Sunday, March 27, 2005

Terrorism in Kofi Annan's UN reform proposals

One aspect of Kofi Annan's UN reform proposals (text here) that has tended to receive positive comment in the United States is his call for a convention on terrorism that eliminates one huge area of contention - state (read "Israel") terrrorism. As the SG says at paragraph 91, "It is time to set aside debates on so-called “State terrorism”. The use of force by States is already thoroughly regulated under international law." With respect to the definition of terrorism itself, he goes on:

"I endorse fully the High-level Panel's call for a definition of terrorism, which would make it clear that, in addition to actions already proscribed by existing conventions, any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act. "

I do not want to suggest that this is not a step forward. But before jumping aboard the road to a convention, the United States needs to be very clear about what this affirmatively says and what it leaves out or at least leaves in ambiguity.

Assume for a moment that the definition of terrrorism were what was cited above, without reference to "existing conventions." Would that be a sufficient definition of terrorism? Many would rush to say yes, but in fact it would not cover what we already now regard as terrorism. We do not limit the definition of terrorism to civilians and noncombatants. If we did so, we would have to accept the IRA's view that (a) it is okay to target British soldiers and police, security forces if you, the terrorist, have determined you are in an armed conflict with them and (b) collateral civilian damage that would be acceptable within the traditional rules of war is likewise okay provided that you did not target the civilians.

Obviously that is unacceptable - whether you are talking about the IRA or the attack on the USS Cole - the latter being an attack that, if it really were legitimate armed conflict, would have been exemplary in that it involved no civilians or noncombatants.

The point is that proscribing attacks on civilians only gets you part of the way in the definition of terrorism. If you want to cover attacks on security forces, you can only do so if you are willing to define who has the authority to determine to go to war. We deny that the IRA has the legal authority to be at war with the British state; we deny that Al Qaeda has the legal authority to be at war with the United States. Any attacks these groups carry out - any attacks - whether on otherwise legitimate military targets or not are all terrorism, because the group fighting the state lacks the legal authority to make war. But in order to draw that line, you have to be willing to draw at least some lines with respect to who has the right to make war. States, it is accepted, have that right - their cause may be unjust or illegal, but states can make war - but the question is how far it extends to non-state actors.

The world has gone through great spasms over national liberation movements, granting them the legal authority to make war. In overwhelming part those wars are over - the question of Palestine is really the only one left. (In reality, there is only that is really left, that of democratic Taiwan. But it doesn't get much attention as an issue of self-determination among the "international community," given that the world's progressives, the world's leftwing, especially in Europe, refuse any moral authority to the self-determination of the democratic state of Taiwan - seeing them as troublemakers who get in the way of European-China trade in arms that, the post-Christian God of Europe willing, China might someday use to humble the wicked United States.) Yet the fact remains that many of the world's democracies, starting with the United States, emerged from the point of the gun - and from Locke onward, the question has been how to legitimize authority that arises from rebellion, revolution, insurrection, sedition, secession, and insurgency. Under what circumstances can non-state actors legally make war?

I won't try to answer that question here, now. But I emphasize that the question of what constitutes terrorism cannot be settled without taking it into account - provided that you believe, as the United States must believe, that it can still be terrorism if you target not civilians but the sailors of the USS Cole.

The High Level Panel report fudged that issue by referring to "existing conventions," which deal with a variety of specific terrorist situations, such as hostage taking, aircraft hijacking, etc. But so far as I can determine, those existing conventions do not deal with the question of attacks on security forces of a state as such. Perhaps it can be said that the definition of terrorism, if it is the civilian-oriented definition of the High Level Panel report plus the existing conventions, covers these attacks on security forces. But that is far, far from clear to me, and that must be clarified in creating what Annan calls a "comprehensive" terrorism convention that the United States can join - if it does not include a clear treatment of attacks on state security forces, then it cannot be, from the viewpoint of the United States, "comprehensive."

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