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UN Is Deadlocked on Defining Terrorism

UN Is Deadlocked on Defining Terrorism

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By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University

On Monday, April 22, the United Nations (UN) Security Council condemned the terrorist acts in Sri Lanka as “heinous and cowardly terrorist attacks.” The Security Council also “urged all States, in accordance with their obligations under international law and relevant Security Council resolutions” to cooperate with the Sri Lankan government and other relevant authorities.

In addition, the Security Council “reaffirmed that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security.” On March 15, the UN Security Council issued a similar statement concerning the attack at Christchurch, New Zealand.

However, when an April 19 attack by heavily armed militiamen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo killed one person and wounded two others at a hospital, the UN Security Council made no statement. Nor did it make a statement on March 23 when over 134 ethnic Fulani civilians died in Mali as the result of an assault by men armed with guns and machetes. Yet in both cases, the UN Secretary-General condemned the acts and called on the nation’s authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.

What Is Terrorism?

The acts that took place in Sri Lanka, Christchurch, the Congo or Mali may be considered terrorist attacks – or perhaps not. It depends on one’s definition of terrorism.

The issue is that the UN does not have a clear definition of terrorism. While various countries have their own definition of terrorism – and so does the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – the UN stands alone.

The late American historian, journalist and political commentator Walter Laqueur, who was a renowned expert on terrorism and political violence, counted more than 100 definitions of terrorism. He found a single common characteristic – terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence. Since the late 1930s, the international community has tried to define terrorism with the League of Nations attempting (but failing – like the UN) in establishing a clear definition.

An important aspect for the UN is that member nations cannot agree on a definition that fits all and offends none. As recently as October 3, 2018, several countries stated that there must be a distinction between terrorism and the legitimate right of people to resist foreign occupation, self-determination or national liberation.

The Definition of Terrorism Changes in View of a Nation’s Self-Interest

Additionally, taking positions is a risk, because the political value of defining terrorism appears to be more important than a legal one. A definition of terrorism by particular nations can change as it suits their interests. At one point, for instance, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden were freedom fighters backed by the United States when they were resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka Pleads for UN to Remember Its Humanity and Fight Harder against Terrorism

On October 3, 2018, a UN Working Group met to discuss measures to eliminate international terrorism with Ambassador Rohan Perera of Sri Lanka as the Chair of the Working Group. At the meeting, Perera stated, “As a country that suffered under the yoke of terrorism for nearly thirty years, we condemn unequivocally and in the strongest possible terms, terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. All such attacks are an attack on all of us, and it is indeed time for all of us to show solidarity and unity of purpose in combating this scourge. Terrorism and violent extremism conducive to terrorism is not exclusive to any one country or region, but spreads across national borders.

“This rising transnational phenomenon challenges existing borders, and threatens the very fabric of the principle of sovereign states upon which the international legal order is based. While terrorists have dehumanized us in every way, the international community should not embrace the lawlessness of the terrorist and must never abandon its common humanity, which is what binds us together and gives us strength in our fight against terror. We must at all times in this collective fight against terror, continue to fulfill our obligations under the UN charter, international law, international human rights law, and humanitarian law.”

Will There Ever Be a UN Definition of Terrorism?

The overall difficulty of the member nations of the UN to agree on a definition of terrorism prevents the adoption of any definition. The likelihood of an end to this impasse is unlikely as the differences in views between the nations are significant and gaining the acceptance by all 193 members appears dim.

About the Author

Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master’s of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.

Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.

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