Terrorism's slippery definition eludes UN diplomats
A UN discussion last week on the essential meaning of terrorism fails to resolve an old, delicate debate.
UNITED NATIONS — As President Bush hints at extending the "war on terrorism" to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, the Arab and Muslim world remains at loggerheads with the rest of the globe over a crucial question: Who exactly is a terrorist?
The question has vexed the United Nations for 30 years, and diplomats last week again failed to hammer out a consensus. A definition would be the lynchpin of a comprehensive treaty against terrorism that would compel all 189 UN member-states to crack down on perpetrators.
With diplomats and legal advisers of 100-plus countries participating, the two sides of the debate merely restated long-held positions: the United States, European Union, and many others condemn any targeting of civilians; the 56-member Organization of Islamic Conference insists on exempting "national liberation movements" and "resistance to foreign occupation." They have Kashmir and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in mind.
"The UN must do its duty and differentiate between terrorists and freedom fighters," said Rizwan Khan, a spokeswoman for the Pakistani UN mission. "Isn't that what the UN was made for, to bring peace to the world?"
But some critics describe it as an effort to distinguish between "good" terrorists and "bad" terrorists.
On Oct. 1, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed hope that a renewed push post-9/11 would produce the missing link of the puzzle.
"I understand and accept the need for legal precision," said Mr. Annan, two months before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
"But let me say frankly that there is also a need for moral clarity. There can be no acceptance of those who would seek to justify the deliberate taking of innocent civilian life, regardless of cause or grievance. If there is one universal principle that all people can agree on, surely it is this."
The stalemate dashes the hopes of Annan, who recently said a comprehensive treaty may come within "the next month or so." Now the soonest would be in the fall, when the UN's legal committee, known as the Sixth Committee, reconvenes.
But some, in fact, question how necessary an actual definition is.
There are already 12 different terrorism "conventions," or treaties, on the books - created piecemeal over the past few decades. They criminalize activities such as airplane hijacking, hostage-taking, nuclear terrorism, and assorted bombings. In addition, the UN Security Council established a Counter-Terrorism Committee shortly after Sept. 11 to force member-states to harmonize antiterrorism laws, in areas such as financing.
Since then, more and more countries have ratified the treaties. Still, some countries, some actions, slip through the cracks, observers say.
A comprehensive treaty would collect these laws under one umbrella, close the loopholes, and require countries to prosecute or extradite suspected terrorists and share information with other governments - or face isolation.
However, in November the Islamic group rejected an Australian compromise on the terrorism definition, again over the freedom-fighter exemption. Today, the comprehensive treaty remains one step away. And without a widely accepted definition, parties define terrorism as they see fit.
The Mitchell Commission, for example, assessed the causes of Israeli-Palestinian violence last spring. In a report accepted by both sides, it stated: "Terrorism involves the deliberate killing and injuring of randomly selected noncombatants for political ends. It seeks to promote a political outcome by spreading terror and demoralization throughout a population."
In December, the EU Council of Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs proposed to define terrorism as "offenses intentionally committed by an individual or a group against one or more countries, their institutions or people, with the aim of intimidating them and seriously altering or destroying the political, economic, or social structures of a country."
That sparked protests from some 200 lawyers across the EU, who warned of infringement of "fundamental democratic rights" like trade union activity and antiglobalization protests.
As for President Bush, he confidently calls them as he sees them.
While the UN debated the definition last week, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was quoted Jan. 29 as appealing for funds to feed the Palestinian uprising, which he described as a legitimate act of self-defense. Iran is also accused of having supplied the 50 tons of weapons that were intercepted at sea Jan. 3 and reportedly destined for the Palestinians.
In his State of the Union address later that night, Bush dubbed Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an "axis of evil" and branded Hamas and Islamic Jihad - which claim responsibility for countless suicide bombings in Israel - part of a "terrorist underworld."
A significant segment of the world clearly disagrees with him.
Count Pakistan among them. "If someone's subjugating your civilians, if you're just fighting for your rights and they shoot someone in your family, you're going to have someone who's going to say, 'OK, I'm going to do the same,' " Ms. Khan said. "The UN must analyze the root cause and draw a line between freedom fighters, who are fighting for their piece of land, and terrorists, who are trying to impose their will, their way of thinking, by force."
Countries like Israel or India freely label anyone who resists as a "terrorist," Khan said, in an effort to win the battle for international opinion.
However, she said, "If the world labels them a terrorist, they'll feel their cause is lost, which plays into the hands of those who say, 'We told you no one will listen. Might is right in this world, and we have to be mightier.'"
To some, though, "analyze the root cause" is a buzz phrase used to justify violence against civilians as a means to an end.
The political context should be discounted and only actions judged, said Tal Becker, legal adviser to the Israeli Mission to the UN.
"If we define terrorism not by what one does, but what one does it for, we legitimate the deliberate targeting of civilians for certain causes," Becker said. A US official agreed.
"It's not to say there aren't just causes around the world worth fighting for," the official said. "But we're looking at the acts: blowing up buses, the World Trade Center - nothing justifies the wanton killing of innocent civilians."