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UN Office of Counterterrorism (undefined)

June 15, 2017

In 2006, then UN General Secretary Kofi Anan attempted to gain consensus over a definition of terrorism – “The deliberate killings of civilians and non-combatants for political purposes.”  Necessarily short and to the point using as few words as possible to minimise objections to words used.

The morality behind that prose thus being such acts are unacceptable and unjustifiable under all conditions.

He failed.

There was insufficient support for the text from Member States.  The reason for that failure being rather obvious if you live in a particularly fractious neighbourhood, or have allies that do, where borders are, or are likely to be redrawn by force and/or occupation.  The invaded and wronged sovereign State (and their allies) would wish to reserve the right for partisans to act and avoid being automatically labeled terrorists by the invaders and/or occupiers.

Thus there remains no UN definition of terrorism.

The 15th June 2017 witnessed the UN General Assembly vote unanimously for the creation of a UN Office of Counterterrorism.

The UN horsetrading done several months ago, this new office will almost certainly be headed by Sergei Kislyak, the current Russian Ambassador to the USA who features in the on-going issues within the Trump White House, or Vladimir Voronkov.

There will of course be squawking and screeching that Russia, considering its current actions in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, has no moral right to have their man head the newly created office.  Further some will argue, Russia has since the 1880s promoted and sponsored terrorism and continues to do so.

Be that as it may, the inaugural head of this new UN Office will not only have the usual administrative and bureaucratic teething troubles, but also faces fundamental challenges that may very well seriously effect its potency from the outset.

As there is no UN definition of terrorism, yet having created a UN Office for Counterterrorism, it would now be rather useful for the UN to define what it, as an organisation, deems terrorism.  How else will it act to support nations in anti-terrorism pursuits, mobilise resources, and insure its own transparency, if there is no UN definition of terrorism around which to hang a UN generated and/or implemented counterterrorism response?

If Kofi Anan’s very simply constructed 10 word definition gathered no traction, a far more complex definition would certainly fail to garner approval from Member States.

Anyway, what are the ingredients of any definition of terrorism and who decides?

Is it a practice or doctrine of violent action?  If so should that be expanded to include that it is either meant to instill fear, or only that it does instill fear?  Should that be clarified that it is predominantly political?

What about context?  Should there be reference to terrorism as a tactic?  A direct mention of victims?  What of mens rea (intent) – should that not be in a definition?  Is terrorism, in the modern age, limited to physical violence, or does the threat of violence qualify?  What of cyber terrorism?

Should a definition codify that the victims (civilian or otherwise) are not a target, or that they are?

Should it identify motivations for engaging in terrorism?  Should it mention the perpetrators, or that terrorist acts must form part of a campaign of violence?   Should it be part of international, regional and domestic criminalisation processes?

In a broad brushstroke cycle of – “Attention -> Respect -> Legitimacy -> Power” – inherent to much terrorism dynamics, how should that fit into any definition – if at all?

Is there a need to expressly codify guerrilla warfare as distinctly separate from terrorists?   Is it enough to generalise that guerrilla warfare is normally conducted against military targets avoiding civilians whereas terrorists don’t?

If, even arriving at a UN definition of terrorism (if only for its own counterterrorism use), will there then be drawn out discussions over categorising sub-divisions of terrorism for recording and/or accounting purposes?  What labels to proscribe?  Religiously inspired?  Ethno-nationalist and separatist?  Left wing/anarchist?  Right wing?  Single Issue?

How easy will it be to get real and traction-able international cooperation without a UN definition of what it proposes to counter?  On the other side of that coin, without such a definition how to prevent the abuse of the term terrorism for the use of suppression?

Will “State sponsor of terrorism” get a UN definition when considering the reasons for refusal of the 2006 terrorism definition offered by Kofi Anan?

There is then judicial issues.  Where there exists jus cogens/peremptory norms upon all sovereign nations (such as war crimes and genocide etc), would a UN definition provide for UN jurisdiction?

Without a definition to work from, just how effective will the UN Counterrorism Office be?

It would take several other, somewhat lengthy entries to offer thoughts on the “how”, “why”, “where”, “when”, and of any assistance and/or guidelines and/or recommendations the new office might consider.

But of immediate importance is the “what” with regard to an absent UN definition of terrorism, for that must surely be fundamental to a UN counterterrorism office.

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