Preventing Terrorism

By Nicholas Abbey | 2002-01-01 12:00:00

Apprehend and try suspects legally in an international court without killing civilians or provoking new terrorism

In the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11 and military strikes against Afghanistan, the danger looms of an endless cycle of violence and retribution. What needs to be done to prevent future terrorist acts? Based on research and the practical lessons of past efforts, six major principles to guide an effective, international campaign are:

1. Bring the perpetrators to justice based on lawful procedures and respect for the rights and safety of innocent civilians . A long history of attempts to "combat" terrorism shows that a military quid pro quo for terrorism usually fails, causes immense human suffering, and has unpredictable, longer-term consequences, or "blowback." The bombing campaign across Afghanistan and inevitable "collateral damage" are no solution, but merely answer one form of terror with another.

Explore every avenue to apprehend suspects legally without killing innocent civilians and provoking new terrorist acts. The perpetrators of September 11 could be tried in absentia in an ad hoc international court pending the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC could be a powerful institution to bring to justice those who commit crimes against humanity. The United States and other states should actively support the creation of the ICC.


2. Unequivocally condemn all acts of terrorism . Unless there is condemnation of all terrorism, the coalition against terrorism will be opportunistic and tactical rather than longer-term, broadly supported, and strategic.

Coalition members must develop an objective definition of terrorism (there is no such agreement at present) and desist from double standards. As noted at the September 2001 international conference on terrorism held in Geneva, states (especially the United States) have historically played "naming games" with terrorism, "putting countries on and off a list out of diplomatic convenience" rather than according to any commonly-held, rigorous criteria.

As has often been raised at the United Nations, a viable, long-term strategy will need to distinguish between terrorism and legitimate acts of resistance. The tragic irony is that terrorists such as Osama bin Laden were hailed as "freedom fighters" in the 1980s by the very same governments and politicians that then labeled national liberation and social justice leaders such as Nelson Mandela as "terrorists."

3. Prevent the escalation of conflict and a new "Cold War ." Carte blanche endorsement of an open-ended war on an ill-defined enemy risks the destabilization of many regions, including those of central, south, and southwest Asia.

Beyond a limited war in Afghanistan is the possibility of conflict in Central Asia, a significant geostrategic location at the intersection of Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Many states are seeking access to the region's vast reserves of oil and natural gas.

As part of this bigger picture in Central Asia, some states are seeking to limit the influence of the Russian-oriented Commonwealth of Independent States. In 1998-1999, with US support, the GUUAM group of countries (the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) was established.

The climate for rapprochement between the two most powerful nuclear states of Russia and America is currently favorable. Whether it remains so will depend on how far various Western states are prepared to push this dangerous regional realignment and struggle for power and resources.

4. Refocus government resources on prevention and solving social, economic, and environmental problems . A 2001 United Nations report on terrorism is adamant as to the responsibility of all governments to act on the underlying causes of terrorism: "were all states to do this in an unbiased way, the incidence of terrorist acts would dramatically decline."

Poverty, famine, mass movements of refugees, and brutal and repressive regimes (that have often been shored up by Western military aid) fuel frustration and desperation. While no "root cause" can justify a heinous crime against humanity, to ignore causal factors is to increase the risk of future terrorist acts.

The September 2001 report, Reforging the Sword, written by retired US Colonel Daniel Smith and others for the US Centre for Defense Information, contrasts the past tendency to deal with symptoms, via "drive-by attacks using cruise missiles or bombing raids," with the "lack of US willingness to truly engage over the long haul with the causes of conflicts."

In the longer-term, the United States and other states have some hard decisions to make about resource allocation, which has implications for crime, violence, and terrorism prevention. Pentagon spending (of roughly $350 billion in fiscal year 2002) accounts for over half of all US federal government discretionary spending (and is more than six times what Russia, for example, spends). Yet, discretionary 2002 US federal funding for program areas such as education, health, and justice is less than $50 billion for each. And in these areas, prevention strategies receive a minuscule amount.

If resources were gradually reallocated from defense spending to fund strategic, preventive projects in health, education, sustainable economic development, and violence prevention, this could help rebuild many local communities worldwide and start establishing a new international security system, tackling the deep causes of terrorism.


5. Be vigilant against racial vilification, the violation of civil liberties, and the use of apocalyptic language . There are many legitimate security measures such as improved protection of ports and airports and better coordination of emergency services. After September 11, these issues are, understandably, high on the agenda, and need to be addressed systematically.

Legal scholars and human rights advocates must first scrutinize any proposed anti-terrorism legislation. A real danger is that steps towards suppressing some domestic civil liberties in the name of national security could act as a catalyst for future homegrown terrorists a la Timothy McVeigh.

In a climate of fear, some countries may run a heightened risk not only of curtailing civil liberties and human rights, but also of stimulating racism and religious intolerance. Loose talk of a war to "rid the world of evil" lends dangerous credence to those terrorists who believe the world is in an eschatological confrontation between the forces of good and evil.

6. Develop a comprehensive strategy under the auspices of the United Nations and linked to non-governmental organizations . This will require a high-level conference to create a strategy redefining security as more than military power: as economic security, sustainable development, social justice, and human rights.

States should also support international agreements to ban chemical, biological, and toxic weapons; ban land mines; and limit the international small arms trade. An urgent issue is a worldwide campaign under UN auspices for the resettlement of refugee populations.

Finally, for an effective campaign against terrorism in the longer-term, a reformed UN needs new models for non-government and citizen involvement in domains of global governance historically dominated by states.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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