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October 27, 2004

UN Terrorism Treaty Deadlocked

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations, which was on the verge of adopting a new international convention against nuclear terrorism, has been forced to shelve the proposed treaty because of opposition from Islamic states.

"After six years of protracted negotiations, the final draft was ready for adoption by the UN Legal Committee last week," a Third World diplomat said Tuesday. "But it hit a snag over definitions of terrorism and military exemptions," he said.

Rohan Perera, chairman of the UN Ad Hoc Committee on Terrorism, who piloted the 28-article draft treaty, admitted that an eleventh-hour hitch had prevented adoption of the convention.

"We will meet early next year to continue our discussions," Perera told IPS. "We are hopeful of resolving the outstanding issues."

The treaty not only obligates states to extradite anyone committing an offense with a nuclear explosive device but also outlaws the possession of radioactive material by non-state actors.

The United States is sticking by a contentious article in the draft treaty that says the activities of armed forces – in as much as they are subject to rules of international law – will not be governed by the proposed convention.

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 in order to agree on a definition of the term.

"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 Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC), she told delegates last week that the OIC believed the proposed treaty should differentiate between terrorism and the struggle for self-determination against foreign occupation.

In singling this out, the OIC is implicitly hinting at the U.S.-led military occupation of Iraq and the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories.

The United Nations 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.

Ambassador Andrey Denisov of Russia sided with the United States when he insisted that the clause exempting armed forces be kept intact in the proposed convention. "The question of extending a provision in the draft text to cover the activities of armed forces of states should be accepted," he added.

Ever since the break up of the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s, military experts and peace activists have warned that the world continues to face the threat of "loose nukes."

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization (NGO) advocating a nuclear weapons-free world, says it takes the threat of nuclear terrorism very seriously and welcomes actions to reduce that risk.

"The most important step to prevent nuclear terrorism is that the nuclear weapons states fulfill their obligations to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons," Dr. Mary-Wynne Ashford of IPPNW told IPS.

The reason the world faces the risk of nuclear terrorism, she argues, is that the eight nuclear states continue to hold more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, with some 4,000 on alert, ready to launch on warning.

The proposed UN treaty, Ashford added, would not completely eliminate that risk.

"Because the threat or use of nuclear weapons by states is not included in this convention, this agreement must be regarded as a useful step in reducing the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, and a step toward tighter control of fissile materials, but more a stop-gap measure than a decisively effective action," she said.

Ashford also argued that effective prevention of terrorism hinges on the important work of addressing its root causes in economic inequality and injustice, and the exploitation and oppression of people in countries where hopelessness fuels anger.

Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, says the UN debate over "terrorism" reflects that the term has "for all intents and purposes become an ethno-religiously-based term, even a racial epithet used to dehumanize, 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 told IPS.

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.

Secondly, the definition of "terrorism" has been further skewed and distorted by serving as a label for political violence – often any form of political violence – by non-state actors, rather than as a definition of a specific form of political violence irrespective of its perpetrator.

"The official U.S. definition of terrorism in fact excludes, as a matter of definition, states from direct culpability. That is why the State Department – even in reference to [former President] Saddam Hussein's Iraq – only speaks of 'state sponsors' of terrorism; by definition there are only terrorist organizations."

Given the historical background and current ideological climate, he added, it is hardly surprising that Arab and Muslim states at the United Nations are demanding a clear, precise, and neutral definition of terrorism – one that defines it on the basis of actions rather than the identity of the perpetrator.

In the context of negotiations about a convention on nuclear terrorism, eliminating distinctions based on the ethno-religious or organizational identity of potential perpetrators is a vital concern, he said.

"It seems Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East has in this respect only stiffened the OIC's resolve," Rabbani concluded.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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