UN's pre-emptive strike against nuclear terrorism
By Ameen Izzadeen
The direction of the global war on terrorism, sadly, has been monopolised by the United States, with countries being warned that they will be deemed supporters of terrorism if they do not toe the US line.

"Either you are with us or with the terrorists," thundered President George W. Bush in an address telecast worldwide in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. The statement left no room for one to adopt a position that he or she is neither with the United States nor with the terrorists.

More than three and a half years after the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Bush's infamous statement is proving to be more rhetoric than a true expression of his intention - and his war on terrorism more an extension of US foreign policy aimed at fortifying its global dominance than an all-out crusade against terrorism in any form.

With the approach of the United States and the West to the question of terrorism smacking of duplicity and double standards, the challenge before the United Nations in tackling the real issue assumes added significance.

The UN role
Proving that the world body still has reason for existence in today's unipolar world, the United Nations is tackling the question of terrorism, by framing laws covering a wide-range of terrorism related crimes. The United Nations adopted on Wednesday a convention aimed at saving the world from nuclear terrorism. A welcome achievement indeed by the beleaguered UN, which has in the recent past been bombarded by allegations ranging from inefficiency and sex crimes by UN peacekeepers to corruption in the Iraq oil-for-food programme and being subservient to the United States.

Seven years of hard work by a UN ad hoc committee, headed by Sri Lanka's Rohan Perera, a distinguished diplomat and the Foreign Ministry's Legal Advisor, were brought to fruition on Wednesday, when the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, making it a crime to possess radioactive material or weapons with the intention of committing a terrorist act.

The UN has adopted the convention at a time when nuclear terrorism is perceived as a possibility. Remember, nuclear terrorism was one of the reasons that President Bush cited in justification of his war on Iraq.

The Bush administration carried out a campaign to convince the world that there existed a nexus between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Al-Qaeda terrorists and that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction would find their way into Al Qaeda hands and that this posed a grave threat to world peace and security.

Though the US has failed to find even a single WMD or prove that Iraq had links with Al-Qaeda after more than two years of US occupation of Iraq, the convention does not lose its relevance. On the contrary, it is regarded as a pre-emptive move to thwart possible nuclear attacks by terrorists.

"In fact it is the first anti-terrorism treaty that has been adopted by the international community even before a crime covered by the treaty has taken place," Dr. Perera said.

All previous 12 anti-terrorism treaties such as the Convention of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft (1970) and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (2000) were adopted or came into force only after the crimes covered in the treaties had been committed, he said. (See Guest Column by Dr. Perera.)

The convention is also the first international treaty on terrorism to be adopted after the 9/11 incidents. It will be opened for signatures on September 14 - the day world leaders gather at the United Nations for a summit on reforming the world body - and must be ratified by 22 countries to come into force.

The convention provides for a definition of acts of nuclear terrorism and covers a broad range of possible targets, including those against nuclear power plants and nuclear reactors.

The convention was based on an instrument originally proposed by the Russian Federation in 1998, during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.

Causes for concern
The Russian proposal came against the backdrop of a chilling revelation by Alexander Lebed, President Yeltsin's national security advisor, that there were about 100 suitcase-sized nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union missing or unaccounted for.

The suitcase bombs, weighing about 75 pounds each, were said to have been made for the KGB, the Soviet secret service, to be used in case of emergency during the Cold War. However, these weapons were not included in any post-Cold War inventory. Neither were there records that these weapons were decommissioned.

Where have all these nuclear weapons gone? It is not only these missing weapons that cause concern, but also the ability of terrorists to make crude nuclear bombs. The busting of the network run by Pakistan nuclear scientists Abdul Qadeer Khan bears testimony to the possibility that fissile material could change hands between non-state actors.

Another cause for concern is the ability of terrorists to target nuclear facilities such as reactors. The 1986 nuclear reactor accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine has so far killed 25,000 people who have been exposed to radiation.

The explosion at Chernobyl released 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Another possibility is a country could hire the services of an ideologically driven terrorist group to set off crude nuclear bombs in an enemy country. The new convention attempts to address all these concerns.

Under the convention, the alleged offenders must either be extradited or prosecuted. It also encourages states to cooperate in preventing terrorist attacks by sharing information and assisting each other in connection with criminal investigations and extradition proceedings.

"The nuclear terrorism convention will play a crucial role in preventing terrorists from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction, the use of which could lead to catastrophic consequences. It will contribute to strengthening the international legal framework for the suppression and combating of terrorism, as well as promoting the rule of law in general. It will become a valuable addition to the existing 12 universal anti-terrorism conventions," a statement from the ad hoc committee said.

Welcoming the adoption of the draft convention, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the committee's efforts were helping the world to become a safer place. "The convention would help prevent terrorists from gaining access to the most lethal weapons known to man. It would strengthen the international legal framework against terrorism, which included existing universal conventions and protocols."

Committee chairman Dr. Perera told journalists in New York that the finalization of the convention marked the end of a long, arduous and challenging journey that began in 1998. "This is indeed a significant and commendable step forward in the global fight against terrorism," he said.

Back in Colombo, he told The Sunday Times that the finalization and the adoption of the convention demonstrated that it was the United Nations General Assembly that should be the real law-making authority. He was obviously referring to the dangerous trend of binding resolutions being passed by the 15-member Security Council, which is dominated by the United States and the other four veto-wielding countries.

"The committee had overcome roadblocks and barriers, and sent a strong signal to the international community, in unequivocal terms, that the General Assembly and its bodies had the capacity and the political will to meet current challenges and duly discharge their norm-creating responsibilities," the ad hoc committee statement said.

Comprehensive treaty
The committee's success in drafting the anti-nuclear terrorism convention augurs well for the completion of the ad hoc committee's main task - drafting a comprehensive anti-terrorism treaty.

The task of drafting the comprehensive treaty was begun before the work on the draft of the anti-nuclear terrorism convention began. However, deliberations are still said to be bogged down in definitional disputes.

Although terrorism has today become one of the most pressing problems of the world, the adage that one's terrorist is another's freedom fighter has still not lost its relevance. For instance, Islamic and Arab countries lack political will to brand groups such as Hizbollah of Lebanon and Hamas of Palestine as terrorist groups. These countries also raise the question of state terrorism and call on the ad hoc committee to deal with this problem as well.

Summing up the position of the Islamic countries, Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador Munir Akram said on Wednesday that any agreement on a definition of terrorism must not prejudice the legitimate rights of the people to struggle against foreign occupation and for self-determination and national liberation nor exclude state terrorism.

However, committee chairman Perera is hopeful that the comprehensive convention against terrorism will be finalised by September this year when the UN begins celebrating its sixtieth year of existence amidst heightened calls for the restructuring of the world body.

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