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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 22:57 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 22:57 | SYDNEY

Why the world needs an agreed definition of terrorism (part 2)



31 October 2013 09:45

In part one of this post, I referred to Professor Boaz Ganor's proposed definition of terrorism. That definition is:

Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilian targets in order to achieve political ends; nationalistic, socio-economic, ideological, religious-political.

I think Ganor’s offering strikes the right balance of generality, specificity and objectivity to make it a most useful definition.

The definition contains three key elements: 1. the essence of the action (deliberate use of violence); 2. the underlying goal (achieving political ends); and 3. the object of the attack (civilian targets).

The first two elements are largely (though not entirely) accepted elements of most definitions of terrorism. Certainly one could make a case for the threat of violence to be added, though I would argue that the threat of terrorism is not terrorism itself. The threat of murder is not murder and the threat of arson is not arson, though each might be considered a crime.

The use of the term 'civilian' vice 'non-combatant' might be difficult to accept for countries such as the US and UK, which do the heavy lifting in international security and who find their service people in harms way more often. Colonel Richard Kemp, a leading counter-terrorism expert who commanded British Forces in Afghanistan made this very point at the recent World Summit on Counter-Terrorism where Ganor presented his definition. Kemp highlighted the murder of Gunner Lee Rigby in London, which involved the targeting of non-combatant military personnel and professed political-religious objectives.

As understandable and appealing as it is to use the term ‘terrorism’ to capture the horror we naturally feel at such heinous crimes, it does not advance the goal of achieving consensus on the nature of terrorism.

By limiting the definition to civilians, we immediately exclude incidents such as the 1982 Hyde Park and Regent's Park bombings in London, the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut, and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Dharan (pictured), all of which targeted non-combatant military personnel (though civilians were killed and wounded in each incident).

This is a confronting issue. Let me make it very clear: excluding these outrageous crimes from the definition of terrorism in no way legitimises or justifies them. As Margaret Thatcher said in response to the Hyde and Regent’s Park bombings: ‘These callous and cowardly crimes have been committed by evil, brutal men who know nothing of democracy. We shall not rest until they are brought to justice.’

But we are trying to produce a definition and legal framework that targets a specific use of political violence, not produce a catch phrase that adequately expresses our horror at despicable crimes or hostile acts. The targeting of non-combatants is an act that has progressively fallen outside the norms of warfare and is consequently and explicitly prohibited in international law.  We can regard it as a hostile act, an act deserving of a strong and immediate response, but not an act of terror.

The strongest aspect of Ganor’s definition is that it removes any disclaimers or exclusions and disassociates specific motives from act. The deliberate use of violence on civilian targets is a tactic used by a number of disparate groups. Regardless of the subjective right or wrong of the cause, the legitimacy of the perpetrators, or the circumstances of the conflict, the deliberate use of violence against civilian targets is a terrorist act.

The common argument that ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’ becomes irrelevant. They are not mutually exclusive – one is a motive, the other is a tactic. ‘Freedom fighters’ can and do use violence against civilian targets. When they use this tactic they engage in the act of terrorism. The protection of civilian populations has been at the heart of international human rights law and international humanitarian law since their inception, so Ganor's definition fits in with the body of existing treaty-based and customary international law.

One of the most constructive functions of the UN is its unparalleled capacity to promote and expand international norms through the gradual acceptance of its conventions. Terrorism is neither senseless nor indiscriminate, but rather the deliberate and premeditated application of violence. We need to discover means to influence that calculus. The adoption of a definition of terrorism by the UN General Assembly would indeed be an effective – perhaps the most effective – counter-terror measure.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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