On 19 October, 1999 the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution No. 1269 (1999), condemning “all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustified, regardless of their motivation.” This resolution is an important step towards achieving real and effective international cooperation against terrorism. It is a step in the right direction, yet only a first step. It must be followed by a bid for an acceptable international definition of terrorism.
Terrorism is wrong, agreed. But what is terrorism?
There are a great number of resolutions calling upon the international community to deepen and unify their efforts against international terrorism. However, all of this is unfortunately no more than lip service. Without reaching an acceptable international definition of the term “terrorism” one can sign any declaration or agreement against terrorism without having to fulfil ones obligations as per the agreement. For every country participatory to the agreement will define the phenomenon of terrorism differently from every other country. This lack of an internationally accepted definition of terrorism reflects the hypocrisy in international politics as a whole and in the case of counter terrorism as a case in point.
When a violent act is aimed against a particular country, that country will define the act as terrorism and the perpetrators terrorists. But when the same act is aimed against another country, then the countries not affected may refer to the perpetrators as guerillas, freedom fighters, an underground movement or some other terms - terms with a more positive connotation than the word “terrorist.”
This situation is reflected in the well-known saying, “one men’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This saying reflects a misunderstanding and a misuse of the term “terrorism.” It implies that the definition of terrorism is a matter of point of view and does not lend itself to objective judgment. This cliche is founded on the will of the perpetrators of violence to make a case that the same act will have a different interpretation depending on ones attitudes to the end goal of the perpetrators. It is just another way of saying, “The end justifies the means.”
The quest for consensus
So the question still stands - What is terrorism? As mentioned above, the Security Council resolution is one step in the right direction. Unfortunately this is not enough. Now the council must reach an understanding on what constitutes a terrorist act.
It is clear that sometimes a non-state organization - a community, an ethnic group or a religious sect - may have just grievances against a regime. When a nation suffers from foreign occupation, or a society is controlled by a ruthless dictatorship, or a regime commits crimes against humanity, one can argue that the afflicted community has every right to use violence against the state or regime.
Almost every nation has at some time in its past used violence against what it saw as an evil regime. But the question is - even in case of a just cause is every use of violence justified? Or are there certain types of violence that should always be forbidden?
The next step that the Security Council must take is to declare unequivocally that even in case of a just cause - a cause in which the use of violence may be considered justified, one type of violence in never justified. This is the intentional use of violence against civilians. Or in other words, “terrorism,” defined as “the deliberate use of violence against civilians in order to achieve political aims.” This type of violence is always unacceptable even when used in the most righteous of causes (see “Defining Terrorism”).
Only when all states agree on what type of acts constitute terrorism, can resolutions such as this latest one have any real effect on the international arena. Such a consensus is not impossible. A precedent already exists in the parallel definition of the term “war crime,” defined as the intentional targeting of civilians by military personnel. It is this international agreement on the definition of the act that alone makes possible international extradition, prosecution and punishment of individuals who perpetrate such acts.
The end does not justify the means, period
The significance of the Security Council resolution is its insistence that when dealing with terrorism there is no taking into account the motivations of the perpetrators. In the case of terrorism the end does not justify the means.
One can not justify atrocities by saying I am not a terrorist because I am a freedom fighter. The answer in that case would be: maybe you are a freedom fighter but if you are using violence against civilians then you are most certainly a terrorist as well.
One of the great ironies in this latest Security Council action is that the draft of resolution 1269 was proposed by none other than Russia--the very country that once (in its communist phase) defended nearly every major terrorist organization in the world. In fact, Russian support for a number of such organizations was based on the justification that their just cause excused any and all acts. But when these experts in the use of the phrase “freedom fighters; not terrorists” came under attack by such groups themselves, they quickly saw the need to draw a clear line between terrorism and other types of violence.
Those states that have seen their daily life disrupted by brutal attacks on civilians can see most clearly that the use of terrorism cannot be legitimized by any cause - no matter how just.
Appendix: Text of Security Resolution 1629