Terrorism or heroism: Whither UN treaty?
NEW YORK - When the former Soviet Union broke up in the late 1980s, military experts and peace activists sounded an ominous warning about the mystery of the missing nuclear weapons.

Alexander Lebed, a former national security chief under ex-President Boris Yeltsin, warned there were about 100 suitcase-sized Russian nuclear weapons missing and unaccounted for in the aftermath of the Cold War.

The Russian intelligence agency, the KGB, is reported to have acquired an unspecified number of small nuclear weapons, each weighing less than 75 pounds, that were not included in any post-Cold War inventory on global disarmament.

The threat of "loose nukes" was the theme of the 1997 Hollywood movie 'The Peacemaker' – partly shot outside the United Nations – which dramatized the story of a disgruntled Bosnian diplomat who acquires a backpack-sized nuclear weapon and brings it to New York to blow it outside the UN headquarters.

The UN is praying that the Hollywood scenario will never be a reality. And so, since 1998, the world body has been laboriously negotiating a new international convention, which provides safeguards against potentially the most lethal form of mass killings: nuclear terrorism.

But despite support from an overwhelming majority of the 191 member states, the proposed draft treaty is going back to the drawing board because of disputes over the definition of "terrorism" and over the legitimate right of national armies to deploy nuclear weapons.

The reason? The international community will never agree on a clear-cut definition of "terrorism" – as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved.

But the real reason the world faces the risk of nuclear terrorism is that eight nuclear states – five of whom are veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council – continue to hold more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, with some 4,000 kept on alert and ready to launch on warning.

The Big Five are the US, Britain, France, Russia and China, followed by Israel, India and Pakistan, making up the eight nuclear states. The new treaty not only obligates states to extradite anyone committing an offence with a nuclear explosive device but also outlaws the possession of radioactive material by non-state actors.

The US, along with virtually all Western states and also Russia, are sticking by a contentious article in the draft treaty which says that the activities of national armed forces -- in as much as they are subject to rules of international law -- will not be governed by the proposed convention.

But Muslim countries are not only opposed to this military exemption -- which they say will provide governments such as Israel with free passage to "state terrorism" -- but are also demanding a clearer distinction between a "terrorist" and a "freedom fighter."

These countries are also pushing for an international conference on terrorism to agree on a definition of "terrorism". Costa Rica, meanwhile, has proposed the creation of an Office of the UN High Commissioner on Terrorism, at least by the year 2007.

"A universally accepted definition of terrorism must be agreed upon, so that terrorism is not confused with the struggle of peoples for self determination," says Emine Gokcen Tugral of Turkey.

Speaking on behalf of the 56-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), she told delegates that the OIC believed that the proposed treaty should differentiate between terrorism and the struggle for self-determination against foreign occupation.

In singling this out, the OIC implicitly hints at the US military occupation of Iraq and the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories. The UN already has 12 core conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, the last two being the 1997 "international convention for the suppression of terrorist bombings" and the 1999 "international convention for the suppression of the financing of terrorism".

The two new treaties currently under consideration by the Ad hoc Committee on Terrorism are the "international convention for the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism" and a "comprehensive convention on international terrorism."

The former is being sponsored by Russia, which is battling an insurgency in its province of Chechnya, and the latter by India, which is fighting separatists in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, rightly argues that in conventional usage, "terrorism" has for all intents and purposes become an ethno religiously-based term, even a racial epithet used to dehumanise, more than a neutral definition of a specific form of political violence, namely that which is deliberately, knowingly, or indiscriminately directed against civilians.

"Thus a Palestinian who deliberately kills an Israeli child is a terrorist, an Israeli who deliberately kills a Palestinian child is a soldier or settler," Rabbani says. This seems to be the observable rule in virtually every conflict in which Arab or Muslim protagonists are involved against non-Arab, non-Muslim adversaries who generally engage in identical practices, more often than not on a considerably larger scale, he added.

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