Closing terrorist loopholes

Everyone abhors international terrorism, but the world community has had a hard time putting a stop to it, largely because the crime has never been legally defined. The old saw says that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Since 1963, 15 treaties have outlawed specific forms of terrorism, such as hijacking aircraft, taking hostages, and planting bombs. Last week, a treaty with a new focus and broader scope, the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, was opened for signature at the United Nations. Terrorists need money. Cutting it off would shrivel their networks.

The new convention writes, in effect, the first definition of terrorism in a global treaty. It adds to the specific crimes named in the previous treaties, "Any other act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury ... when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act."

A new category of crime appears: supporting terrorism not only with money but also with assets of every kind, documentation, safe houses, transportation, and so on.

Another novel element is that the treaty covers legal entities such as corporations and foundations as well as persons. These organizations and their responsible managers could be held criminally liable. Punishment would be imprisonment, fines, or forfeiture of the property assets involved, which could then be used to compensate victims of terrorism.

The parties to the treaty commit themselves to a remarkable degree of cooperation in investigating offenses. They lift bank secrecy, specifying that this may not protect a suspect. By the same token, helping to finance terrorism becomes an extraditable offense. It cannot be treated as merely a fiscal transgression, as some countries do for tax evasion. Overall, financing terrorism is not justifiable for "political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious," or similar considerations.

The convention demands that banks open accounts only for identified customers; blocking the use of dummy corporations by verifying their legal existence and corporate structure. They must promptly report all complex and unusual large transactions as well as unusual patterns of transactions which are not obviously lawful.

States are urged to cooperate, exchanging information through Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, checking the movement of cash and financial instruments across their borders and licensing all money-transmission agencies. These include travel agencies and offices that transfer remittances whose services can be misused for money laundering and for financing terrorist groups.

To be guilty under the convention an individual must know that he is helping such a group. Which raises a question. The United States maintains a list of foreign terrorist organizations. It includes Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), a Palestinian body, which is a genuine social welfare provider but also has a terrorist wing.

Hamas collects money in many countries. How to determine whether a contribution goes to babies or to bombs?

One thing to bear in mind is that this convention is not enforceable law. It is a statement of principles that binds only those countries that accede to it. Worked out in the UN and approved by the General Assembly, it must be ratified by the legislatures of 22 states to take effect. These must then write the laws that translate the principles into criminal codes and appropriate penalties.

Some of the financially strongest governments - the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands - signed the convention on the first day. It is not a speedy process, setting intrusive standards for a diverse world of nation-states jealous of their sovereignty, but it's off to a good start.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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