Defining terrorism

Alluding to the actions of the U.S. and Britain in Iraq, Kofi Annan attacks the erosion of human rights in the war on terror.

By Jonathan Steele
Published March 11, 2005 4:18PM (EST)

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched a fierce attack on Britain and the United States Thursday for weakening human rights in the name of the war on terror. "We cannot compromise on core values," he said in Madrid on the first anniversary of the train bombings that killed 191 people in the Spanish capital. "Human rights and the rule of law must always be respected."

Addressing a three-day conference that included about 20 heads of state and government as well as terrorism experts, lawyers and journalists, Annan laid out five elements in what he called a "principled, comprehensive strategy" to fight terrorism. He proposed a U.N. special envoy to monitor whether governments' counterterrorism measures conformed to international human rights law. "Compromising human rights cannot serve the struggle against terrorism," he said. "On the contrary, it facilitates the achievement of the terrorists' objectives by provoking tension, hatred and mistrust of governments among precisely those parts of the population where he is most likely to find recruits."

Although he did not mention Britain's detention of suspects without trial, the use of torture or the practices of sexual humiliation and other abuses uncovered at U.S.-run prisons for foreigners, Western governments' treatment of terrorist suspects was unmistakably one of Annan's targets.

Human rights law already made ample provision for strong counterterrorist action, "even in the most exceptional circumstances," he said. Annan appealed to the world's political, religious and civic leaders to state unequivocally that "terrorism is unacceptable under any circumstances and in any culture." Rounding out the argument that oppressed people had a right to resist occupation, he said this could not include the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians.

He said the root cause of terrorism was the belief by certain groups that such tactics were effective and had the support of people in whose name they were used. "Our job is to show they are wrong," he said.

Spain's Socialist Party prime minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, speaking at the closing session, called for an international fund to give poorer countries financial help to fight terrorism. He also recommended that a second international fund be set up to compensate victims of attacks.

Since 2001 the U.N. has been under pressure to do a better job of coordinating and leading the fight against terrorism. Instead of the 12 treaties that now cover the issue, the secretary-general called for a single convention to outlaw terrorism in all its forms. Victims of terrorism should be compensated using the assets seized from terrorists, he said.

The secretary-general set out what he called the five D's: dissuading disaffected groups from terrorism, denying terrorists the means to carry out their attacks, deterring states from supporting terrorists, developing states' capacity to prevent terrorism, and defending human rights. Calling for a universally accepted definition of terrorism, he endorsed the wording contained in the recent report from the U.N. High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which he asked to develop broader thinking on the threats to security other than war. The panel defined terrorism as any action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do, or abstain from, any act.

Annan drew an alarming picture of potential catastrophe in the fields of nuclear and biological terrorism. There would soon be "tens of thousands of laboratories around the world capable of producing designer bugs with awesome, lethal potential," he said. Health systems in poor countries equipped to deal with infectious disease barely exist. Governments must do more to secure and eliminate hazardous material and set up effective export controls, Annan said. Stronger measures are also needed to uncover and stop money laundering by terrorists. Travel and financial sanctions against groups such as al-Qaida are vital.

Nuclear terrorism is still often treated as science fiction, he said. "I wish it were. But unfortunately we live in a world of excess hazardous materials and abundant technological know-how, in which some terrorists clearly state their intention to inflict catastrophic casualties."

Jonathan Steele

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