Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

27th February 2000

NAM, compilation of terrorist states?

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NEW YORK- A Third World proposal for a major international conference on terrorism may be in trouble. The US and Western Europe have expressed fears that the conference may raise one of the most politically sensitive issues at the UN: how to distinguish a "terrorist" from a "freedom fighter".

Should Hezbollah fighters, battling to oust the Israeli army from southern Lebanon, be labelled terrorists or freedom fighters? Is Hamas, which is fighting the Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza, a liberation movement or a terrorist organisation?

An equally controversial issue that could come up at the conference is the subject of "state terrorism". Should military attacks by armed forces of any State be deemed acts of terrorism, particularly when civilians are killed?

To what extent were last year's NATO bombings of the former Yugoslavia regarded as acts of terrorism and a violation of the national sovereignty of a UN member state?

US delegate Robert Rosenstock told the UN's Ad hoc Committee on Terrorism that the proposed conference on terrorism will have no "practical benefits" and will be a futile exercise. "The issues suggested as possible subjects at such a conference had historically confounded a practical solution," he said.

The proposed conference is being backed by the 114 member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the largest single political grouping of developing nations. But since the Ad hoc Committee, like most UN committees, takes decisions only by consensus, a single member state could torpedo the proposal by just opposing it despite the overwhelming support for it.

Rosenstock told the Committee that a conference on terrorism would distract from pragmatic measures that could and should be taken such as steps to facilitate and encourage universal adherence to the 11 terrorism conventions adopted by the United Nations.The US delegate questioned whether an international conference on terrorism would be "an useful stimulus or a costly distraction."

The UN has about 11 conventions relating to terrorism, the last two being the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Financing (1999) and the UN Convention on the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997).

Meanwhile, India has proposed a comprehensive omnibus convention against terrorism which will cover elements of all 11 existing conventions into a single treaty. These conventions have been prompted by the dramatic rise in terrorism in Third World nations such as Algeria, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Peru, Mexico and Colombia.

But domestic terrorism once a staple mostly of Third World nations is also spreading into industrial nations such as the US, France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Japan and Britain, and also the former Soviet republics.

The Western nations, as evident in the bombings in Paris and New York city are also trying to battle a relatively new phenomenon: international terrorism.

The bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, the mid air explosion of a PanAm jet over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 and the spate of explosions in the Paris subway in 1996 were not acts of home grown terrorism. They were terrorist acts hatched, nurtured and transplanted across continents originating in the volatile politics of North Africa and the Middle East.

The US State Department categorizes seven countries and all members of NAM as terrorist states: Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Syria, North Korea and Cuba.

With the spread of terrorism to the far corners of the globe, the UN is not the only institution paying attention to the growing new danger.

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