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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.

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"Terrorism has turned into something of a taboo topic, but [Ban] refuses to accept that and stands by his belief that we must be able to have a fair discussion of the main issues of the day," says one UN official who is well acquainted with Ban's thinking but who is not authorized to comment publicly on him. "He realizes this may not result in policy, at least not right away," the official adds.

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But even the idea for nothing more than a one-day discussion conjured up the same suspicions that former Secretary-General Kofi Annan encountered when he pressed for a comprehensive convention on international terrorism.

Arab and Muslim countries feared that such a convention would focus heavily on Islamic extremism without taking up "state terrorism" – by which they generally mean Israeli actions against Palestinians and India's actions in Kashmir. Arab countries also wanted to recognize "freedom fighters" – again, specifically Palestinians fighting an Israeli occupation – as part of a legitimate liberation movement.

Over the past two weeks, some representatives of Arab governments and Arab journalists at the UN hammered UN officials over why, for example, no victim of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank was among the 18 victims of terrorism invited to the conference.

At a press briefing he attended with Ms. Betancourt and three other victims of terrorism, Ban said his purpose in calling the conference was not to single out any one group or region, but to put a human face on the deep toll of terrorist acts. "Too often victims are only numbers, not human beings," Ban said. "Still too often we pay more attention to the voices of terrorists than to those of the victims themselves."

Another motivation for Ban, according to some aides, is that he takes personally his responsibility for the "UN family," some of whose members have fallen victim to terrorist acts. Ban's visit to Algiers after the bombing of UN offices there in December of last year, as well as his contact with the families of victims of the August 2003 bombing of UN offices in Baghdad, left him determined to address the issue somehow, those aides say.

Despite the lack of a comprehensive convention on terrorism to guide nations, Ban noted that some 16 specific conventions and protocols relating to terrorism exist, which provide a body of international law and can be tapped right now in addressing the issue.

Ban might have come closest to putting a human face of the victims of terrorism when he introduced Ashraf al-Khaled, a Jordanian whose November 2005 wedding in Amman was blown apart by an Iraqi suicide bomber.

Speaking with the controlled emotion of a father, Ban said Mr. Khaled lost 27 family members and friends on "the day that should have been the happiest day of his life, his wedding day."