HUMAN RIGHTS: When Terror Is Not Terrorism

Tito Drago

MADRID, Mar 8 2005 (IPS) - Leaders and personalities from around the world meeting this week in Madrid are taking on the difficult task of coming up with a global definition for the word "terrorism" – and ways to fight it while also protecting democracy.

Leaders and personalities from around the world meeting this week in the Spanish capital will attempt to agree on a global definition of the word "terrorism" and recommend measures on how to fight it.

The International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security organised by the Club of Madrid is bringing together some 200 experts and political leaders, including heads of state and former presidents, Tuesday through Friday.

The Club of Madrid, whose members include 50 former heads of state and government, describes itself as an independent organisation dedicated to fomenting and strengthening democracy around the world.

The aim of the conference is to come up with a common international framework for fighting terrorism while protecting democracy, and to reach a consensus on the definition of terrorism, which is expected to be one of the most difficult tasks.

According to the Royal Spanish Academy dictionary, terror is an "expeditious method of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary justice", and terrorism is "domination by terror" and "acts of violence carried out to generate terror."

Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, internationally renowned for his attempt to bring former military leaders of the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships to justice, told IPS that "any attack or aggression against the civilian population is a terrorist crime, whether staged by civilian, insurgent or terrorist groups, or regular armies."

An early proponent of terrorism as a doctrine was a German radical democrat, Karl Heinzen, who wrote in a 1848 essay, Der Mord (Murder), that all means were valid to hasten the advent of democracy: "If you have to blow up half a continent and cause a bloodbath to destroy the party of barbarism, you should have no scruples of conscience. Anyone who would not joyously sacrifice his life for the satisfaction of exterminating a million barbarians is not a true republican."

And during the French Revolution (1789-1799), the Jacobin party ushered in what became known as the "Reign of Terror". Determined to impose deep social reforms, the Jacobins executed thousands of their opponents by guillotine.

There have been recent attempts at coming up with a precise, internationally accepted definition of terrorism.

Last December, a group of United Nations experts issued the following definition: "any action that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or compel a government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act."

The director of this week’s conference on terrorism in Madrid, Peter Neumann, said the lack of agreement on a clear definition has impeded progress in fighting terrorism, but said he was confident that the definition set forth by the U.N. experts would be accepted.

But Javier Rupérez, the head of the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, said that whether or not agreement was reached on a definition, the question would not block continued progress in the fight against terror.

The Spanish diplomat was kidnapped by the Basque separatist group ETA in 1979, when the Union of the Democratic Centre, the party to which he belonged, governed Spain.

Rupérez said there are around a dozen conventions against terrorism that are binding on U.N. members, but agreed nevertheless that the U.N. general assembly needs to approve a precise definition.

There are also discrepancies between the lists of terrorist organisations drawn up by different governments. For example, the Islamic movement Hezbollah is included on the U.S. State Department’s annual list, but not on the one drawn up by the European Union last May.

Definitions can also shift depending on the time period and the interests at stake. Mohammed Abdelkefi, the Madrid correspondent for the London-based newspaper Al Arab, cited the example of the Islamist Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

"When they were fighting the Soviet Union they were ‘freedom fighters’. Later, although they were still fighting foreign occupation (led by the U.S.), they became ‘terrorists’," Abdelkefi told IPS.

"Were the Spaniards who rose up against Napoleon’s French troops who occupied Spain terrorists? And were the French resistance fighters waging terrorism in their fight against the Nazi occupation?

"What is it called when troops break into people’s homes late at night, destroying doors and household furnishings, raping women, humiliating and mistreating men and stealing jewelry and money?" asked Abdelkefi, referring to actions that U.S. troops have carried out in Iraq according to press reports.

"Is it terrorism to bomb houses and entire neighbourhoods, killing everyone who lives there with the excuse of going after one single person?" he added, alluding to U.S. bombing in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion of that Middle Eastern country.

Speaking at the conference, the head of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, called it counterproductive to support authoritarian governments as allies in the fight against terrorism, because "open" political systems are the best way to convince angry young people to channel their indignation in a peaceful manner.

The European coordinator of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, Irune Aguirrezábal, said violence is not the best weapon against terrorism.

"It is essential to analyse the roots, including religious fanaticism, poverty, inequality and lack of democracy," in order to work towards the prevention and persecution of terrorism, while fully respecting the law and human rights, said the activist.

Besides reaching a definition of terrorism, the Club of Madrid, which is led by former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, is hoping for social and political guidelines to arise from the conference, as well as recommendations for security measures for fighting terrorism of all stripes.

The conference ends Mar. 11, the first anniversary of the train bombings in Madrid that killed 190 people and injured 2,000. The date was chosen in homage to the victims.

Cardoso said democracy is not merely the only legitimate way to combat terrorism, but also the only effective way to do it, because freedom can only be saved by freedom, and the fight against terrorism can only be successful if it is based on the reign of law.

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HUMAN RIGHTS: When Terror Is Not Terrorism

Tito Drago

MADRID, Mar 8 2005 (IPS) - Leaders and personalities from around the world meeting this week in the Spanish capital will attempt to agree on a global definition of the word "terrorism" and recommend measures on how to fight it.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags