is not worth the paper it is written on.
Equally, Iran’s close relationship to some terrorist groups is a particular concern of the US Congress as it enters a difficult period in its internal politics over the Iranian nuclear deal; it’s quite possible that its accession to the Terrorism Financing Convention is more about the politics of the deal than about any real commitment to cutting off terrorist financing tout court.
To add to this, Ukraine’s attempt to take legal action in the International Court of Justice against Russia for its alleged ongoing funding of militant groups in the Donbass has foundered early on, with the ICJ refusing a provisional order against Russia for lack of evidence.
Yet these apparent legal weaknesses or ulterior motives in international instruments did not stop the US and Qatar signing a memorandum of understanding aimed at counter-terrorist financing in October.
Such issues raise the question of what is the real value of these international agreements?
However, even if the real picture is rather more complicated than it first seems, it is hard to deny that CTF has a stronger international legal framework than ever, and in part it is thanks to such treaties.
Despite motives that appear more concerned with international politics than counter-terrorism per se, these agreements do appear to enhance the political accountability of their signatories – even if they aren’t necessarily strictly enforced.
It is hard to imagine any alternative at present, but for now it is incumbent on states to hold each other to their promises in a world as dangerous as it is fluid and unpredictable.
The UN was contacted with questions about its Terrorist Financing Convention, but it did not respond.
Richard Nicholl (@rtrnicholl) is a Master’s student at the University of St Andrews, specialising in legal history. He also works as a freelance journalist and legal researcher.