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“In Larger Freedom” VI


If the New York Times understood anything about the Secretary-General’s In Larger Freedom document, surely it was this: The document’s proposed definition of terrorism would in fact “redefine terrorism,” the Times noted, and redefine terrorism so as “to end any justifications of its use for national resistance.”


At the March 21 press conference that accompanied the release of the document, the very first question and answer went as follows:

Question: On the issue of State terrorism: normally, of course, in this house, that is a reference to a single country. But everyone knows that it could easily be applied to many other countries, and it would not be hard to find people who are ready to accuse all five permanent members of the Security Council of State terrorism. With that in mind, how can you possibly think that you can agree on a definition of terrorism and a convention on terrorism — which countries would know could be used as a club against them?

The Secretary-General: I know this is an issue we have been discussing here for a long time. Let me state that we have already passed 12 conventions on terrorism. We are now looking at a comprehensive convention. I think that the report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change offers us a basis to move forward, making it clear that, whatever the cause, attacking, killing and deliberately maiming civilians or non-combatants is not acceptable, and is terrorism pure and simple. Yes, there is argument about States and the States’ use of force. That is already taken care of under international law. International law prescribes how States can and should use force. If they break the law, they can also be held to account. So that side has been taken care of. What we need to do is to come up with a definition that is generally acceptable. I hope we can all agree that deliberate targeting of innocent civilians and non-combatants is simply not acceptable.

Of course, the fifth through eighth sentences of Annan’s response were utterly disingenuous. Whatever international law (such as its is) prescribes and proscribes with respect to a state’s use of force, about when states can resort to military violence, and how—the supreme crime, the ultimate Nuremberg-class crime, remaining the crime against the peace, the starting of a war, aggression—actual cases in which a state’s violations of international law have led to its political leadership being held to account are rare indeed.—Might anybody care to name them?

So: Contra the Secretary-General, that side has not been taken care of. Not in the least.

(Quick aside. A later questioner put an even more pointed question to Annan. “In your report,” this person noted, “the language on terrorism is exactly the same language you used in your Madrid presentation [i.e., SG/SM/9757, March 10, 2005], which led many countries — not the United States, but actually developing countries, African included — to call for, to speak about, your resignation and to urge that you resign because they were quite unhappy with the way you handled this. Now, you called on that to cut through the political debate on terrorism, the right to resist occupation and the State terrorism. Are you insisting right now that, no matter what, you will not cut through the debate?” But Annan dismissed this line of inquiry. Far more frank was the observation of the Secretary-General’s new Chief of Staff, Mark Malloch Brown: “Reform really has to align the UN behind an agenda that includes a security system which can fully meet US concerns on terrorism.” (“UN in dramatic climbdown after American pressure,” Charles Laurence, Sunday Telegraph, March 20.) Fully meeting U.S. concerns….Now I think we’re getting somewhere.)

Persuading the members of the United Nations to adopt a particular definition of terrorism is a lot more central to the overall scheme of the Annan reform package than it may at first appear. The term ‘terrorism‘ itself enjoys a fairly ubiquitous presence in the document. As best I can tell, the term turns up no less than 40 times throughout the body of In Larger Freedom (exclusive of the Table of Contents). At least three times, the document refers to “catastrophic terrorism,” meaning terrorism on a par with exploding a nuclear weapon in an major urban setting (and the like). Three times it refers explicitly to “nuclear terrorism,” and another time to “biological terrorism.” It refers to “transnational terrorism” once (i.e., “Transnational networks of terrorist groups have global reach and make common cause to pose a universal threat” (Par. 87)), “State terrorism” once (though crucially the document urges us to “set aside debates on so-called ‘State terrorism’,” since the “use of force by States is already thoroughly regulated under international law” (Par. 91)), and once to “sponsoring terrorism” (i.e., “Our strategy…must deter States from sponsoring terrorism” (Par. 88)). The document also refers to “counter-terrorism” once (i.e., it makes the important point that “counter-terrorism measures” must be compatible with “international human rights laws” (Par. 94), rather than criminal acts in their own right.) All in all, it does appear that there is something about terrorism for which it has been awarded a prominent place within the Secretary-General’s proposals.

As with many of the other “security” related proposal’s in the document, In Larger Freedom draws much of its material on terrorism from the recommendations of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (pars. 157-164). And it is worth emphasizing that here, too, we find exactly the same pretension that, because the criminal acts of states are covered by international law, we not only don’t need to bring the conduct of states under the definition of terrorism. But to do so would be redundant.

Thus, the High-Level Panel asserts that, although a “set of norms and laws — including the Charter of the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court — has regulated and constrained States’ decisions to use force and their conduct in war,” the “norms governing the use of force by non-State actors have not kept pace with those pertaining to States….The United Nations must achieve the same degree of normative strength concerning non-State use of force as it has concerning State use of force” (Par. 159).

The next two paragraphs of the High-Level Panel’s recommendations continue (apologies for quoting them in full—but it’s worth following this shadowplay on terrorism with some care):

160. The search for an agreed definition usually stumbles on two issues. The first is the argument that any definition should include States’ use of armed forces against civilians. We believe that the legal and normative framework against State violations is far stronger than in the case of non-State actors and we do not find this objection to be compelling. The second objection is that peoples under foreign occupation have a right to resistance and a definition of terrorism should not override this right. The right to resistance is contested by some. But it is not the central point: the central point is that there is nothing in the fact of occupation that justifies the targeting and killing of civilians.

161. Neither of these objections is weighty enough to contradict the argument that the strong, clear normative framework of the United Nations surrounding State use of force must be complemented by a normative framework of equal authority surrounding non-State use of force. Attacks that specifically target innocent civilians and non-combatants must be condemned clearly and unequivocally by all.

The High-Level Panel then lists four elements that it believes any definition of terrorism ought to include, the fourth of which affirms terrorism to be any action “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act” (Par. 164(d))—essentially the same definition proposed by the Annan document (Par. 91, as well as in its Annex, II.(d)-(f)).

For its part, the Annan document recapitulates the High-Level Panel’s recommendations as follows:

91. It is time to set aside debates on so-called “State terrorism”. The use of force by States is already thoroughly regulated under international law. And the right to resist occupation must be understood in its true meaning. It cannot include the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians. I endorse fully the High-level Panel’s call for a definition of terrorism, which would make it clear that, in addition to actions already proscribed by existing conventions, any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act. I believe this proposal has clear moral force, and I strongly urge world leaders to unite behind it and to conclude a comprehensive convention on terrorism before the end of the sixtieth session of the General Assembly.

But as with much of the foregoing, Par. 91 clearly is not true. Historically, state terrorism, precisely because it is the terrorism practiced by big and powerful states, dwarfs the terrorism of the dramatically smaller non-state actors—even when one factors in the more recent attacks on civilians that have received so much attention, beginning with the attacks of September 11, 2001, by far the single-most heavily reported terrorist atrocities in history. True enough: Anyone in his right mind would agree with the Secretary-General’s proposal that it is wrong to deliberately kill or maim civilians and non-combatants for any purpose whatsoever, including the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act. But would the Secretary-General, the High-Level Panel, and the rest of the proponents of this profoundly restrictive definition of terrorism honestly care to defend the Secretary-General’s presumption that we do not have to worry about states engaging in this sort of practice, because states already are thoroughly regulated under international law? And that what the United Nations (or the “international community”) of the 21st Century must aspire to is the same degree of normative strength concerning non-State use of force as it has concerning State use of force?

Does any of this sound reasonable to you?

What the Secretary-General’s proposed redefinition of terrorism amounts to is the following: Any action constitutes terrorism

(a) if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act; and
(b) if it is committed by very small, relatively powerless, (typically non-state) actors.

And as for those actions that (a) are intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants, the purpose of which, by their nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act—but that (b) are committed by very large and very powerful State actors? Well. Let’s not worry about these. Under the proposed redefinition of terrorism, the United Nations and the “international community” can always fall back upon the bedrock principles of international law, and the norms governing states’ use of armed force.

Sound like a plausible plan to you?

The Secretary-General’s proposal for the United Nations to adopt a new definition of terrorism such that any action by a state that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, is not to be regarded as terrorism, is an outrage. In this way, not only the invidious term ‘terrorism‘, but also the moral condemnation that universally accompanies this term’s usage, is to be reserved for the actions of small groups or individuals, the enforcement and propaganda organs of the United Nations to be marshaled against them.

To repeat here the famous—and ageless—passage from Saint Augustine (Book IV, Chapter iv):

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince; it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled an emperor.”

Now. Does the Secretary-General’s proposed redefinition of terrorism challenge the power of the worldly emperors? Or does it capitulate to them?

In point of fact, if adopted, the Secretary-General’s proposed redefinition of terrorism would place the institutional power and the international prestige of the United Nations squarely behind the Emperor.

And they call this “reform“!

An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-Keeping (A/47/277-S/24111), Report of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali et al., June, 1992
An Agenda for Development (A/48/935), Report of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali et al., May, 1994
Supplement to An Agenda for Peace, (A/50/60 – S/1995/1), Report of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali et al., January, 1995
(Please note that all three of these documents are electronically archived by the United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.)

The Responsibility To Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun et al., September, 2001 (For the HTML version of the same.)

United Nations Millennium Declaration (A/55/L.2), UN General Assembly, September 8, 2000
“We the Peoples”: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century, Kofi A. Annan et al., United Nation, 2000
UN Millennium Development Goals (Overview with links)
UN Millennium Project (Homepage)
A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, Anand Panyarachun et al., 2004 (For the complete PDF version of the same.)
Investing in Development: A Practical Plan To Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, Jeffrey D. Sachs et al., 2005 (For the complete PDF version of the same.—Also see the accompanying Media Release.)
In Larger Freedom: Towards Security, Development and Human Rights for All, Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for decisions by Heads of State and Government in September 2005 (A/59/2005), Kofi A. Annan et al., United Nations, 2005 (For the PDF version of the report.)
Transcript of Press Conference by Secretary-General Kofi Annan (SG/SM/9772), March 21, 2004

Secretary-General Offers Global Strategy for Fighting Terrorism, in Address to Madrid Summit” (SG/SM/9757), March 10, 2005
Secretary-General Kofi Annan Launches Global Strategy against Terrorism in Madrid” (SG/2095), March 10, 2005

Annan attacks erosion of rights in war on terror: US and Britain in UN secretary general’s sights,” Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, March 11, 2005
“In Madrid, Annan Calls for a Global Drive Against Terrorism,” Maggie Farley, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2005

UN in dramatic climbdown after American pressure,” Charles Laurence, Sunday Telegraph, March 20, 2005
Annan to Offer Plans for Change In U.N. Structure,” Warren Hoge, New York Times, March 21, 2005
“Annan: Resisting occupation can’t include killing maiming civilians,” Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post, March 22, 2005

Who Terrorizes Whom?” Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, ZNet, October 18, 2001

“In Larger Freedom” I, March 20, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” II, March 21, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” III, March 21, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” IV, March 22, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” V, March 25, 2005

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