September 11th has become a day of remembrance for all victims of terrorism and a poignant reminder of the constant threat posed by all those that would use terrorist tactics in the furtherance of their ambitions, their ideologies, or their political or religious goals. This day stands among a growing number of sad anniversaries that mark senseless killing and maiming in furtherance of some intolerant cause. It is also a day to take stock of the imperfect steps, and the uneven progress made, in countering this terrorism scourge.
The human, social, and economic costs of terrorism are staggering. Estimates put the world wide number of terrorist attacks since 1963 at well over 15,000, resulting in more than 25,000 casualties. Governments have spent well into the hundreds of billions of dollars to prevent, defend against, and fight terrorism; and to provide security for their interests at home and abroad. Private businesses have also expended additional billions to secure their premises and personnel from terrorist attacks, and the world’s financial community has invested billions more on regulatory compliance measures to police accounts and transactions in order to steer clear of counter terrorism and money laundering issues. There has also been a staggering impact on global economic activity and development. Yet, despite these efforts, terrorism continues to pose a worldwide threat.
Since 9/11 we have remained relatively safe within our own national borders. Yet, hardly a day passes without some roadside explosion, suicide bombing, or other terrorist attack elsewhere in the world being reported. And, we all recognize that we cannot let our own guard down even for a second. So, while we have accomplished much, so much remains to be done.
Next week the 65th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations will convene in New York, and international terrorism will again be a prominent issue on its agenda. Several will use the General Assembly platform to call for greater efforts to eliminate what they deem are “the root causes of terrorism.” They want the focus to be on the economic, social and political conditions that they believe give rise to terrorism, rather than on matters of compliance and accountability. Yet, we cannot wait for the ills of the world to be cured before confronting terrorism, and while each step addressing such ills is admirable, we can never accept that discontent ever justifies acts of terrorism. Compliance and accountability must remain the United Nations highest priority and greatest focus.
Many of the speakers will refer to the various Security Council resolutions and 16 international conventions that have outlawed terrorism and that obligate all countries to adopt measures to prevent terrorism and the financing of terrorism. But, undercutting these measures is the fact that there is still not “common ground” as to what constitutes terrorism and who the terrorists are. So far that consensus only extends to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and those groups and individuals identified and listed by a UN Sanctions Committee as associated with them. Beyond those listed there continues to be substantial disagreement that allows certain countries to continue to provide support and material assistance to groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, that use “violence to kill and damage indiscriminately to make a political or cultural point and to influence legitimate Governments or public opinion unfairly and amorally.” This lack of consensus has, in turn, severely limited the United Nations ability to monitor compliance with the counter-terrorism measures that it has adopted or to hold countries accountable for failing to implement and enforce them.
Truth be said, there are already a multitude of definitions of terrorism now being applied by one country or another. Almost every country has its own, and several countries use more than one, depending on the circumstances. This has left each country free to pick and choose who they wish to deem terrorists and who they prefer to call something else, such as “national liberators” or “freedom fighters.”
Many pundits have emphasized the likely impossibility of coming up with a universal definition of terrorism that can capture all its elements and/or satisfy all those charged with its application. But, such precision is not really required for UN purposes, and can be left for each country to more fully develop and apply on its own. However, it is critical that the counter-terrorism norms provided for the international community by the United Nations contain sufficient criteria describing the elements of terrorism to provide some standard by which to hold all countries equally accountable.