What is terrorism? The UN can’t define it

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India has decided to take urgent measures to counter radicalisation and would soon hold an international conference in this regard. Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar said that he is surprised as to why the United Nations had not come out with a definition on what exactly terrorism means to the globe.

A similar point had been raised two years ago by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he urged the UN to define terrorism. Several attempts have been made in the past to define terror, but it has always fallen flat on the logic, 'your terrorist is my freedom fighter'.

What is terrorism? The UN can’t define it

The UN had said on October 7, 2005, by its 6th committee that it has not been able to define terrorism. Take for instance the killing Hadeel al-Hashlamun, a 19-year-old girl at Hebron check-post on September 22, 2015. The Palestinians termed it as Israel sponsored terrorism. However Israel termed it as an act of self-defence.

When the UN was known as the League of Nations, following the 1934 assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in Marseilles by Croatian and Macedonian separatists, France proposed that the League should adopt a comprehensive convention on terrorism. This was done on November 16, 1937.

However, it restricted 'terrorism' only to anti-state acts by defining it as 'criminal acts directed against a state and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public'. The league went on to ask its members to pass national laws.

In the 1970s, Libyan ruler Muammar el- Qaddafi opened camps to help what he called freedom struggles by the Irish Republican Army, Basque separatists, Italian Red Brigades and Palestinian groups. Other powers such as the US called it terrorism.

The US notified Libya as a sponsor of terrorism. Sanctions were imposed. However, Libya was removed from that list when Qaddafi stopped aiding these 'freedom fighters'. That, however, did not prevent the US and others from organising an uprising in Libya from 2011 through non-state actors to remove Qaddafi. Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst has said that this had only 'worsened chaos' in the region.

Why has the UN not been able to define terror?

According to V Balachandran, a former officer with the Research and Analysis Wing, there are several reasons why the UN has not been able to do so. The UN had drawn up 14 legal instruments in which it had described what constituted individual acts of terror. The 1963 Tokyo convention on in flight safety and the convention against hijacking in 1970 were drawn up.

In 2010, an additional protocol (Beijing protocol) was added to this convention. In 1971, another convention was passed to reinforce air travel security on the recommendation of the Montreal based International Civil Aviation Organisation.

In the same year, diplomats were protected under a special convention. This was necessitated by a spate of attacks on the diplomatic missions of the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and Cuba during 1971-1972. In 1979, hostage taking was prohibited.

Between 1980 and 2005, there were 8 more legal instruments that were drawn up for the safety of nuclear material, prevention of airport violence, safety of maritime navigation and fixed platforms (oil drills), prevention of plastic explosives, terrorist bombings and terrorist financing.

Post 9/11, the UN Security Council passed Resolution No: 1373 on September 28, 2001 calling upon all members to implement the above 14 legal instruments. The UN Drug Control and Crime Prevention Secretariat was given the nodal role in monitoring compliance.

Since 2000, the UN Ad Hoc Committee has been examining a draft paper on Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism -- including a common definition. The latest report on the UN web is of 2011. The progress is unsatisfactory. Members of various political hues are still divided over what could be the exact definition of terrorism, says Balachandran.

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