Combatting Terrorism: Dell Higgie Surveys the International Counter-Terrorism Scene

By Higgie, Dell | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

Combatting Terrorism: Dell Higgie Surveys the International Counter-Terrorism Scene


Higgie, Dell, New Zealand International Review


There is no internationally agreed definition of 'terrorism'. Over the nearly 35 years this very issue has been inscribed on the UN's agenda, professional diplomats and international lawyers have completely failed to settle on a definition. There has been no shortage of proposals for a definition. New Zealand indeed put one forward in 1985. At that time we were taking a lead in efforts, in the wake of our Rainbow Warrior incident, to secure a comprehensive treaty against terrorism. We put it to the UN Legal Committee in New York that 'any act of force in peacetime for political ends which jeopardises innocent lives or property is terrorism'.

That proposition, like quite a number made by others over the years, failed to secure agreement. The problem in reaching agreement on exactly what, in legal terms, terrorism is has nothing to do with the negotiators' lack of mental capacity but is all about the thorny political issues it raises--most particularly the long-standing debate over the exclusion claimed for national liberation movements, and the question of state terrorism. Most followers of the on-going debate in the United Nations believe that there will in fact be no agreement on the legal scope of the term until there is a peace settlement in the Middle East.

Most people, however, do not feel in too much doubt about what terrorism is. That is a fairly widespread reaction. In doing some research on this topic quite some years ago in New York, I came upon the report of the New Zealander who had attended the first session of the United Nations' Ad Hoc Committee on International Terrorism in 1973. At the conclusion of that session he had written: 'The majority of countries are keen to combat international terrorism and they see no need to define it first (anymore than one needs to define an elephant one sees in the street)'.

Whatever international legal definition might one day be agreed upon, most of us know what we are talking about. The essential features of terrorism are acts of violence committed against civilian targets for the purpose of compelling a government to do, or not do, something or to intimidate a population.

Discussion of the long-standing debate about a definition will probably remind those who have been thinking about terrorism largely in the 'post-9/11' era that in fact terrorism, and indeed multilateral efforts to tackle it, have been around for a long time. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Walter Laqueur lists the number of terrorist attacks that took place as the 19th century ended. They include the assassination of the French President, the Austrian Empress, the Spanish Prime Minister, the Italian King and US President William McKinley. All this, of course, was before that famous shot in 1914 that 'echoed round the world'. So, he concludes, by 1900 terrorism had become

   the leading preoccupation of politicians,
   police chiefs, journalists,
   and writers.... If in the year 1900
   the leaders of the main industrial
   powers had assembled, most of
   them would have insisted on giving
   terrorism top priority on their
   agenda....

The terrorism that leaders would have talked about in 1900 is, however, rather different from that of today.

Repeated outrages

In the 1930s, there was a renewed spate of high-level assassinations in Europe (which led to efforts under the League of Nations to settle on a definition of terrorism in order to adopt a comprehensive treaty against it). Acts of hijacking and bombings (often with a Middle East dimension) and acts of kidnapping and assassination (perpetrated most prominently by the Red Armies operating in Europe and Japan) captured headlines in the 1960s and 1970s. The Lockerbie disaster was probably the most catastrophic terrorist incident of the 1980s. And going right through to the end of the 20th century there were incidents of 'localised' terrorism--for instance, related to separatist aspirations in Ireland, Spain and Sri Lanka; as well as on-going acts of terror in the Middle East and those flowing from a number of prominent movements in Central and South America. …

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