U.N. Chief Silent on Longstanding Failure to Define Terrorism

By Patrick Goodenough | June 4, 2012 | 5:25 AM EDT

U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon meets with Organization of Islamic Cooperation secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu at the headquarters of the OIC in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Sunday, June 3, 2012. (Photo: OIC)

(CNSNews.com) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the advisory board of a newly-established U.N. Counter-Terrorism Center in Saudi Arabia on Sunday but was silent on the world body’s enduring failure to come up with a universal definition of terrorism.

For well over a decade, the biggest single obstacle preventing a U.N. agreement on defining terrorism has been the insistence by Muslim states belonging to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that an exception should be made for actions taken in “resistance” against foreign occupation.

Support for the Palestinian cause has been a key driver for that stance, although the occupation loophole has also been seen to apply to anti-coalition violence in Afghanistan (and Iraq, before the troop withdrawal), as well as attacks against Indian targets in the Indian-controlled part of disputed Kashmir.

Ban’s weekend visit to Jeddah provided more than one opportunity to confront the issue publicly, since he also paid a visit to the OIC’s headquarters, becoming the first U.N. secretary-general to do so.

But the defining terrorism issue was not mentioned in Ban’s remarks to the board of the Saudi-funded U.N. Counter-Terrorism Center (UNCCT), during a joint press availability with Saudi foreign minister, or during remarks to the media after his meeting with OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.

Instead, he focused in his speech to the board on matters like tackling the financing of terrorism, the “need to try to understand – and counter – the appeal of terrorism,” and the importance of protecting human rights while combatting terrorism.

During his joint appearance with Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal – with whom Ban had co-chaired the UNCCT board meeting – the U.N. chief praised the “visionary leadership” of Saudi King Abdullah for supporting the center and U.N. counter-terrorism goals.

After his talks with Ihsanoglu, Ban said he encouraged the Islamic bloc “to expand its valuable efforts to generate understanding and tolerance and mutual respect among different cultures, civilizations and faiths.” (In its own statement after the meeting, the OIC said Ihsanoglu had assured Ban of the OIC’s support on issues of international concern, while Ban had “expressed his appreciation for the visionary leadership of Ihsanoglu and reiterated his conviction of OIC being a strategic partner of the U.N.”)

The OIC’s convention on combating international terrorism, produced in 1998, states that “peoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation … shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”

The sensitive issue of defining terrorism has dogged every U.N. counter-terror initiative for the past 15 years, with the OIC, and especially its Arab members including Saudi Arabia, refusing to give ground on the occupation question:

An OIC foreign ministers meeting in Yemen in 2005 condemned “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, while recognizing the importance of distinguishing between it and legitimate resistance to occupation.”

An OIC meeting in Islamabad in 2007 endorsed a resolution stating 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.”

Arab ministers meeting in 2010 agreed on a definition that “emphasized the need to differentiate between terrorism and the legitimate struggle of people against occupation.”

India, which like Israel has been a major target of terrorism, spearheaded a push for an international terrorism convention during the 1990s, and in 1996 the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution setting up an “ad-hoc committee” to work on a draft proposed by India.

The committee has met 15 times since then, for a one- or two-week annual session each spring, but failure to reach a definition of terrorism has stymied efforts to produce a comprehensive convention.

As in previous years, the report on the most recent session, held in April 2011, spelled out the problem: “[S]everal delegations reiterated that the convention should contain a definition of terrorism that would provide a clear distinction between acts of terrorism covered by the convention and the legitimate struggle of peoples in the exercise of their right to self-determination or under foreign occupation.”

This year, for the first time since 1997, the U.N. has decided not to convene the ad-hoc committee at all. Instead, according to a statement issued early this year, the committee will next meet in 2013 “in order, to, on an expedited basis, continue to elaborate the draft comprehensive convention on international terrorism.”

Although the U.N. has been unable to nail down a convention, the General Assembly in 2006 did manage to adopt a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. The U.N. calls the document the first global and common approach to tackling terrorism, yet it does not define it. It merely reaffirms member states’ commitment to resolve “the outstanding issues related to the legal definition.”

The global strategy has four pillars – tackling the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, preventing and combatting terrorism, building countries’ capacity to counter terrorism, and ensuring respect for human rights during the fight against terrorism.

In 2010, the UNCCT was set up, with three years of Saudi government funding, to help implement the global strategy. The meeting in Jeddah Sunday was the advisory board’s second.

The board currently comprises eight OIC members (Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey), eight Western countries (the U.S., Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, Spain and Switzerland), as well as Argentina, Brazil, China, Russia and India.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow