The Politics of Terrorism and UN

Jon Kofas writes:A clear definition of terrorism and its multifaceted causes has been notably absent from any political and media discource before and since 9/11. Noam Chomsky pointed out that only the Wall Street Journal, to its great credit, took the time and effort immediately after 9/11 to find out why there is such militant opposition to U.S. policy in the Muslim world. The State Department's response was to hire a PR person from New York to intensify "public diplomacy" (U.S. propaganda) as a means of lessening opposition toward U.S. policies around the world. That person has since left her job, after realizing the impossibility of the  task. Not only has the Bush administration obfuscated the term "terrorism" to the degree that it is very broad and generic encompassing all unconventional forms of opposition to U.S. policies, but the administration has allowed authoritarian regimes around the world to define "terrorism" as they see fit, as long as they back the  U.S. Does this sound like the Cold War when we backed dictators in the name of "fighting Communism?"

Before the Democrat convention, former president Jimmy Carter held an international conference in Atlanta GA on this issue, and he explained to the press after the conference that he was stunned to hear from activists of various countries that human rights workers, UN personnel, intellectuals questioning tyrannical methods used by the state against its citizens, and any opponent of a regime can and has been labeled "terrorist" in some countries. Such a maximalist definition that encompasses all opposition to a regime trivializes the issue. This is especially important in the light of the bloodbath that took place in Russia with the Chechnya rebels and hostages. Do people who strive for self-determination and face the conventional forces of a powerful government have the right to fight back, or do they submit to tyranny? Just as the UN decided on a definition of Human Rights, Racism, Genocide, Apartheid, Ethnic Cleansing, etc. it is time that the UN revisit the issue of "terrorism" and provide the appropriate mechanism by which such a discussion must take place and then voted on by the General Assembly. Input from leading scholars with varying views, NGOs, politicians, church leaders, etc. will be significant in providing input to the UN's definition of the term, after outlining its complex root causes. Then the UN has to agree to a set of resolutions and sanctions. This does not mean that "terrorism" will be defeated as long as the state remains an instrument of oppression. But short of a multilateral UN-sanctioned approach, every authoritarian regime around the world, and even pluralistic societies like the U.S., will use the pretext of "terrorism" to unleash repression against their citizens who demand certain legitimate rights for minorities, workers, women, political opponents, etc. While people want safety and security, they also want to have their rights protected and do not wish to live in garrison states.
Istvan Simon writes: What distinguishes a terrorist from a legitimate resistance to tyranny and the like is the target. An act against schoolchildren or a civil airliner is terrorism, no matter what the political motivation behind it. Bombings of pizzerias and buses, as happens in Israel are  terrorist acts. Bombing of a resort in Bali, Indonesia to murder foreign tourists is a terrorist act. Killing Mr. Berg or Daniel Pearl is a terrorist act.

By the same definition the indiscriminate bombings of cities in the second World War by the Nazis first, and later by the allies, were terrorist acts on a massive scale. In contrast, Pearl Harbor was a cowardly attack on the United States, but it was not a terrorist act. The target was military installations and equipment, not the civilian population of Hawaii. It was thus an act of war, but not a terrorist act. The massacre of My Lai was a terrorist act, but the war in Vietnam in general was not.

The killing of innocent people who are singled out simply because of their nationality or religion is a terrorist act. The ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo by Serb forces, the murdering of Hutus in Rwanda, the systematic rape of women in the Sudan by the current authorities, are terrorist acts, and in these cases, because of their scale, also constitute genocide and crimes against humanity.

Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on: E-mail to Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: September 26, 2004