The United Nations is likely to reappoint the head of its Office of Counterterrorism, who has been leading the entity since its inception in 2017. In one of his first actions as the new secretary-general, António Guterres named Vladimir Voronkov to the post. The department was created to streamline a then-chaotic counterterrorism bureaucracy lost within what was called the Department of Political Affairs.
As the head of the counterterrorism office, Voronkov, a 69-year-old Russian, has the designation of undersecretary-general. Russia openly and heavily lobbied for Voronkov to lead the UNOCT, as it’s known, and many people in the UN and greater counterterrorism world viewed his appointment as a way to placate Russia, the only permanent Security Council member without a national holding a top UN position.
It is difficult to say how well Voronkov has carried out his work since 2017. He is viewed as an intelligent, open-minded diplomat who can please any audience, one expert says. Yet he has given few interviews and media briefings at the UN. (It appears that the last time he met with reporters at the UN was in June 2021.) Moreover, a current sentiment among some people in the UN diplomatic community question why a Russian, whose country is breaching the UN Charter through its illegal invasion of Ukraine, could still be rewarded a top post. Russia’s war has crushed wide swathes of Ukraine, led to eight million refugees and millions of others displaced in the country and killed nearly 9,000 civilians since the full invasion began in February 2022.
Russia is regularly accused of committing war crimes, including bombing civilian infrastructure, such as apartment complexes, schools and hospitals. In November 2022, the European Union recognized Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and a country that “uses means of terrorism.”
PassBlue spoke to four experts in the industry about Voronkov, all of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of publicly commenting on him since their work can overlap.
Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, said to reporters on April 12, 2023, when asked about Voronkov possibly being reappointed: “Mr. Voronkov is serving as an international civil servant, fully implementing his mandate as an international civil servant. The Secretary-General values, personally, Mr. Voronkov very much and has full, full confidence in him and his ability to do his job as an international civil servant.”
The UN Charter explicitly states that the “staff” of the secretary-general “shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization.” Yet it is no secret that the wall between top UN officials and their home countries can be thin.
When Dujarric was asked by PassBlue in an email about Voronkov’s possible next term, he didn’t respond. Voronkov, though not in the public eye too much, is seen often in the UN meeting for coffee with another Russian, Alexander Zouev, who also attended Moscow State and runs the rule of law and security institutions sector in the UN Department of Peace Operations.
Voronkov’s term ending in late June was first reported by Blue Smoke, a new project produced by UNA-UK with PassBlue about senior UN appointments. He did not answer an email from PassBlue seeking comment about his role in counterterrorism in the last six years. His spokesperson, Laurence Gerard, wrote to PassBlue: “I regret to inform you that Mr. Voronkov is currently not available for an interview due to prior engagements. To learn more about the Office, I invite you to visit our website, where you can find comprehensive information about our activities including official statements.”
Voronkov’s deputy is an American, Raffi Gregorian, who formerly worked for the United States State Department on counterterrorism and other areas.
The UN office provides a range of technical support to countries on counterterrorism measures, such as training to track foreign-terrorist fighters’ travels. The UNOCT’s strategy, as mandated by the UN General Assembly in 2006, is broad: to “enhance national, regional and international efforts to counter terrorism.” The eighth biennial review of the strategy by the Assembly occurs in late June, when the quality of the office’s work under Voronkov could become clear.
Voronkov had little counterterrorism experience when he was named to the UN position. Before this job, he was a career diplomat with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is the son of professors who taught at Moscow State University, a feeder institution for the ministry, and received his doctorate there. He was then recruited by the Russian Communist Party Central Committee and became the party’s official interpreter, working for the party chairmen Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko. From 1974-75 and 1977-78, he lived in Poland and continued his studies at the University of Warsaw, growing fluent in Polish. In 1989, he joined his country’s foreign affairs ministry and rose through the ranks to become director of the Department of European Cooperation in 2008. He eventually was named the permanent representative of Russia at the UN and other International Organizations, in Vienna.
The UN biography of him said that Russia’s permanent mission in Vienna at the time started several “flagship projects” with the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes and “developed successful collaborations with the office’s antiterrorist branch.” Voronkov also served on the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.
He emerged as the only candidate to head the UN Office of Counterterrorism, accepting Guterres’s mission to “improve visibility, advocacy and resource mobilization for United Nations counter-terrorism efforts.” At the time, rumors abounded that another Russian diplomat, Vitaly Churkin, who represented his country at the UN in New York City, was supposed to get the job, but he died suddenly on Feb. 20, 2017, at age 64.
In his counterterrorism role, Voronkov leads the office’s decision-making processes and carries out its plans to address all aspects of terrorism’s vast international reach and dizzying complexity. With the help of unprecedented extrabudgetary funding from the UN, now totaling about $347 million since the Trust Fund for Counterterrorism’s creation, Voronkov set up four divisions to focus on facets of a counterterrorism approach. In addition, he started the UN Global Counterterrorism Coordination Compact, a coalition that follows three tenets — peace and security, sustainable development and human rights and humanitarian affairs — and brings together 41 UN entities, as well as Interpol, the World Customs Organization, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Financial Action Task Force.
Under his leadership, the office has established 15 programs and opened eight offices worldwide. He has also aimed to improve transparency of the organization by publishing a newsletter and holding quarterly briefings to member states, according to a statement made by Voronkov.
The office’s biannual conferences on counterterrorism bring together member states to explore “cooperation on key counter-terrorism priorities under the four pillars of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” according to the website. In June 2021, the last time Voronkov briefed reporters at the UN, he focused heavily on how many attendees took part in the conference that year — 5,000, he said — noting that he was “really impressed” by the numbers. (The last time he spoke to the Security Council, on Daesh/ISIL terrorists, was in February 2023.)
Despite the attempts to be transparent, experts contacted by PassBlue noted Voronkov’s efforts to keep the counterterrorism work under the public radar. After six years under Voronkov, the UNOCT suffers apparently from critical structural flaws, many of which are due to its reliance on voluntary donations. As of today, it says that 91 percent of the budget comes from voluntary donors, who have pressured the office to spend so aggressively that the office is predicted to have spent around $238 million in cash pledges to the trust fund, which, according to an independent report by the Global Center on Cooperative Security, a nongovernmental organization, has prompted ” serious questions . . . regarding the long-term strategy of the UNOCT and the sustainability of its operations.”
The report also found that without a clear plan for allocating funds, the office has created a complicated web of units and hierarchy, not atypical for a large UN operation. Outside experts also worry, as reflected in the report, that the office is spending too much money to increase the number of staff instead of developing programs, and that there are no proper procedures to monitor or assess the effects of the programs.
Voronkov’s first term has also been marked significantly by no progress in achieving a universally accepted, legally bound definition of terrorism. The problem predates Voronkov, but the UN’s power to set norms and formulate policy makes the task essential to any counterterrorism strategy, experts say, and without much experience in the field, Voronkov has brought no new approach to the issue. He told reporters in 2021 that discussions on defining terrorism remain a “fact of life,” adding that member states are not ready to resolve the problem.
As long as the definition remains malleable, however, countries can “instrumentalize the UN CT framework to crack down on dissent domestically and violate human rights under the disguise of UN CT provisions,” according to an April 2023 publication by the Center for Security Studies, a nongovernmental organization in Zurich.
For example, in June 2019, after he visited detention centers in China’s Xinjiang Province, where the government contends that it built them to stamp out “extremism,” Voronkov and the UN received heavy criticism from human-rights groups for appearing to confirm China’s narrative that the estimated one million imprisoned ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims there represent a “terrorist threat.”
Additionally, in March 2020, Voronkov traveled to the Philippines to recognize the country’s participation in the UN’s Countering Terrorist Travel Program and the Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism in Asia project. There, he portrayed the Filipino leadership as an ally in the fight against terrorism, ignoring then-President Rodrigo Duterte’s flagrant violations of human rights and further legitimizing the disconnect between counterterrorism work and upholding human rights.
In 2021, Voronkov told reporters that his office emphasized “respect for rule of law and human rights elements” in all its activities, and that it has a dedicated person “to clarify” these elements in its programs. He also noted that his office did not “name and shame” countries violating these pillars of the UN in their counterterrorism actions but instead tries to “engage” governments on such topics.
Since Voronkov’s appointment, Russians now hold several other high-ranking positions in counterterrorism activities across the UN, most notably Aleksander Avanesov, a special adviser and manager of the UN Development Program’s Global Program on Prevention of Violent Extremism, according to a March 2020 report for the Swedish Ministry of Defense. Russia’s own national agenda on counterterrorism excludes all civil society experts from decision-making processes and refutes any correlation between counterterrorism and abuse of human rights.
The UN office’s largest sponsors by far (around 70 percent of the extrabudgetary finances) are Saudi Arabia and Qatar — hardly models of upholding human rights. When asked about Voronkov’s recent efforts to integrate human rights and gender aspects into the counterterrorism strategy and alleviate the office’s reliance on voluntary donations, one expert said that such moves could have been more positive if they weren’t so late and inefficient. Yet heading in that direction was not in the best interests of the “higher leaders he might serve,” the expert added, alluding to the office’s top donors and other states.
A second term for Voronkov could enable a handful of countries to hold even more sway over his office, solidifying a country’s exclusive right to identify, condemn and act against terrorist threats. Such a development could ease a country’s ability to crack down on dissent from political opponents and minority groups, specialists also note.
By creating the office through a General Assembly resolution, the UN demonstrated its investment in developing a counterterrorism agenda. However, political undercurrents — inescapable at the UN — have followed this office since its start, and as Voronkov may have his contract extended, his office’s goals could become more apparent: Will it commit to a full implementation of human rights and gender considerations into its strategy? Will it free the office from its dependence on voluntary donors and the strings attached? Or, as one expert predicts, will it mean business as usual?
This article was updated to correct how long Voronkov lived in Poland.
Arthur Bassas is a researcher and writer who graduated from St. Andrews in Scotland, majoring in international relations and terrorism. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and speaks English and French.