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When Israeli commandos killed nine mostly Turkish activists during a raid on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Palestinians last May, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the attack as a prime example of “state terrorism”.
“Even tyrants, bandits and pirates have their own rules of ethics,” he said, but not terrorists killing on behalf of a UN member state.
And when several internationally renowned artists, including the rock band Pixies and British rocker Elvis Costello, responded by cancelling scheduled concerts in Tel Aviv, Shuki Weiss, one of Israel’s leading promoters, called the growing boycott movement “cultural terrorism”.
“Music and politics should not mix,” he said, even as the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel was picking up steam.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a UN Ad Hoc Committee to Eliminate Terrorism, created by the General Assembly back in December 1996, has remained deadlocked as it tries to reach agreement on a comprehensive draft convention to eliminate terrorism.
Last month, it made another unsuccessful effort at drawing a distinction between “freedom fighters” and “state sponsored terrorism”.
“One knows terrorism when one sees it,” said Ambassador Palitha Kohona of Sri Lanka, a former chief of the UN Treaty Section.
The draft convention, tabled in 2001 by India, has won agreement by several delegations to a substantial extent. However, it is bogged down on a few crucial issues. For example, it has been proposed by some that state sponsored terrorism or certain acts of states be covered by the draft, Kohona said.
Many others have resisted this proposal on the basis that acts of states are governed by other existing rules of international law and therefore, it was superfluous to cover this aspect under the draft.
Similarly, said Kohona, a proposal has been made to exclude certain acts of liberation movements from the ambit of the draft convention. But this has also met with wide resistance.
The proposed new comprehensive convention was intended to provide umbrella cover for situations not already addressed by the 13 existing sectoral conventions on terrorism concluded under the auspices of the United Nations.
Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, said that achieving and applying an objective definition of terrorism is rather beside the point.
He said terrorism has become a political epithet designed to place enemies beyond the pale as opposed to a technical term the purpose of which is to define certain criminal acts that violate the laws of war and for which the perpetrators can be held accountable.
“Thus, in the Middle East, it has reached the point where Palestinian or Arab armed activities that target Israeli military personnel are characterised as terrorist acts, while Israeli armed activities that deliberately target civilians are characterised as legitimate acts of self- defence,” he said.
“We could even conclude that at least in the Middle East, terrorism refers to the ethnicity of the perpetrator as opposed to the perpetrator’s actions,” said Rabbani.
“Thus we enter into the realm of the absurd, where campaigns to boycott Israel or more narrowly illegal Israeli phenomena, such as settlement products – acts that are by definition non-violent and don’t require so much as a water pistol – are termed terrorism,” noted Rabbani.
The collective punishment of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, an ongoing act that has cost numerous lives with the sanction of the United States and the European Union, is by contrast justified as a legitimate anti-terrorist campaign, he said.
Dr. Rohan Perera, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee to Eliminate Terrorism, claimed the only way to reach a consensus on the issue is to follow the path of adopting an operational or a criminal law definition of terrorism, rather than a generic definition.
The former approach has been followed in the 13 sectoral conventions on terrorism, and avoids the pitfalls of the latter approach which involves excluding certain types of conduct such as those committed by national liberation movements (NLM).
Accordingly, he said, the draft contains a criminal law definition.
“The question of state terrorism will continue to be governed by general principles of international law, as it is not possible to deal with this aspect in a law enforcement instrument, dealing with individual criminal responsibility, based on an ‘extradite or prosecute’ regime,” he said.
Similarly, said Perera, acts committed in the course of armed conflicts by NLMs will continue to be governed by international humanitarian law. “The negotiations started in 2000 and we were close to agreement in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11 (terrorist attacks on the United States)”. But since then, it has remained stalled, with little significant progress.
He said that negotiations would resume within the framework of the UN’s Sixth Committee dealing with legal issues.
Asked if there will ever be a new comprehensive convention to eliminate terrorism because of the continuing deadlock, said Kohona: “Of course, there will be a convention.”
The international community has repeatedly condemned the use of terrorism as a tool of political expression and for any other purpose and therefore will seek to address the gaps in the existing international legal framework by concluding this convention.
“It will also wish to send another unequivocal message to those who rely on terrorist force to achieve their goals,” he said.
This article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.