As the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks approaches, the United Nations is no closer to reaching a universal definition of terrorism than it was in 2001 – or indeed than it was five years before then, when negotiations first began on drafting a comprehensive convention on international terrorism.
The main hurdle, then as now, is the insistence by the bloc of Islamic states that any definition of terrorism should leave a loophole for “resistance” against foreign occupation.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which was established in 1969 with “liberating” Jerusalem as its primary focus, is unwilling to give ground on the issue as many of its governments believe that doing so would be tantamount to betraying the Palestinian cause.
The “occupation” exemption is usually cited in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it would also provide cover for the anti-Indian jihad in Kashmir, a Muslim-majority territory divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both.
India has been a major target of terrorism, both in what some Islamic states call “Indian-occupied Kashmir” and elsewhere. Not coincidentally, New Delhi has spearheaded the push for a international terrorism convention since 1996.
A U.N. General Assembly resolution passed that year established an “Ad-Hoc Committee” to elaborate on the draft convention proposed by India. It has met every year since then, for a one- or two-week period usually in the spring, but consensus on a terrorism definition remain elusive.
Its 15th session was held in New York last week.
According to Anne Bayefsky, editor of the Hudson Institute’s Eye on the U.N. project, the OIC once again raised the argument that there is a “distinction between terrorism and the struggle for the rights of self-determination by people under foreign occupation and colonial or alien domination.”
The customary report issued by the Ad-Hoc Committee after each year’s session has yet to be released, but a review of previous years’ reports illustrates how the definition issue has dogged the process.
At its 2002 meeting, the committee considered a definition that referred to the intentional causing of “death or serious bodily injury to any person; or serious damage to public or private property … when the purpose of the conduct, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”
Some states raised concerns about the implications for armed forces, so the meeting coordinator suggested adding a clause saying that “the activities of armed forces during an armed conflict, as those terms are understood under international humanitarian law … are not governed by this Convention.”
The OIC then proposed broadening that clause. Instead of covering just armed forces, the Islamic bloc said, it should apply to “the parties during an armed conflict, including in situations of foreign occupation.”
A full eight years later, at the April 2010 meeting, the committee was still stuck on the issue.
“Several delegations stressed the need for the convention to include a clear definition of terrorism,” the report on the 2010 meeting stated. “It was reiterated that it should distinguish between acts of terrorism and the legitimate struggle of peoples in the exercise of their right to self-determination under foreign occupation and colonial or alien domination.”
‘Equating terrorism with Islam’
This week, terrorism is again on the U.N.’s agenda, this time at a meeting in Strasbourg, France of the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee, a body set up in response to the 9/11 attacks, and the Council of Europe, a grouping of 47 European countries.
The meeting, which runs through Thursday and has the theme “prevention of terrorism,” was addressed Tuesday by OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
In his speech, he observed that the international community was “still debating on a consensus definition of terrorism.”
He said OIC member states supported the U.N.’s global counter-terrorism strategy, but “stressed that the strategy must address the root causes of terrorism, including the unlawful use of force, aggression, foreign occupation, prolonged conflict of peoples and denial of the rights to self-determination living under foreign occupation.”
The global counter-terrorism strategy, adopted by the U.N. in 2006, does not define terrorism. It merely reaffirms member states’ commitment to resolve “the outstanding issues related to the legal definition.”
Ihsanoglu told the meeting that the OIC’s efforts to combat terrorism were hampered by the fact that “a handful of errant and irresponsible individuals” carry out attacks and “falsely claim affiliation to the Islamic faith and seek to justify their acts as being carried out for the cause of Islam.”
“In the wake of such developments,” he continued, “we have witnessed a gradual rise of anti-Islam sentiments and activities in different parts of the West.”
“We noticed that radical right wing extremists including politicians in the West, who bear some inexplicable grudge and animosity against Islam, are active in equating terrorism with Islam and Muslims.”
In turn, this was “estranging many in the Muslim world against the West,” he said, describing the process as a “vicious circle.”
‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s terrorist’
In its own convention on combating international terrorism, produced in 1998, the OIC declared that “peoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation … shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”
That stance has impacted many initiatives taken by Muslims in the years since 9/11 aimed at distancing their religion from terrorism. Among them:
— As a direct response to the al-Qaeda attack, OIC foreign ministers met in Malaysia in April 2002 with the declared aim of defining terrorism and dissociating it from Islam. The gathering ended with a statement including the line: “We reject any attempt to link terrorism to the struggle of the Palestinian people in the exercise of their inalienable right to establish their independent state with al-Quds al-Sharif [Jerusalem] as its capital.”
— During a Saudi-hosted international counter-terrorism conference in February 2005, the terror definition issue was sidelined after delegates from Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Saudi Arabia pressed for exemptions for struggles against occupation.
— OIC foreign ministers meeting in Yemen in June 2005 condemned “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” but added, “while recognizing the importance of distinguishing between it and legitimate resistance to occupation.”
— A resolution passed at an OIC meeting in Islamabad in May 2007 stated 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.”
— A four-day conference of religious scholars and experts in Saudi Arabia in April 2010 ended with a declaration condemning terrorism “regardless of the place or the perpetrators.” But it also recommend the adoption of a definition of terrorism as agreed upon by a meeting of Arab ministers a month earlier – a definition that “emphasized the need to differentiate between terrorism and the legitimate struggle of people against occupation.”
After suffering deadly terrorist bombings in London in the summer of 2005, the British government argued that the failure to produce a clear and unequivocal declaration against terrorism had benefited radicals.
The then British envoy, Emyr Jones Parry, told the U.N. in a speech that August that for years, “agreement has been stalled over a legal definition of terrorist acts. Prevarication and delay have provided a smokescreen for the terrorists.”
“The old dictum that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ is past,” he added. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s terrorist – a criminal, and all too often a murderer.”