Responding to terror

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Briefing 01-8

Ernie Regehr

The public response to the horrific events of September 11, 2001 is beginning to engage the difficult questions of how those responsible for planning and assisting in the attacks are to be brought to justice, and how the international community can take effective measures against the threat and practice of terrorism wherever it occurs. Reliable answers to many of those questions will be a long time coming, but public debate and exploration are an essential part of the process of developing constructive action. The following notes, prepared by Ernie Regehr, are not presented as the policy of Project Ploughshares or its sponsors, but are offered as a contribution to the discussion.

In an effort to formulate advice to the Government of Canada on how it should continue to respond to the attacks of September 11, we dare not neglect to recall and re-iterate some of the social and political values that provide the foundation of our national life and our action in the world when we are at our best. In those values we will find neither perfection nor easy answers, but in the face of the grief and rage that tempt us to yield to vengeful retaliation, the appeal to enduring principles of national and international behaviour, even though we ourselves frequently fail to live by them, can help to steer us toward more measured and, in the end, more effective action. Prime Minister Chrétien made the same point when he said to the House of Commons: “Let our actions be guided by a spirit of wisdom and perseverance, by our values and our way of life. As we press the struggle, let us never, ever, forget who we are and what we stand for.”

Appeals to defend “our way of life” are indeed a prominent feature of the response to these attacks, and the means of that defence is assumed to be “America’s New War,” as CNN’s omnipresent banner headline has it. But talk of “war,” rather than encouraging reliance on durable civil values, is more likely to produce claims that because these are extraordinary times, extraordinary measures are required and that we should not be constrained or inhibited by the values that normally guide us. The repetition of the unavoidable thought that on September 11 “everything changed” inevitably fosters the sense that we are in a new context in which the usual political rudders or navigational aids cannot be relied upon.

The language of war fails to clarify the challenges that lie before the world. The struggle against terrorism involves two quite distinct, and operationally very different, objectives: accountability and prevention. It is perhaps understandable that some find value in metaphorical appeals to “war” as a way of emphasizing the need for total commitment and perseverance, but actual war has nothing to contribute to either accountability or prevention.

Accountability requires broad cooperation within the international community to hold the perpetrators of acts of terrorism, and their accomplices, to account. Prevention requires two broad sets of measures: more effective surveillance combined with other security measures in the interests of enhanced public safety; and attention to the social, political and economic conditions that promote, or are conducive to, terrorism.

To guide such efforts we do have reliable reference points – basic values that can guide action even in this extraordinary circumstance. Many of these values and approaches have been broadly aired and discussed in the aftermath of September 11. The following briefly reviews six such guideposts.

1. Reject impunity

The perpetrators of these heinous crimes must be brought to justice. This imperative is unambiguous and it is rooted not in revenge but in the principle of accountability. It is appropriate that those responsible for the acts of September 11 are now the focus of public attention. But it is also appropriate to remind those now promoting a new struggle against terrorism as an international priority that the obligation to bring terrorists to justice is a broad obligation to bring to justice all those who commit terrorist acts and other crimes against humanity, regardless of where the victims are.

To acknowledge, in the context of a particular crisis, a wider obligation should obviously not have the effect of mitigating the pursuit of the perpetrators of the September 11 crimes, but it should remind our own country and the United States that the renewed campaign against terrorism must be universal and apply with equal vigour to all who commit acts of terror. Rejecting impunity means holding all those responsible for such acts accountable, whether they occur in the cities of North America or the bushlands of Africa.

The United States approach to the Government of Sudan illustrates the point. The United States has identified Sudan as a state that supports terrorism based on Sudan’s relationship with the accused Osama bin Laden. As the Government of Sudan has sought to distance itself from bin Laden, expelling him in 1996, the United States has been more open to reviewing its stance on Sudan and has in the current crisis tentatively welcomed Sudan’s declaration of support and cooperation in pursuing those responsible for the attacks on the United States. Throughout all this time, the Government of Sudan has carried out hundreds of documented bombings of civilian villages and centres for the internally displaced in Sudan. In addition, Government forces have attacked villages in the oil fields, killing civilians and driving people from their homes. These are by definition terrorist attacks on civilians and crimes against humanity, and they have been identified as such by the UN Human Rights Commission, but the United States has not publicly linked its designation of Sudan as a sponsor of terror to any of the acts of terror in which Sudanese are the victims.

2. Due process

It is inevitable that any effective effort to bring terrorists to justice will be multifaceted and will require extensive international cooperation. Governments will rely on diplomacy, intelligence gathering and sharing, cooperation among law enforcement agencies, economic pressures, and military/police actions – all with the fundamental, minimal requirement that such measures conform to existing and developing requirements for due process, according to international and national laws.

The obligation to respect due process is unambiguous – for reasons of justice as well as political and moral legitimacy. In international relations due process is under construction and its requirements are far from clear. The International Criminal Court is not yet operative, there is no global tribunal before which accused terrorists can be brought, and the United Nations Security Council has not proven itself to be an unfailingly reliable forum for the disinterested pursuit of justice or international peace and security. Nevertheless, the UN, and especially the Security Council, are the essential custodians of international due process, and, along with the affected national governments, are central to ensuring that those being pursued, and the societies in which they are pursued, have the protection of law and just practice.

Some observers have begun to refer to the possibility of there being an international element to legal proceedings against the surviving perpetrators of the criminal acts of September 11. An exclusively American trial is unlikely to have the confidence of many states which nevertheless are committed to a broad equitable campaign to prevent acts of terror and to hold those guilty of terror accountable. The introduction of an international dimension to such a trial could help to legitimize the results and thus strengthen the resolve to combat terrorism internationally.

A key to ensuring due process is to increase the response time. There is a growing understanding that the legal and social/political response to the acts of September 11 must be multifaceted and ongoing. Effectiveness requires measured action, supported by thorough investigation. One week after the event, the American administration appears to understand the basic need to develop reliable confidence in the effectiveness and appropriateness of whatever action is chosen, although the accelerating mobilization of major military forces runs the danger of over-shadowing other responses.

3. Interdependence or unilateralism

The September 11 events demonstrate what we know – that the world is interdependent. If the world itself is unsafe there are no reliable means by which to build islands of enduring, fortified safety within it. Security is mutual and is the product of cooperation.

The security and safety of the people of the United States are no less dependent on international cooperation. It is inevitable and appropriate that the United States would reach out to the international community, as it is now doing, to seek solidarity in its effort to respond to the September 11 attacks. For now, the world’s sympathy and empathy are generously available, but these are sentiments that will not last indefinitely. For long-term cooperation, the United States will have to specifically embrace interdependence, to see it as a source of strength rather than weakness.

This cooperative interdependence will require that the United States re-engage with the world. It will have to negotiate the foundations of mutual cooperation, which in turn will mean rethinking its approaches to issues like the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Environmental Protocol, the Comprehensive (nuclear) Test-Ban Treaty, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Two very recent examples of efforts to develop global security norms and standards, for which the United States will have to re-evaluate its approach, concern small arms and biological weapons. Both issues have direct implications for the struggle against terrorism.

In July of this year, the United States stood virtually alone in rejecting the efforts of the UN Conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons to gain approval for a paragraph committing states “to supply small arms and light weapons only to Governments, or to entities duly authorised by them.” The United States delegation stated that such an undertaking would put unacceptable limits on the options available to an American administration in particular situations in which the only realistic option might be to support groups which they regarded as engaged in struggling to overthrow a despotic regime. States supporting the proposed paragraph wanted the Conference to underscore the basic principle that States should not arm dissident and terrorist groups in each others’ territories. The effort to approve this paragraph was unsuccessful and it is a failure that undermines the establishment of a clear international norm against governments supporting non-state groups in armed conflict with governments and terrorizing civilian populations. Any cooperative international campaign against terrorism will require that the United States cooperate with other states in the pursuit of such norms and standards in the future.

Also in July, the United States rejected a proposed Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, which was intended to establish verification provisions, including on-site inspections. Of the 55 countries at the Geneva negotiations, the United States was alone in insisting that the Protocol provisions would be ineffective in identifying illicit activity in other states, adding that the on-site inspections of United States facilities could jeopardize US commercial proprietary information. Here, too, international cooperation to prevent terrorism, including dangers of terrorist use of deadly organisms, will require a new level of cooperation from the United States in the effort to build credible international institutions of arms control.

Clearly, Canada has a role to play in encouraging its neighbour to move beyond the unilateralist impulses of the early Bush Administration, and to urge Washington to re-engage constructively with the international community.

4. Justice and grievance

If the world is about to embark on a major campaign against terrorism, it is especially important to strongly assert that it is possible to hear and address the grievances that are linked to terrorist activity without thereby in any way condoning it. Acknowledging that terrorism has root causes does not excuse it any more than acknowledging that higher than average crime rates tend to be linked to adverse social and economic conditions excuses individual crimes. Any serious crime reduction effort cannot be confined to more intensified police work; it must also address the economic and social conditions that tend to produce increased rates of crime. Similarly, any serious campaign against terrorism needs to address the social, economic and political conditions that nurture the emergence of terrorism.

To argue that terrorism has roots and that some contexts are more conducive to producing terrorism than others is not to say that adverse social and economic conditions inevitably spawn terrorists, or that terrorists never come from conditions of relative prosperity and openness. It is to say, however, as the Canadian Council for International Cooperation has stated, that global disparity is fundamentally incompatible with global security.

Canada has led the international community in understanding that there are human security and peacebuilding dimensions to national, regional and international security problems. Small arms, for example, kill 10,000 people per week, with some estimates suggesting that the majority of the victims are civilians.  Canadian policy recognizes that reducing those tragic numbers requires not only gun control and arms control measures but also measures to address the political, social and economic conditions that tend to exacerbate gun use and abuse. Canada’s human security and peacebuilding priorities should also be at the forefront of this country’s efforts against terrorism.

States that stand accused by the United States of supporting terrorism have one characteristic in common – they are undemocratic states that suppress civil society. The promotion of good governance, participatory public institutions, and a civil society actively engaged in shaping public priorities and values are essential components of reducing the risks and incidence of terrorism.

5. Resort to force

The very least that can be said about the surviving individuals responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States is that they are fugitives from justice – fugitives who must be pursued and apprehended if they are to be held to account and brought to justice. These fugitives may now be in any number of countries and their capture will involve the police and intelligence forces of all those countries. It is possible that not all the states involved will fully cooperate with the pursuit of those responsible, and in some instances may serve more to harbour than to pursue them.

Therein lies a major challenge to the international community, but the early characterization of the response to the terrorist attacks on the United States as war misrepresents the nature of that challenge. While police forces, in the United States and beyond, with cooperation among them being facilitated through diplomacy, are currently the primary focus of the pursuit of the fugitive terrorists, the current mobilization of a broad spectrum of United States military force, from strategic bombers to cruise and ballistic missiles and special forces for possible assassination missions, means it is almost inevitable that the resort to force could go well beyond police or police-support actions – and, sadly, well beyond the limits of international and humanitarian law.

All police and military action, it should go without saying, must be lawful. In the pursuit of those responsible for planning and assisting the attacks of September 11, attacks that are an affront to law and decency of extraordinary proportions, there is a requirement for meticulous adherence to law, for justice to be done and for it to be seen as being done. If fugitive terrorists are harboured in states that refuse to cooperate with the efforts to bring them to trial, the international community has a responsibility, and has available the mechanisms for due process, as stated previously, through the Security Council and existing international police networks, to cross international boundaries and apprehend those accused of this heinous crime.

While the television networks are drawn increasingly to footage of aircraft carriers, long-range bombers, and other heavy military equipment, implying major military assaults on non-cooperating states, many military analysts, including the United States Defense Secretary, point out that such states have no obvious military targets which, if destroyed, would aid the pursuit and apprehension of the accused. Punitive military strikes against civilian populations and infrastructure would themselves be heinous violations of international law and decency and would, to understate the matter, be counter-productive. They would inevitably spawn new generations of terrorists and aggravate, in Afghanistan for example, the humanitarian crisis which is already well advanced among one of the most vulnerable civilian populations in the world and from which all international humanitarian workers have now had to flee.

And if military force is counter-productive or of limited utility in bringing the fugitives to justice in the current case, its role in the wider campaign against terrorism is even more marginal. Terrorism is not amenable to military defeat. The defeat of terrorism requires a broad range of domestic security measures, effective national and international law enforcement capacity, and urgent attention to the political and social conditions that nurture it.

6. Recovering perspective

A campaign against terrorism is required, but not at all costs. Indeed, Afghanistan offers a prime example of the extraordinary damage that can be incurred through intense single-minded campaigns that in their zeal ignore the possible negative consequences. In the 1980s the United States committed itself to support the war against the Soviet Union, against the spread of communism, without apparent regard for any outcome other than the defeat of the Soviets. It was a spectacularly successful campaign, but at what cost? The supply of almost limitless quantities of small arms and light weapons through Pakistan continues to fuel the unending civil war in Afghanistan, and social chaos and escalating violence in Pakistan. Uncritical support for the mujahadeen rebels spawned the Taliban and made common cause with the same Osama bin Laden who is now one of the pursued fugitives.

We can be sure that a single-minded campaign against terrorism will have similarly damaging consequences if it is not guided by due process and actions that honour the laws, values and freedoms that terrorism threatens. If our societies yield to growing pressures to permit increased invasion of privacy, reduced access to information, curtailed immigration, reduced access to safe havens for refugees, changes in national priorities to increase military spending at the expense of social programs, along with any number of other measures to erode fundamental rights and freedoms, the campaign against terror will have failed in its commitment to the victims of the September 11 attacks to honour their sacrifice with a new resolve to make the world they left behind a safer place.

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