Monday, September 12, 2005

Struggles in UN over definition of terrorism

This story from AFP discusses how agreement on a universal definition of terrorism - one of the key elements of UN reform in the conference taking place September 14-16 - appears in danger of being derailed, mostly over disagreements on Palestinian attacks on civilians. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for a definition of terrorism that makes deliberate targeting of civilians terrorism no matter what the cause or justification; it is resisted by various Arab and other governments. (I have noted in earlier blog posts that although this is a large step in the right direction, it is still an incomplete definition of terrorism because it leaves out attacks on military personnel such as British military by the IRA that would ordinarily be counted as terrorism even though they are not civilian.)

UN struggles to agree on definition of terrorism
First posted 10:28am (Mla time)
Sept 12, 2005
By Agence France-Presse

UNITED NATIONS -- World leaders at the UN General Assembly summit this week must try to find common ground on the vexing issue of terrorism, despite sharp disagreements focusing mainly on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

For eight years, diplomats have been sweating over a comprehensive draft convention that would encompass previous texts on the fight against terrorism (bombings, financing and nuclear and biological terror).
But they have so far stumbled over an acceptable definition of terrorism, particularly in the Middle East, where groups seen by some countries as terrorists are viewed by others as freedom fighters.

Last March, UN chief Kofi Annan proposed a formula stipulating that no cause or grievance, "no matter how legitimate," could justify attacks on civilians.

He then outlined a strategy aimed at cutting support, finance and equipment for terrorist groups, deterring states from sponsoring terrorism, developing counter-terrorism capacity and defending human rights.
Annan has repeatedly stressed the need for agreement on a universal definition of terrorism that could be part of a declaration at the September 14-16 gathering of world leaders here ahead of the UN General Assembly.

But terrorism is one of seven contentious issues that member states are still trying to resolve in last-minute negotiations to save the summit from failure.

Those in favor of a definition want the statement at the very least to say that "killing civilians to achieve political objectives amounts to terrorism," said a diplomat negotiating the tough issues as part of a 33-country core group.

"The Palestinian position is at the heart of this," he said, stressing that the Palestinians, backed by Arab countries, want the right to resist foreign occupation firmly recognized and assurances that measures to combat terrorism should not be used to curb a legitimate struggle of self-determination.

They also oppose anything that would imply that the actions taken in Palestine by the Palestinian authority could in some way amount to terrorism.

"It implies that it is legitimate under certain circumstances to kill and that's a view the European Union will not accept," the diplomat noted. "So chances of getting concessions at the moment -- because that's an issue that's been around for years -- are pretty slim, but we're still working."

Another diplomat directly involved in the terrorism talks said the summit might decide to agree a general statement and leave the details to negotiators drafting the comprehensive convention who have set a December deadline for the General Assembly to endorse it.

World leaders will also discuss terrorism on the sidelines of the summit when they attend a special Security Council session on September 14.

The council, which is chaired by the Philippines this month, was expected to approve a draft resolution introduced by Britain which aims to discourage incitement to terrorism.

The British move was clearly prompted by the July 7 London suicide bomb blasts, which killed 56 people, and the failed repeat attack on July 21.

"It's a tricky, sensitive issue because we all respect free speech, but there must be a limit on freedom to incite terrorist acts and that's what we are pointing out," Britain's UN envoy Emyr Jones Parry said in submitting the draft September 1.

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