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The United Nation's Response to Terrorism: Fourteen and Counting

SECURITY, HOMELAND SECURITY & TERRORISM

by Frederico Ferreira

Sunday, April 25, 2010

 To combat international terrorism, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution A/51/210 on December 17, 1996. It resulted in the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee, which is part of the Six Committee of the UNGA, known as the Legal. The committee has as its mandate to elaborate international conventions that deal with different portions of the terrorist phenomenon and to develop a comprehensive legal framework dealing with international terrorism. A key challenge – since embroiled in controversy - was to develop an unambiguous definition of terrorism.

The committee has had mixed reviews over the years. In 1998, the General Assembly approved the first legal document, known as “International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings,” A/RES/52/164. Two sessions later, in 2000, the “International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism,” A/RES/54/109 was approved. Both conventions dated before 9/11. In 2005, the “International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism” was approved and open to signature. These conventions were designed to build to a comprehensive framework that is still being discussed by the UNGA. The idea is that each convention is a legal step that brings the organization closer to a general agreement. Judging by Obama’s effort in the recent Nuclear Security Summit, the White House does not believe that this convention alone is strong enough to curtail international terrorist activities.

The legal effort continued at the UN, with the fourteenth session of the Ad Hoc Committee held from April 12 to 16. The committee established a working group to write a comprehensive anti-terrorism convention during the next session of the UNGA, which will be held this fall. Members agreed to continue discussing the establishment of a high-level conference on the issue to be held under the aegis of the UN, without any ramifications other than that. For the fourteenth straight year, there is no reported agreement on a definition of terrorism, and the documents so far released follow in line with the previous adopted language.

The original resolution and subsequent conventions have included a carefully worded condemnation of acts, methods and practices of terrorism without actually defining what terrorism. This operative clause reads: “strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomsoever committed.” Over the years, there was been little advance towards defining terrorism, but rather a superficial agreement on how the phenomenon comes to fruition. The lack of agreement on a definition hampers the United Nations’ ability to properly address the issue. By not developing a proper definition, the UN might be politically constrained in identifying developing threats. States-sponsors of terrorism, on the other hand, have much to gain with the lack of definition of terrorism and terrorist organizations. The status quo allows for them to provide legal safe-haven for groups most countries would classify as terrorists.

Circumventing the controversial issue might have been a good short-term diplomatic tactic, but it is no basis for an enduring and enforceable international regime. The current conventions appear to serve more as preliminary clauses than operative ones. Without a clearer agreement on basic items that would provide a means to identify which groups are terrorists, the United Nations will remain ineffective in addressing this problem.

Frederico Ferreira is a Spring researcher at the American Enterprise Institute
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