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At U.N., a bolder approach to terrorism

The secretary-general held a symposium Tuesday on the victims of terrorism – the first conference on the topic held by the UN.

By / September 11, 2008

One participant: Ingrid Betancourt, held hostage more than six years by leftist guerrillas, was one of 18 victims of terrorism at the UN conference Tuesday. She is shown here at an event in July.

Francois Mori/AP/file


United Nations, New York

The United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon, sits at the podium flanked by victims of terrorist acts committed around the world, a look of Cheshire-cat satisfaction on his face.

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Terrorism is not an easy topic to raise at the UN: The political, religious, and ideological dimensions of the issue always seem to get in the way of a full-on discussion. The body of 192 member-states has tried for years but failed to agree on a definition of terrorism, and that has impeded the approval of a global convention on international terrorism.

And yet there sat Mr. Ban on Tuesday, using the back door of a conference of his creating about the victims of terrorism – who could disagree with that topic? – as a way to get at the overarching issue of terrorism.

"Your stories of how terrorism has affected your lives are our strongest argument why it can never be justified," Ban said to the 18 terror victims he had assembled, including the former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was freed earlier this year after being held hostage more than six years by leftist guerrillas. "By giving a human face to the painful consequences of terrorism, you help build a global culture against it."

Ban's one-day symposium, the first conference on the topic held by the UN, reflects the determination of the results-oriented chief of the unwieldy institution to address the top issues of the day, as delicate as they may be. When Ban rose to the secretary-general's office in January 2007, many UN hands wondered how the longtime South Korean diplomat's signature efficiency and impatience with no-can-dos would fare in a job prizing the ability to walk on 192 eggshells.

The victims-of-terrorism symposium was one answer to that question. So was a summit on global climate change, which Ban held at last year's UN General Assembly debate to get world leaders – most prominently a reluctant President Bush – to address the consequences of a warming planet. And so will be a similar summit, this time on the UN's development and poverty-reduction goals for 2015, which Ban has called for later this month.

The event Tuesday was timed to coincide with a review last week of the UN's counterterrorism strategy, approved by the General Assembly in 2006, and not particularly with a commemoration of 9/11 in mind. But a number of participants said it was appropriate the conference take place near the anniversary of a day when so many became victims of terrorism.

Ban's idea for a symposium on the victims of terrorism reflects his persistence and a conviction that no problem should be untouchable, his closest aides say. "We knew there would be a certain amount of controversy in doing this [conference]. He was determined it could be done," says Michele Montas, Ban's spokesperson. "We didn't lose sight of the fact that this really is the first time the UN has taken up this issue."

Others say that Ban, while a realist about what can be achieved in the short term, refuses to accept that a central challenge to civilization must be left off the world agenda because of controversy.