inside the glass house
by thalif deen
2nd December 2001
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Tug-o'-war over UN terrorism treaty 

NEW YORK - The United Nations has 12 key international treaties against terrorism covering subjects ranging from hijacking and hostage-taking to bombings and fund-raising for terrorism.

But despite the world's preoccupation with terrorism since the September 11 attacks on the US, the United Nations remains bogged down on a treaty described as the last word on anti-terrorism "A Comprehensive Convention Against Terrorism."

The new omnibus treaty is expected to incorporate all of the key elements of the existing 12 conventions against terrorism.

The negotiations, however, have remained deadlocked on several politically sensitive issues: How to define terrorism, distinguish terrorist organisations from liberation movements, and handle activities of national armed forces perceived as acts of terrorism.

The reasons are not hard to find. On a more global scale, says former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, even the American-led international coalition against terrorism does not share a common definition of the terrorist threat.

"To the Indians, it is the Muslims in Kashmir; to the Russians, it is the Chechens; to the Israelis, it is the Palestinians; to the Arabs, it is the Israelis,'' he points out.

"And to the Americans, it is not Islam, rightly so, but who is it beyond the satanic image on the TV screen of Osama bin Laden?," he adds.

The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and Arab League States insist that the new treaty should exempt from consideration as terrorists all those engaged in conflicts against "foreign occupation."

This would include the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Lebanese-based militia, the Hizbollah, both of which have been battling Israeli- occupation.

Originally, national liberation movements were recognized in the context of colonial occupation more recently those in South Africa and Namibia.

In Lebanon, Hizbollah is perceived as a "resistance movement" which, until last year, fought a 22-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. 

However, Israel not only considers Hizbollah a terrorist organisation but is also pressing the US to target it in its global war against terrorism.

In early November, Washington identified Hizbollah as one of 28 "terrorist" organisations whose foreign assets were frozen. But the Lebanese government has refused to cooperate in blacklisting the group.

Australian diplomat Richard Rowe, who has been coordinating the complex negotiations, singled out article 18 of the treaty as especially divisive. 

This clause specifically deals with the scope of the convention, in particular the activities of armed forces.

For example, the United States has said its bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 was accidental an explanation which China has rejected. If the bombing was not accidental, the US military strike would be deemed an act of terrorism. 

In October, Israeli armed forces attacked and briefly occupied the offices of the Palestinian Authority in the occupied territories.

The Arabs argued that this was clearly an act of "state terrorism" which should come within the ambit of the treaty. Israel has rejected this argument.

Rohan Perera, chairman of the Adhoc Committee on Terrorism, says his committee will make another attempt early next year to help bridge the differences.

"We are confident we can make headway," he said. The committee is scheduled to meet here Jan. 28-Feb. 1.

Meanwhile, in its war against terrorism, the Western coalition is fighting violence with violence as evidenced in the military strikes against Afghanistan.

When he addressed the General Assembly last month, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar exposed the political hypocrisy of "the great, liberal democracies of the West" who permitted the funding of terrorism to continue even while the same terrorists were assassinating political leaders both in India and Sri Lanka.

"We received merely sympathies, condolences, expressions of shock and outrage," he told delegates.

When half of the number of aircraft of the national airline were wiped out, he pointed out, "we were advised by some governments to negotiate. We were reminded that violence begets violence." Mr. Kadirgamar, however, admitted that the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US have accelerated the whole anti-terrorist movement because of the involvement of "the mighty superpower". 

Asked about the positive fallout for countries like Sri Lanka, he said there was not only a far greater awareness of the problem of international terrorism but also a far greater willingness to work at it.

Mr. Kadirgamar described it as "the slow culmination of a process that began painfully some years ago on our part when we had to go round knocking on the doors of the world's chancelleries pleading our little cause."

The response at that time, he said, was negative as most Western nations said there was nothing they can do since they did not have national laws to deal with terrorism.

"I used to say prophetically: 'Terrorism may not be your problem today, but it will be your problem tomorrow.'"



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