Injustice seen as fertile soil for terrorists

Europe mulls ways to stop terrorism by closing the gap between rich and poor countries.

On Sept. 11, more than 35,000 of the world's children died of starvation. A similar number have perished from hunger every day since then in developing countries, according to figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

As the immediate shock of the attacks on New York and Washington fades, some European leaders are beginning to look for the root causes of terrorism. And they are blaming poverty and injustice as much as anything else.

"One illusion has been shattered on 11th September: that we can have the good life of the West, irrespective of the state of the rest of the world," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a major foreign policy address earlier this month.

Politicians in France and Germany have echoed this line of thought. "To fight against terrorism is also to settle or solve the problems which the terrorists use as pretexts," said French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine in a recent television interview.

Some of those problems are political: Mr. Vedrine pointed to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which Washington is now making a renewed effort to resolve after nine months of sitting on the sidelines.

But deeper questions of inequality are coming into fresh focus in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Not that anyone is suggesting that Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks, was acting on behalf of the world's poor, or that he conceived the atrocity as a way of drawing attention to the growing disparities between the richest and the poorest countries. Nothing he has said or done, before or after the attack, supports such an idea.

But his vitriolic brand of anti-Americanism resonates with resentful and dispossessed people. "The war against terrorism...needs to be a series of political actions designed to remove the conditions under which such acts of evil can flourish and be tolerated," Mr. Blair told his audience. "The dragon's teeth are planted in the fertile soil of wrongs unrighted, of disputes left to fester for years or even decades, of failed states, of poverty and deprivation," he added.

"Self interest for a nation and the interests of the broader community are no longer in conflict. In the war against terrorism, the moralists and the realists are partners, not antagonists."

This is a theme that is being taken up elsewhere, as the governments of wealthy countries begin to show more signs of sympathy for developing nations.

One pointer: at the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Qatar, the United States and its allies finally gave in to Third World demands that poor countries facing epidemics such as AIDS should be allowed to sidestep international patent law so as to make or buy cheap generic drugs.

Another sign is the burgeoning respectability of a controversial idea espoused by protesters against unregulated globalization - the so-called 'Tobin tax' on speculative international financial transactions. Professor James Tobin, a Nobel prize-winning economist, first suggested a tax of between 0.1 percent and 1 percent on currency conversions 30 years ago, to dampen currency fluctuations, which hit developing countries especially hard. His idea - widely disparaged until recently by central bankers and most mainstream economists - has been taken up by antiglobalization militants who have added a new twist: The money raised would be spent on development.

A 'Tobin tax' of only 0.1 per cent would raise more than $50 billion a year, it has been calculated. If that money were spent on development, it would double the amount that rich countries currently spend on development assistance.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and his German counterpart Gerhard Schroder recently set up a high-level expert group to study the feasibility of this plan. The European Commission is also preparing an urgent report on the idea, due to be presented to European heads of state at their December summit.

Even Gordon Brown, who as British finance minister presides over the biggest foreign-exchange trading center in the world in London, and who is skeptical about taxing it, told an audience at the New York Federal Reserve earlier this month that "we in Britain approach further evaluation (of the Tobin tax) with an open mind."

The Tobin tax, however, is widely felt to be impractical to impose, unless every country in the world joined in, which would be unlikely. "Problems of international supervision and the ease of evasion also cast doubt on whether it could ever be a really effective deterrent" to currency speculation, a report for the European Parliament concluded.

So other ideas for raising money for development are going into the hopper. French Finance Minister Laurent Fabius has ordered a study of an arms tax, raising revenues from the profits that weapons manufacturers make. The European Commission team is looking into the feasibility of a carbon tax, which would be levied on businesses according to their consumption of fossil fuels.

None of these ideas has yet been widely aired in the United States, but they are expected to surface with increasing frequency as policymakers ponder the post-Sept. 11 world.

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