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A Global Consensus Against Terrorism

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
April 2005
Project Syndicate

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Mention the United Nations and the first reaction is likely to be the ongoing oil-for-food scandal and what it will mean for Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s ability to lead the organization for the remaining year and a half of his tenure.

But there is much more going on at the UN than investigations. Reform is in the air – in part because of the scandal, but also because of the UN’s inability to deal effectively with challenges ranging from Rwanda and Kosovo to Iraq and, most recently, Sudan. Even the UN’s most ardent supporters now recognize that change is called for if the organization is to make a significant contribution to international peace and security.

Some of the reform talk concerns the UN Security Council’s composition. The Security Council represents what the World War II Allies believed the post-war world would look like and how it should be run. This helps to explain why a much-weakened France was made a permanent member of the Council – and why Germany and Japan (and a not-yet independent India) were not.

Defending the Security Council’s current make-up is impossible; the need for change is beyond debate. But coming up with an approach that gains broad international support will prove extremely difficult.

Great Britain and France will resist being replaced by a single EU seat, while making Germany a permanent member would only exacerbate the problem of Europe’s relative over-representation. Pakistan would object to adding India to the Security Council; Argentina, Chile, and Mexico to adding Brazil; Nigeria to South Africa (and vice-versa); and several countries, including China, Indonesia, and South Korea, might resist creating a permanent seat for Japan.

Clearly, fixing the Security Council will require considerable time and political effort. In the meantime, there is important work to be done. One productive avenue would be to follow up on one of the recommendations of the High Level Panel that was endorsed by Annan; namely, that all UN members go on record declaring that terrorism has no place in today’s world.

This will prove more difficult than it first sounds. For too long, the international community has tolerated terrorism – the intentional killing of civilians and noncombatants by non-state actors for political purposes – on the grounds that, on occasion, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Historians have the luxury of debating whether terrorism may have been justified in certain situations in the past. We do not. Modern terrorism is too destructive to be tolerated, much less supported.

Weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons – are just that, and no cause can excuse their use. Moreover, as the terrorist attacks on America of 2001 showed, weapons as basic as box-cutters can become weapons of mass destruction if they are used to exploit the vulnerabilities of modern, global life.

Terrorism is even less justified given that political avenues exist nowadays for pursuing political aims. Palestinians can negotiate their future relationship with Israel and can count on American, Russian, European, and UN assistance. Iraqis have elected their own representatives and are poised to write their constitution. No one pursuing reasonable goals and who is prepared to compromise can argue that terrorism is his or his group’s only option.

The world has already taken some important steps against terrorism. A dozen international conventions and numerous UN resolutions commit governments to oppose hostage taking, the hijacking of civilian aircraft, and terrorism more broadly.

Similarly, the mandate of the Financial Action Task Force, created in 1989 to curb money laundering, has grown and become focused mainly on curbing terrorist financing. UN Security Council Resolution 1373, passed after the September 11 attacks, calls on states to deny safe haven to terrorists, bring to justice anyone associated with terrorism, suppress recruitment by terrorist groups, block terrorists’ efforts to acquire weapons, and cooperate with other governments and international organizations in tracking suspects and boosting security.

What is missing is a new, 13th convention that closes the loophole that seems to permit governments to decide what constitutes terrorism and what does not. Broad agreement is needed that any intentional killing of civilians and noncombatants is unacceptable, and that its perpetrators and supporters must be punished.

Of course, such a convention will not prevent all future acts of terrorism. But ideas matter. Terrorism needs to be de-legitimized in the way that slavery has been. Doing so will make governments and individuals think twice before becoming a party to terrorism; it should also make it less difficult to garner support for international action against those who nevertheless carry it out.

We are taught early on in our lives that the end cannot justify the means. It is time to put this principle into effect before many more innocent lives are lost.

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