Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

International Terrorism: Responses and Justifications: Ron Smith Discusses the Problem of Combating Terrorism and Suggests the Need for International Cooperation and Coordination

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

International Terrorism: Responses and Justifications: Ron Smith Discusses the Problem of Combating Terrorism and Suggests the Need for International Cooperation and Coordination

Article excerpt

Old habits die hard and nowhere is this more evident than in talk about terrorism. For many this is still an incorrigibly contested concept, and thus the word and its cognates still tend to be used exactly as a particular speaker or writer may choose. This is clearly a state of affairs that hobbles rational debate. If we are effectively to deal with the problem of terrorism (and especially international terrorism) we must accept a clear definition of the concept and stop hiding behind arbitrary and self-serving usages. This should not be a difficult project since the United Nations has already set out a conceptual framework and begun filling in the detail. Of course, this is only the first stage in combating terrorism. The second is to amend the behaviour of states so that they no longer support such activities. For this to be effective it may be that strict measures will be required.

Whatever may have been the situation prior to 12 December 2000, it cannot now be said that there is no agreed definition of terrorism. On that date the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution from its Sixth Committee that characterised terrorism in the following terms:

 
   criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the 
   general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political 
   purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the 
   considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, 
   religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them. 

Also relevant is the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, which came into force in May 2001. As well as accepting the base concept, it also provides a definition of one kind of criminal act that qualifies as terrorism:

 
   Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that 
   person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or 
   detonates an explosive or other lethal device, in, into or against, a place 
   of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation 
   system or an infrastructure facility. (1) (Article 2) 

Four principle conceptual elements can be extracted from these definitions. Terrorism entails:

* certain criminal acts that target the public or public institutions (for example, terrorist bombing of public places);

* an intention to provoke extreme anxiety (`terror');

* a palpable political purpose; and,

* an explicit denial that such tactics are justified in any circumstances, or for any cause.

The first two elements in this conceptualisation conform quite precisely to the traditional understanding. Terrorism is a kind of propaganda. As the nineteenth century Russian theorist Bakunin had it, it is the `propaganda of the deed'. In this original conception, the essence was the degree of atrocity (which made it newsworthy), not simply that `innocents' were targeted, although this was the common association. In the modern context, any action against `combatants' (2) that is likely to be viewed as atrocious is also very likely to be illegal under contemporary humanitarian law and thus, like targeting non-combatants, a crime.

Crucial feature

The crucial feature of terrorism, then, is that it is a kind of communication. There may be (usually are) victims (persons harmed), but these persons are not really the `target' (the addressee of the message). This is typically whole societies and governments. In the present case, the addressee may be a whole `civilisation' (3) (the `Western world') and the message, `stop interfering in the world of Islam'. This is the third element of the United Nations' definition of terrorism, the political purpose. Whatever the detail of the message, it is intended to have some effect and achieving that effect is its political purpose. …

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