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.

Francois Mori/AP/file
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.

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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