UN Anti-Terror Effort Bogged Down Over Terrorism Definition
September 2, 2008The U.N. Security Council's ability to tackle the scourge of terror remains hamstrung by a failure to agree on a definition of terrorism – and by policies designed to avoid embarrassing or annoying member states.
A long-running effort to define terrorism repeatedly has run into hurdles erected by mostly Islamic states determined that the fight against occupation – especially the one waged by the Palestinians – should be explicitly exempted.
That stance is enshrined in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) 1998 convention on combating international terrorism, which states that “peoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation … shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”
The principle has been reiterated numerous times in recent years. An OIC resolution passed in Islamabad in 2007 called for a U.N. conference to set a definition of terrorism that “distinguish[es] it from the peoples’ national liberation struggle.”
That same resolution stressed “that the struggle of peoples plying under the yoke of foreign occupation and colonialism, to accede to national freedom and establish their right to self-determination, does not in any way constitute an act of terrorism.”
Support for the Palestinian cause is a bedrock principle of the OIC, and few of its 57 sovereign member states – the 58th is “Palestine” – have publicly and consistently condemned acts of Palestinian terrorism targeting Israeli civilians over the years.
The foreign occupation exception would also provide a loophole for acts of terrorism committed in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, and some Islamic clerics and jihadists characterize the presence of foreign forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as “occupation.”
Failure to reach a definition of terrorism has stymied efforts at the U.N. to produce a comprehensive convention on international terrorism. Instead, the General Assembly in 2006 adopted a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, a document it calls the first global and common approach to tackling terrorism, but without defining it.
The U.N. will on Thursday hold a review of the strategy and the world body’s response to terrorism in the years since 9/11. Also, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will convene a symposium in New York on supporting the victims of terrorism.
Ahead of the review, the Palestinian Authority, on behalf of the Arab bloc, submitted a position paper to Ban.
Among other things, it said the absence of a definition of terrorism in the strategy “would hinder achieving the international efforts to combat terrorism.”
The Arab states’ paper stressed the need for a comprehensive convention that included “a specific definition of international terrorism and State terrorism [and] distinguishes between terrorism and the legitimate right of peoples to resist occupation and aggression.”
Two weeks after al-Qaeda attacked the United States, the Security Council adopted resolution 1373, setting out measures countries must take, including criminalizing terrorist acts, denying terrorists safe haven and resources, bringing perpetrators to justice, and increasing international cooperation to prevent attacks.
The resolution was adopted under chapter seven of the U.N. Charter, making it legally binding on all member states.
It also created, as a primary body to lead the effort, the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), which comprises the 15 countries serving at any particular time on the Security Council.
Member states submit reports to the CTC on their compliance with the resolution, and the committee is also empowered to carry out country visits to assess how they are meeting their obligations.
But of the 192 U.N. member states, the CTC has to date visited only 28. And as far as can be ascertained, none of them are among the group of states the U.S. government says sponsor terrorism – Iran, Syria, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba.
Moreover, one of the countries on the State Department’s list of terror-sponsors, Syria, was itself a member of the CTC (and the Security Council) in 2002-3. Another, Iran, will join the CTC if its bid for a seat on the Security Council in 2009-10 succeeds.
The CTC only visits countries with their consent, and a spokesman confirmed that reports on the visits are not made public.
“The policy of the committee regarding such visits is that the reports are confidential and therefore not published as official documents nor made available to the public,” Mitch Hsieh said.
Even the names of the countries visited are not released publicly.
According to references at U.N. press conferences and in media reports, 25 of the 28 countries visited so far are Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Laos, Macedonia, Malaysia, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.
The CTC does not have a centralized list of terrorist entities and individuals. Given the absence of a terrorism definition, this poses further difficulties as countries differ over whether a specific group is a terrorist organization. While the U.S. and others view Hezbollah as a terrorist group, for instance, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and many Arab countries do not.
A recently-released CTC document entitled “Survey of the Implementation of Security Council resolution 1373,” reviews the world in geographical regional groups, but is coy about individual countries’ performance.
For example, in the group made up of 12 Western Asian states including Iran and Syria, a section on international cooperation says “three States have comprehensive domestic laws on mutual legal assistance and extradition, while three States do not. Others rely on multilateral and bilateral treaties, and this may in some circumstances limit their capacity to respond positively to such requests from a wide range of States. Three States have adequate procedures in place for the exchange of information, while eight have partial measures.”
Similarly vague is a section on legislation, which says “six States have adequate measures for the suppression of terrorist recruitment and have established jurisdiction for the relevant offences in their legislation.
A section on blocking terrorist financing again does not name the countries concerned, saying merely “three States have adequately criminalized terrorist financing, and four others have introduced some legal provisions to address the issue.”