Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

An Investigation of the Underlying Reasons for the Changing Perspective of the United Nations on Terrorism

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

An Investigation of the Underlying Reasons for the Changing Perspective of the United Nations on Terrorism

Article excerpt


The norms and values of the United Nations are in constant flux as the world body strives to counter evolving security challenges while adapting to changes in the international system. This was also evident in the United Nations perspective on the issue of terrorism as part of its responsibilities regarding international peace and security. As such, the United Nations has changed its perspective on terrorism from an earlier emphasis on debating the causes of the phenomenon, towards an all-inclusive view which addresses both the causes of terrorism and measures to counter the manifestations of terrorism itself. The conclusion is that the United Nation's changed perspective on terrorism was a gradual process evolving over a period of nearly four decades and which has been facilitated by the demise of national liberation movements, changes in the phenomenon of terrorism itself, as well as by the changes in the international security environment after the end of the Cold War.


Since the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States (US), the United Nations (UN) has followed a more purposeful and clear approach in countering international terrorism. This new perspective on terrorism and counter-terrorism followed after the world body had attempted for nearly four decades to reach consensus on its approach towards this complex, multi-faceted issue, in addition to consistently failing to agree on a consensus definition of the concept.

This article analyses the most salient factors which facilitated the change in the UN perspective on terrorism.


Despite the efforts by analysts to formulate a definition of terrorism which could be considered as neutral with regard to the perpetrators of a terrorist act, consensus on an adequate social science definition of terrorism remains lacking and this has remained an enduring question in terrorism research. This problem of definition is primarily caused by the moral judgement which must be made when describing a person or a group as terrorists and which necessarily leads to subjectivity and the politicisation of the concept. This also applies to the question of whether the problem is the violence itself or its underlying causes (Gearson, 2002: 13).

In this respect Wilkinson defines terrorism as the systematic use of coercive intimidation, usually to service political ends. It is then used "to create and exploit a climate of fear among a wider target group than the immediate victims of the violence and to publicise a cause, as well as to coerce a target to acceding to the terrorists' aims" (Wilkinson, 2006: 15). Crenshaw points out that, even if the term is used objectively as an analytical tool, it is still difficult to find a satisfactory definition that distinguishes terrorism from other forms of violent action and describes terrorism as pre-eminently political and symbolic, and as "deliberate and systematic violence performed by small numbers of people with the purpose of intimidating a watching audience" (Crenshaw, 2000: 406). A distinction can also be made between domestic and international terrorism where the former is confined within the borders of one country or a particular part of a country, and not aimed at foreign nationals or foreign property. However, contemporary groups are seldom operating only in one country or region and in practice most terrorism campaigns will cross international borders because terrorist groups seek political support, funding, weaponry or safe haven outside their own countries (Wilkinson, 2000: 19).

While terrorism as a political instrument has been used throughout history, the 1960s and 1970s presented two kinds of groups, namely those motivated principally by an anti-capitalist ideology and those motivated by ethno-separatism as an extension of national liberation struggles. Ideological terrorists sought to change the existing political, social and economic system, considered themselves as the "vanguard of a people's revolution" and created their own rationality which interpreted reality in terms of a revolutionary ideology (Wilkinson, 2000: 27). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.