Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Terrorist or freedom fighter?

by pv vivekanand

"The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organised group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." This is how the American Heritage Dictionary defines terrorism.
The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics defines terrorism with a note that it is a term with "no agreement amongst government or academic analysts," but that "(it is) almost invariably used in a pejorative sense, most frequently to describe life-threatening actions perpetrated by politically motivated self-appointed sub-state groups. But if such actions are carried out on behalf of a widely approved cause, say the Maquis seeking to destabilise the government of Vichy France then the term 'terrorism' is avoided and something more friendly is substituted. In short, one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter."
This is precisely what is snagging ongoing efforts at the United Nations to come with a universally acceptable definition for terrorism.
For many years, diplomats at the UN have been grappling with the question, often with the United States pitted against Arab countries' efforts not to allow the "terrorism" label to be attached to legitimate Palestinian resistance against Israel's occupation of Palestinian land.
The debate was particularly sharp during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where Washington described the mujahedeen and their supporters — including Osama Bin Laden — fighting the Red Army as freedom fighters. The US refused to accord the same status to the Palestinian groups waging a war of resistance to liberate their land from Israel.
How does the US itself define terrorism?
The US National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) describes a terrorist act as one which is "premeditated; perpetrated by a subnational or clandestine agent; politically motivated, potentially including religious, philosophical, or culturally symbolic motivations; violent; and perpetrated against a noncombatant target."
However, there is some small print attached to this definition that is designed to ward off accusations of terror against the US and its allies, particularly Israel. That says terrorism could never be inflicted by a state. Again, keeping in mind that this could be used by states hostile to the US, the American definition also adds that there are states which "sponsor" terrorism but not directly engaged in acts of terror.
Appearing in the US State Department's list of countries "sponsoring" terrorism are Syria and Sudan as well as Libya, which is expected to be removed from the list as part of an American-Libyan deal over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
Groups listed as terrorist include Al Qaeda Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and several other Middle East-based organisations.
A British list of 21 "terrorist organisations" prepared in the last 1990s included six Islamic groups, four anti-Israel groups, eight separatist groups and three opposition groups. The list included Hizbollah, which though armed, is a legal political party in Lebanon and its member are elected to parliament.
Again, the discrimination in approach is further highlighted when it is noted that the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is active in Turkey, was in the list, but other Iraqi groups such as the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which were active in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, were excluded.
Similarly, the Mujahedeen e-Khalaq, an Iranian dissident group then based in Iraq with Saddam's blessing, was outlawed, but not the Iraqi National Council based in London and similar to the Mujahedeen e-Khalq in concept was not if only because the US supported the anti-Saddam group.
Until now, the United Nations has not accepted any definition of terrorism as being authoritative. A 1988 document titled "academic consensus definition," written by terrorism expert AP Schmid and widely used by social scientists, says:
"Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby — in contrast to assassination — the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organisation), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to man's terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought."
The debate at the UN was reported to have produced a draft resolution on Monday. It calls on all UN states to take steps to "prohibit by law incitement to commit a terrorism act or acts."
Governments will also be committed to "deny safe haven to any persons with respect to whom there is credible and relevant information giving serious reasons for considering that they have been guilty of such conduct."