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Monday, Jan. 21, 2002

This is Part Two of a two-part series on international anti-terrorism efforts. Part One can be found in the archive of the author's columns on this site. -- Ed.

Terrorism is bad; it must be fought with every tool at our disposal. But what is terrorism?

If the juxtaposition of these two sentences seems absurd, then so too is the international consensus on terrorism. This consensus, to the extent it can be said to exist, has a post-modern cast to it. Having developed into a convenient shorthand for all that is reprehensible, the concept of terrorism is proving infinitely malleable. References to terrorism have multiplied since September 11, but governments' views on what terrorism actually is have never been further apart.

For Israel, Palestinian suicide bombers are the paradigmatic terrorists. For Syria, in contrast, "foreign occupation" -- particularly the Israeli occupation of the West Bank -- "is the most brutal form of terrorism." President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti has lately condemned the "economic terrorism" of states that withhold humanitarian assistance. And a spokesman for Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, in what may be the most creative misuse of the term, recently attacked independent journalists for "media terrorism."

The struggle to define what is and is not terrorism is currently being played out at the United Nations, both in the Security Council's counter-terrorism committee and in the General Assembly's ad hoc committee on terrorism. The rhetoric is the same in both of these fora, as are the political battles being fought. Instead of defining terrorism purely in terms of methods and tactics, governments continue to try to craft a political definition of terrorism, one that suits the political goals they support.

U.N. Counter-Terrorism Efforts

The core disagreement that arose in the committee pitted Western countries against the developing world. The West, as well as Israel, was wary of the idea of "state terrorism": the prospect that terrorism could be defined to include violent acts committed by the military forces of a legitimate state.

Most developing countries, in contrast, wanted to ensure that terrorism was clearly distinguished from "national liberation movements." Arab and Muslim states were particularly concerned that Palestinian violence be classified as a legitimate reaction to Israeli oppression, and not be stigmatized as terrorism. Other states cited the example of the African National Congress and its fight against South Africa's apartheid government.

These persistent disagreements blocked progress toward drafting a comprehensive definition of terrorism. Yet widespread concern over acts of terrorism -- or at least acts that, in the absence of a precise definition, were generally acknowledged to be terrorism -- gave impetus to efforts to address the issue. In 1989, in what was already the usual practice of condemning the phenomenon without defining it, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling upon governments to take effective measures to combat terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, given the General Assembly's inclination to convey the views of developing countries, the 1989 resolution makes several nods in the direction of "the inalienable right to self-determination and independence of all peoples under colonial and racist regimes and other forms of alien domination and foreign occupation." It also makes reference to state terrorism, expressing specific concern over "the world-wide persistence of acts of international terrorism in all its forms, including those in which States are directly or indirectly involved."

Importantly, the resolution affirms that all acts of terrorism are unjustifiable, "wherever and by whomever committed." Yet because of the absence of any agreement on what precisely characterizes terrorism, such language simply encouraged states to try to exclude themselves and their allies from condemnation as an a priori matter -- as a matter of definition.

Recent U.N. Efforts

As part of the U.N.'s recent efforts to assist governments in responding to terrorism, an ad hoc committee of the General Assembly, established in 1996, has been persisting in the agonizing process of defining terrorism. While the committee has succeeded in drafting three treaties related to different aspects of terrorism (covering, for example, the financing of terrorism), it is still far from completion of the promised comprehensive convention on terrorism. The committee, which is scheduled to meet later this month, has been facing the same political roadblocks with regard to state terrorism and national liberation movements that stymied the U.N.'s efforts in 1972.

Other U.N. efforts have met with similar difficulties. This past September, in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Security Council established a committee to monitor international counter-terrorism efforts. Although Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British chair of the committee, has called on states to keep politics out of the debate, a quick review of government responses to the committee's counter-terrorism survey shows that political concerns remain paramount.

Every country condemns terrorism, and nearly as many employ the term opportunistically.

Will there ever be a day when Syria, for example, declares that it sympathizes with the goals of Palestinian suicide bombers but condemns their methods? Or when John Negroponte, current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, acknowledges that his Contra allies in Nicaragua committed unjustifiable acts of violence against civilians during the U.S.-funded rebellion there?

For, if the ugly truth be told, innumerable just causes have been abetted by what could easily be described as terrorism. The French resistance to Nazi occupation, the founding of the Jewish state, the fight against colonial rule in Africa and other places -- all of these struggles involved methods and tactics that could be stigmatized as terrorist.

But to recognize this basic fact is not to suggest that terrorism should not be defined by its tactics. Indeed, if the concept of terrorism is to have any significance-- if it is to be more than just a political weapon -- it should mean that certain acts are so reprehensible as to be always and inherently illegitimate, no matter what the underlying goals of their perpetrators.

In other words, it should be irrelevant whether the perpetrator is a criminal organization, an armed band, a legitimate military force, or a national liberation movement -- certain means are never justified, no matter how praiseworthy the ends. It is this simple and fundamental principle that should guide the United Nations' efforts to address the scourge of terrorism.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney practicing in New York. Her previous columns about human rights issues, including columns on Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, and other related topics, can be found in the archive of her pieces on this site.

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