BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 28.10.01

Film: IAIN WATSON looks at the attempts by the United Nations to get all 189 member countries to take action against terrorism.

IAIN WATSON: The mood was optimistic at the creation of a new organisation devoted to saving the world from the scourge of war. A fresh era of co-operation was promised by the US President Harry Truman. US PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN: The Charter of the United Nations, which you are now signing, is a solid structure upon which we can build for a better world. WATSON: That was 1945 and the hope then was that conventional conflict could be consigned to history. But the fight against fascism has given way to the fight against fanaticism and the United Nations will now face unprecedented scrutiny in how it deals with this more contemporary challenge. A month ago, the UN Security Council passed its hardest hitting anti-terrorist resolution ever. Resolution 1373 gives states just ninety days to report back on what they were doing to weed out the terrorist networks in their midst. But behind this robust rhetoric lies some potentially intractable problems - it's easier to condemn terrorism, for example, than to define it. And what happens if some states miss the deadline and fail to report on what they're doing to tackle the terrorist threat? It's Britain which may have to come up with the answers, as the task of progress-chasing falls our our very own UN Ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. SIR JEREMY GREENSTOCK: There is today, now, a threat from terrorism to international peace and security. WATSON: Sir Jeremy chairs the new Counter Terrorism committee consisting of representatives from all the members of the UN Security Council. His committee has to monitor the implementation of resolution 1373, which has been given the full force of international law. LORD HANNAY: The UN has condemned terrorism on a number of occasions, it's produced a number of conventions that deal with some of the symptoms of terrorism but it's never had such a sharply focused and action oriented approach to terrorism before. WATSON: But some say the Security Council should ensure that resolution 1373 isn't just a symbolic act - nations must face up to their responsibilities. DANIEL TAUB: If you have terrorists operating in your midst, out of your territory and you take no steps to stop then, then you're not being neutral in the war against terrorism, you're actually being an accomplice in those terrorist acts and I think the implementation of 1373 has to reflect this. WATSON: Resolution 1373 makes seventeen demands on the UN's one-hundred-and-eighty-nine members; the events of September the eleventh shocked states into agreeing sweeping anti-terrorist measures. Member nations have been told to find and then cut off the funding of terrorist groups 'without delay', as well as crack down on anyone who is 'active or passive' in their support of terrorist acts, but according to a key member of the Security Council, countries won't be so much compelled to comply as cajoled. AMBASSADOR SERGEY LAVROV: It's a positive inducement if you wish for countries to join anti-terrorist conventions. It is not coercive, it is not creating any police mechanism, it created a committee which is to help countries to improve their legislation, to speed up the ratification procedures and to create mechanisms at the national level which would be part of international network of exchange of information data etc. So it's a very positive approach, it's not accusing anybody, it's trying to be helpful. WATSON: But there's a trickier problem than what to do about states that willfully, or incompetently, fail to comply with UN resolution 1373. That's because some states may say they're doing all that's required of them in tackling terrorists. The trouble is, in the words of the old cliche, one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. And it's this problem of perception which goes to the very core of why the UN resolution may be so difficult to implement. WATSON: There's broad international agreement that Osama Bin Laden is a terrorist, but some Muslim states say those who fight directly for their homeland, such as the Palestinians, shouldn't be classified in the same way. AMBASSADOR AHMED ABOULGHEIT: One of the elements that, that were really perplexing in that, in that resolution, though in general we supported in Egypt, was that there was no definition for the word terrorism, what do we mean by terrorism? When Palestinians would show opposition to soldiers and uniformed personnel of the Israeli armed forces trying to fight against them while they are occupying their own territories, that I also understand. WATSON: Fifteen people were killed when a Jerusalem pizza restaurant was destroyed in August by a suicide bomber from the militant Palestinian group Hamas. The Lebanese based movement, Hezbollah, has also used suicide bombers. If any definition of terrorism was to exclude these groups simply because they say they are fighting for self-determination then some say the countries which sponsor them - including Iran -would evade their responsibilities. TAUB: Both of them are terrorist groups under Israeli law and we would like to see them prosecuted and every measure taken against them to stop their funding, to stop their atrocities being perpetrated, not just by Israel but by the entire international community. WATSON: The United Nations has conventions stretching back three decades condemning specific terrorist acts, such as hijacking, but has never actually come up with a catch-all definition of terrorism itself. The UN's committee of legal experts is currently trying to do just that. But one senior UN official told me that defining terrorism is quote 'a turbulent' issue - if we haven't done this in thirty years of trying, he admitted, we are unlikely to do so now. But some countries are still searching hard for international agreement. The Indian government has proposed a new convention on the suppression of terrorism, which could become the vehicle for a definition of terrorism itself. Although discussions are continuing, a current draft suggests any group which deliberately targets civilians should not be able to use the high minded defence of political motivation to excuse acts of terror. AMBASSADOR KAMALESH SHARMA: The loss of innocent lives is a particular fixation of the definition, the act of terrorism is conducted indiscriminately, at random, and involves innocent people and this is what we understand by terrorism. WATSON: But the United Nations as a whole may not agree a definition of terrorism based on acts against civilians; some nations say that attacks on the military should be seen as terrorist in nature too . LAVROV: When you see terrorism you know that this is terrorism and the trick is just to find words which would describe this. There are terrorist acts against military personnel, for example recently a helicopter was downed in Georgia and the helicopter was a UN helicopter with some military personnel on board and the Security Council immediately qualified this as a terrorist act. So I wouldn't say that attacks against military would not be considered universally as terrorist attacks under certain conditions. WATSON: The current Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, is in its second year. This conflict highlights why a definition of terrorism based on acts against civilians is so difficult. Are stone-throwing Palestinian demonstrators killed by Israeli bullets innocent civilians? Or what about Israeli settlers who are under attack for occupying land which the Palestinians, and the United Nations, say doesn't belong to them? ABOULGHEIT: Let us take that action of a Palestinian shooting at those settlers or colonisers in the midst of Palestinian territory. And that settler or coloniser is carrying an M-16 rifle and he's moving all the time with his rifle trying to impose his will on the Palestinians by building settlements inside Palestinian territory. And they are waging war against him. In my opinion, in all humility I feel that that is a legal struggle for the attainment of self-determination and to stop someone from acquiring and enforcing his will on my land, on my territory. LORD HANNAY: The point I would make is that if they send suicide bombers into civilian areas to kill people on buses or in shopping precincts or in restaurants or something, they are terrorists. They prove that by their action, it's not what their intentions are, their intentions may be capable of being expressed in the most wonderfully convincing language, all about Palestine, statehood and so on. I'm afraid that's irrelevant if they use these means. WATSON: With such differing views of what constitutes terrorism, it could be difficult to secure compliance with resolution 1373. Some prominent Muslim states who oppose Bin Laden would nonetheless be alienated by any heavy handed action towards Palestinian terrorists; but a softly-softly approach would upset those countries which will judge the Counter-Terrorism Committee by its actions and not its words. TAUB: Well 1373 is really only a starting point and here I think all eyes are on the CTC, the Counter Terrorism Committee to see how they undertake their mandate. Obviously if they only view themselves as being some sort of post-box where states report on what they feel was necessary to fight terrorism, that would be tremendously disappointing. 1373 was a remarkable result of a tremendous resolve in the international community that was sparked by the bombings of September eleventh. I think it's very important for us to try and ensure that that resolve is maintained and that the pressure is kept up on those states that do fail to comply or don't comply satisfactorily with the resolution. WATSON: The UN's Counter-Terrorism Committee has a task of encouraging member states to crack down on terrorist networks. But unless every states is given a clear idea of what constitutes terrorism in the first place and faces genuine penalties for non-compliance, then the inspirational anti-terrorist rhetoric of resolution 1373 may take some time to be transformed into reality.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.