No End in Sight for the Long Struggle to Define Terrorism

By Patrick Goodenough | February 19, 2013 | 4:39am EST

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal address an earlier meeting of the Saudi-funded U.N. Counter-Terrorism Center, in Jeddah last June. (UN Photo)

( – Participants at a Saudi-hosted, U.N.-backed counter-terrorism conference this past weekend reiterated the need to combat “all kinds of terrorism,” but agreement on what constitutes terrorism continues to elude the international community.

The official Saudi Press Agency cited a speech to the two-day event by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, in which he said the kingdom “has always confirmed its condemnation and denunciation of terrorism in all its forms.”

SPA added, “The participants condemned all kinds of terrorism, confirming that terrorism doesn’t belong to a specific religion or race and that the world should stand united to bring to justice whoever was involved in financing, planning or carrying out terror acts.”

In seven weeks, an “ad-hoc committee” set up by the U.N. General Assembly will meet in New York – as it has done almost every spring for the past 16 years – to discuss a draft comprehensive convention on international terrorism, which was first proposed by India in 1996.

A few sticking-points have prevented progress over the years, in particular the stance, held by Arab and Islamic states including Saudi Arabia, that in defining terrorism an exception must be made for the fight against “foreign occupation.”

Failure to break the impasse prompted a dispirited U.N. to call off the planned 2012 session of the ad-hoc committee, but at a meeting in New York last November it was decided to give the effort another push, so the committee will meet again from April 8-12.

During that November meeting, the “occupation” issue reared its head, again.

The official account of the proceedings cited unnamed delegations as stressing the importance of concluding a comprehensive convention in order to provide states with “a definition of terrorism to ensure universal criminalization.”

However, “the need for a clear definition of terrorism, which distinguished terrorism from the legitimate struggle in the exercise of their right to self-determination of peoples under colonial, alien domination or foreign occupation was reaffirmed,” it said.

Evident in the record of the meeting was the frustration felt by some countries’ representatives, with some saying that if agreement could not be reached “then it was pointless to continue to discuss the matter annually.”

“The committee should not, it was suggested, continue to deliberate on the same issue every year if it is clear to all in attendance that there was no possibility for agreement,” it said.

Some remained optimistic, suggesting that a date be set for a high-level U.N. conference that “could assist in resolving the outstanding issues surrounding the draft convention, including the definition of terrorism.”

But other participants countered that a conference should only be held after agreement is reached on the draft convention.

‘Differentiate between terrorism and legitimate struggle’

Three years after India first submitted its draft proposal, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1999 finalized its own convention on combating international terrorism. It states that “peoples’ struggle including armed struggle against foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism, and hegemony, aimed at liberation and self-determination in accordance with the principles of international law shall not be considered a terrorist crime.”

Among others, carving out an exception for acts of violence taken by people under “foreign occupation” could provide cover for Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups’ attacks against Israeli civilians, Pakistani-backed jihadist operations in the Indian-controlled part of disputed Kashmir, and militant attacks against Western civilian targets in Afghanistan.

Over the years since the OIC convention was adopted, the occupation position has been reiterated.

An OIC 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,” while another 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.”

Similarly, Arab ministers meeting in 2010 agreed “emphasized the need to differentiate between terrorism and the legitimate struggle of people against occupation.”

In 2006, the U.N. General Assembly did manage to adopt a “global counter-terrorism strategy” that sidestepped the issue of defining terrorism.

Four years later Saudi Arabia and the U.N. jointly set up the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Center (UNCCT), with an initial three years of Saudi government funding, to help implement the strategy.

The weekend conference in Riyadh was a meeting of the UNCCT, and aimed “to promote collaboration between international, regional and national counter-terrorism centers and to encourage participating centers to take part in and improve current UNCCT projects.”

In his address – read out by another official on his behalf – Foreign Minister Saud said that “terrorism threatens all people without discrimination” and states need to cooperate to fight it.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not attend, but an official representing him, Jehangir Khan, told the conference that Ban “attaches the greatest importance to the United Nations counter-terrorism work, including the UNCCT, which is generously supported by the kingdom.”

“It [terrorism] has no religion, no nationality and it is a global threat,” Khan said.

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

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