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POLITICS: U.N. Member States Struggle to Define Terrorism

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 25 2005 (IPS) - The rash of terrorist bombings in Britain, and most recently in Egypt, have prompted Secretary-General Kofi Annan to prod the U.N.’s 191 member states to speed up a long-delayed decision on one of the most politically sensitive issues in the world body: a definition of "terrorism".

"What has happened in the last few weeks, from London to Sharm el-Shaikh and others, gives us one more reason to press ahead and get a good definition of terrorism that we can all live with," he told reporters Monday.

Annan called on member states to finalise the 13th – and perhaps the last – of the U.N. conventions against terrorism, which has remained stalled, largely over definitions, since 2000.

"We know what we are living with, and I think the whole world is now standing together in the fight against terrorism. And the United Nations and its General Assembly must lead in that fight," he added.

Titled "A Comprehensive Convention Against Terrorism", the proposed treaty has been touted as the last word against terrorism.

Palitha Kohona, head of the U.N. Treaty Section, told IPS the treaty made "significant progress" at the last session of the Ad Hoc Committee responsible for drafting the convention.

The treaty incorporates most of the key provisions from the existing 12 U.N. conventions against terrorism. The new omnibus treaty covers subjects ranging from hijacking and hostage-taking to terrorist bombings and funding for terrorism.

The key sticking points in the draft treaty revolve around several controversial yet basic issues, including the definition of "terrorism".

For example, what distinguishes a "terrorist organisation" from a "liberation movement"? And do you exclude activities of national armed forces, even if they are perceived to commit acts of terrorism? If not, how much of this constitutes "state terrorism"?

Arab diplomats have continued to argue that any comprehensive definition of terrorism must include the phenomena of "state terrorism" and distinguish it from the right of self-determination.

According to this argument, Israel is guilty of state terrorism in the occupied territories, while Palestinians are "freedom fighters."

The Israelis, on the other hand, have a different take on it: a Palestinian who deliberately kills an Israeli child is a terrorist, while an Israeli who deliberately kills a Palestinian child is a soldier or settler.

The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the League of Arab States are insisting that the treaty should exempt from consideration as terrorists all those engaged in conflicts against "foreign occupation."

This includes even national liberation movements, including the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Lebanese-based militia, the Hizbollah, both of which have been battling Israeli occupation.

On a more global scale, says former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, even the U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism does not share a common definition of the terrorist threat.

"To the Indians, it is the Muslims in Kashmir; to the Russians, it is the Chechens; to the Israelis, it is the Palestinians, to the Arabs, it is the Israelis. And to the Americans, it is not Islam (rightly so), but who is it beyond the satanic image on the TV screen of Osama bin Laden?" he asks.

The upcoming Millennium Summit in mid-September – described by Annan as potentially "the largest gathering of world leaders ever" – is expected to strongly condemn all acts of terrorism.

But a 37-page draft declaration released Friday, and which is expected to be approved by the summit, offers a political, not a legal definition.

"We (the world leaders) affirm that the targeting and deliberate killing of civilians and non-combatants cannot be justified or legitimised by any cause or grievance, and we declare that any action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organisation to carry out or to abstain from any act, cannot be justified on any grounds, and constitutes an act of terrorism."

However, the very next clause in the draft declaration says: "We resolve to conclude a comprehensive convention on international terrorism, including a legal definition of terrorism, during the (upcoming) 60th session of the General Assembly" which begins in September.

Annan dismissed the charge that terrorism is being driven primarily by religion. "It’s not Islamic," he said. "I don’t attach it to any specific religion. We’ve had it in England; we’ve had it in Spain; we’ve had it here."

Asked about the London bombings that were carried out by people who were born and raised in Britain, Annan said: "You do have violence in situations where people are in despair."

"And the main thing is to deal with the perpetrators, for who they are and what they are. And of course, it is difficult to generalise along the lines that it only occurs in societies governed by despotic leaders," he added.

Asked how international treaties can help fight terrorism, Kohona told IPS that they ensure there is no "safe haven for terrorists."

"All conventions on terrorism are aimed at creating a network of cooperation among States to ensure that terrorists are found, prosecuted and punished. No terrorist will be permitted to go free," he said.

He also said that all international conventions: a) define a particular type of terrorist violence as an offence under the convention, such as bombing, financing, etc…; b) require State Parties to penalise that activity in their domestic law; c) identify certain bases upon which the parties responsible are required to establish jurisdiction over the defined offence; d) create an obligation on the State in which a suspect is found to establish jurisdiction over the convention offence and to prosecute if the Party does not extradite pursuant to other provisions of the convention.

This last element, he pointed out, is commonly known as the principle of "no safe haven for terrorists" or "prosecute or extradite".

In particular, Kohona said, this element has been stressed by the Security Council in Resolution 1373 of Sep. 28, 2001, as an essential anti-terrorism obligation of member states.

"These conventions establish global standards and reflect the aversion of the international community to the scourge of terrorism. The views of the international community have found expression in the resolutions of the Security Council, the General Assembly and in statements of the secretary-general," he added.

The last three key conventions on terrorism adopted by the General Assembly are: International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997); International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999); and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (2005).

The last convention will be opened for signature on Sep. 14 this year. It is not yet in force.

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