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INTERNATIONAL ACTS OF TERRORISM—ISSUES OF SECURITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS

Mohammad Akram Sheikh
December 4, 2010

Let us never forget that terrorism at its heart, at its evil heart, is a psychological war. It endeavours to break the spirit and the resolve of those it attacks by creating a lose-lose situation.

Norm Coleman

I find myself greatly privileged to have been given an opportunity to share with such a learned audience my thoughts and feelings on an ever important subject of terrorism in the context of security and human rights. A subject that concerns humanity more than ever—a subject from which no country—big or small—is immune.

I come from a country—Pakistan—which is living in the most trying times at the crossroads of its history. It has transformed from the status of frontline state in the war against terror into a victim of terrorism. A country which offered its resources, its infrastructure, and its logistic support to shield the world from the onslaught of extremists, finds itself at odds due to incongruity amongst all the three actors of this episode—the Extremists, the people of Pakistan, and the western world in the international drive against terrorism. We have to combat the militants and at the same time have to bring our own people to the fact that it is “our” war rather than America’s. We have to satisfy our western allies and even our neighbors that we mean business. The trust deficit has been proving detrimental to the cause that we have so willfully taken at hand.

Before we could recover from the sequel of the cold war era we were asked to face yet another challenge from the same direction. We acted as the frontline state to halt the Soviet march through Afghanistan in the 1980’s. due to our direct involvement in the efforts to thwart the Soviet aggression we experienced a societal transformation from moderation into radicalism, especially on our north-west tribal belt.  The world that we sacrificed so much for, unfortunately abandoned us, and did not extend to us the support which we needed to recover from the wounds of history. The new world order failed to accommodate our compulsions.

In the post 9/11 world, we were once again designated by the civilized world, as a frontline state against militancy. We did not disappoint the world and extended all out support to the world, despite the public misgivings and reservations on our resolve to make the world a better place, where peace and harmony prevail, civilization flourishes, and tolerance wins through. Our policy to stand by the international forces exposed us to the direct implications of this war against terror, which we did and do consider our own war, because we are convinced that any other course will put at stake the very survival of the modern civilization. We never subscribe to the view that this wave is a manifestation of the clash of civilizations. We deem the situation as a clash between moderation and coercion.

We find it painfully surprising that we have yet to receive reciprocity of conduct from some of our partners in the common drive to eradicate the forces of infliction.

Coming from Pakistan, I wish to discuss here the issue of terrorism vis a vis security and human rights looking at it less through an ideological spectacle than as a pragmatist and an objective analyst. Pakistan has been much maligned mostly unfairly and blamed for much of the phenomenon. It is itself in the eye of vortex and has suffered a number of terrorist attacks with the most recent one (7th Oct 2010) at the shrine of Ghazi Abdullah Shah in Karachi. Pakistan has not been quick to lay the blame at the doors of its neighbours but there are clear signs that external players and factors involvement in acts of terrorism.

The price my country has been paying for its drive against the global phenomenon of terrorism has rather been too high. The following table is sufficient to show that Pakistan, as a state, has sacrificed most in the efforts to eradicate terrorism:


YEAR-WISE SUMMARY OF HUMAN LOSSES IN TERRORIST ACTS           (ALL PAKISTAN)

(01 January 2001 to 11 October 2010)

Year Number of Incidents Killed Injured
LEA’s Others LEA’s Other
2001 110 13 41 72 224
2002 56 32 70 110 201
2003 88 11 18 46 106
2004 159 24 52 152 260
2005 113 9 19 32 81
2006 1444 267 502 645 982
2007 1820 575 1677 1462 2065
2008 1575 541 2248 1434 3665
2009 1946 706 1674 1832 5544
2010 1780 416 1239 1167 3409
Total 9091 2594 7540 6952 16537
G.Total 18182 10134 23489

It can been seen that 2009 was the deadliest year for Pakistan. The present year—2010—has been equally bad if not worse.

Terror now engulfs the entire nation. Militants have thrown up a serious challenge to the authority of the Federal Government in every part of the country and the government appears to have abdicated the responsibility for controlling the menace to the all powerful military taking a back seat thereby further reducing the problem as a military one. In the short term one may appear to be winning the war, even though that is moot, but in the long term the prognosis doesn’t appear to be optimistic. Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism. We don’t combat terrorism by fighting terrorism. We invite it by ignoring the underlying causes. We need a holistic approach and a generic response to the menace of terrorism. We need to build on winning the hearts and minds. For this we need to pursue both soft and hard approaches.

Fighting terrorism is like goal keeping. One can save most of the goals but might miss a few with deadly consequences. With no territory to defend, terrorists simply disappear into a terrain unfamiliar to the regular army troops. Terrorism is an expression of rage on the part of people who feel aggrieved at the unfair global order and occupation of Muslim countries directly or indirectly. Suicide attacks absolutely abhorrent to the civilized world happen to be a political weapon of the weak and the besieged. It is like a virus which has spread globally. The big threat civilized world faces is the way it reacts to the terrorism rage by diluting its commitment to human rights what the humanity has taken ages to achieve.

The West needs to counter the impression that it is at war with Islam. The narrative of clash of civilizations has to be replaced with a focus on fighting terrorism. All Muslims are not terrorists like all terrorists are not Muslims. Al-Qaeda seizes on the rhetoric of clash of civilizations to galvanize support amongst the Muslims masses most of them illiterate. The West should forge strengthened partnership with the states that are themselves the victim of extremism and balance the need to combat global terrorism with the drawbacks of large scale military intervention.

Looking back into history, the U.S funded nurseries of Mujahideen “holy fighters” in 1980s for fighting the “evil Soviet empire”. This period of Afghan War (1979–88) also saw another military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, being nurtured by the US. General Zia-ul-Haq’s government was instrumental in solidifying the Muslim clergy with the active support of the US. A large number of “madrassas” (religious seminaries) mushroomed across the country. These madrassas provided and continue to provide the manpower for most of the terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in Pakistan. Egged on by the US, some Middle Eastern countries also poured in lots of money which went primarily towards Sunni Muslim organisations. Fighters from Central Asian States and Arab countries were encouraged and financed and facilitated for settling in these regions.

The post 9/11 war against terror replaced cold war as global preoccupation. The United States is leading the charge. “America is at war.” So began President Bush’s introduction to his administration’s National Security Strategy, which was unveiled towards the beginning of 2006. But the president’s approach to making the US more secure has come at the cost of making many other nations less secure. In the name of war against terrorism, the sole super power has with its precipitate actions destabilized the world and created dangerous situation for world peace. The end result is a more dangerous world, and an even more insecure United States.

The world became a dangerous place in the wake of 9/11. Bush’s strategists set about compounding their errors. His strategy, justified by the “war on terror,” reaffirms some of the United States’ most self-defeating policies. Muslims have been demonized. According to Noam Chomsky, the achievements of Bush Administration in inspiring Islamic radicalism and terror are quite impressive.

The new strategy announced in May this year distances the Obama administration from the doctrine of preemptive war, a tenet of former President George W. Bush’s defense policy, and stresses multilateral engagement and diplomacy. It abandons the “war on terror” rhetoric that characterized the Bush years. It also pledges to uphold human rights in countering extremism and rejects torture as a tool of U.S. national security. The implementation of this new policy is yet to be seen.

Who is a terrorist? Which organization or countries are sponsors of terrorism? These are some of the questions that require answers. Unless there is an internationally accepted definition, there will be total anarchy. Somebody’s terrorist is someone’s freedom fighter. Terrorism is generally held to mean “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are critical, religious or ideological in nature… through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear, by targeting civilians.” The US routinely dubs Iran, Syria and a few other mostly Muslim countries as sponsors of terrorism ignoring its most allied ally, which not only possesses nuclear weapons but terrorizes the entire Palestinian population as a state policy on a daily basis. It has imprisoned entire Arab population in Gaza strip besides routinely grabbing Arab land in the name of settlements.

Hamas, which won fair and free elections in Palestine, is being treated as the worst scum of the earth. Miseries of occupied Palestinians have been compounded manifold as a punishment for choosing wrongly at the elections. So were the Islamists who won elections fair and square in Algeria some twenty years back. The country was destroyed because the West did not like the democratic outcome.

Are the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka fighting for the rights of Tamils to have some autonomy within the federation, the Maoists of Nepal demanding the end of monarchy and an end to poverty, or the Naxalites in some Indian states pitted on behalf of the forgotten poor against their governments they consider insufficiently sensitive terrorists? They can all be called terrorists and dealt with ruthlessly. But is that a solution?

Or the fierce and oppressive occupation of Kashmir by India where about 70,000 people have died in the last two decades and where ordinary people are faced with fears, humiliations and tribulations on daily basis. In the latest intifada so far over 100 teenagers and young men have been shot to death.  They were only armed with stones. All pat efforts at gaining independence from Indian occupation have failed and it is to be seen whether stones might push her out.

Iraq was invaded mostly in the name of weapons of mass destruction and a connection was attempted to be established between Saddam’s Government and Al Qaeda. Bush At War’ by Bob Woodward shows that preparation was afoot to attack Iraq the moment neo cons had occupied the White House. Iran and Syria would have been the next targets had Iraq not turned out to be such a disaster. Is it a mere coincidence that all the countries under attack have Muslim population? Is that a reaffirmation of the much-dreaded ‘clash of civilization’ thesis?

In Afghanistan, the US has been doing no better. Before handing over to NATO southern parts of Afghanistan, according to Simon Jenkins, ‘in their current farewell burst of machismo’ Americans launched Operation Mountain Thrust. They slaughtered about 500 Afghans, mostly from the air and killing almost every one present. Jenkins goes on to say; the US ‘is merely killing Afghans and recruiting their relatives to the Taliban cause.’ (Dawn/The Guardian News Service)

State terrorism is much worse than the terror states are fighting. Israel has also been practicing it in all its horrendous manifestations.

Why should people be driven to give the ultimate sacrifice of their life by going for suicide bombing? This leads us to the need for knowing the causes of extremism. This must cover social, political, and economic factors. There is a need for finding satisfactory solutions to the international problems that cause much resentment in different parts of the world. This effort should be coupled with the adoption of concrete measures to address socio-economic and political issues like poverty, under-development, socio-economic inequities and the lack of adequacy of participatory transparent good governance.

Desperation, helplessness, hopelessness, lack of mercy on the part of their oppressors and the perpetrators of death and destruction of ordinary people, their leaders and homes, sense of denial of justice, powerful enemies armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry, unjust international order, a prostrate United Nations whose secretary General would rather keep the job than uphold the principle are some of the factors that drive perfectly sane people to sacrifice their lives and in the process impose some cost on their persecutors.

Resistance to occupation should not be characterized as terrorism. “The right to self determination, freedom and independence, as derived from the Charter of the United Nations, of people forcibly deprived of that right, particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes …” would be a legitimate act to defend. Thus Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans living in occupied territories have a legitimate right to resist.

Killing by the occupiers with artillery shells, blasting from the skies with missiles and Apaches or bulldozing homes with people inside is legit. What is not legit is the killing with one’s own body strapped with explosives. In both cases the damage is collateral. Only the innocent die. Israeli weapons are no more sacred than the weapons the poor and resource-less people possess.

What has the West lost in its desire to occupy and destroy Palestine, Iraq and keep rest of the Middle East in thrall to itself? One definite loss is that of liberties that had taken the West centuries to achieve. Its lure as the paragon of human rights and freedoms, which were routinely denied to the people of the third world, has been lost. When you read the human rights reports about the US or even Europe, you get the feeling as if one is reading of the violations in Saudi Arabia, China or Egypt or any number of other third world brute dictatorships. But it is the US where people are being held incommunicado for months and years with access denied to courts and lawyers. Torture has become a state sponsored policy whether it is the prisoners in Gunatanamo Bay, Abu Gharaib, or beating of boys by British troops, killing in cold blood 24 civilians including women and children in Haditha by US marines, or the targeted killing of Palestinian/Hamas leaders including a threat to kill their elected Prime Minister.

A distinction has to be drawn between aggression and legitimate resistance. The two cannot be clubbed under the generic rubric of terror. To quote Mr. Noam Chomsky the United States has adopted double standards and has rejected “the principle of universality”. According to him, decent people apply to themselves the same standard that they apply to others.

Justice Robert Jackson, Chief Counsel for the United States invoked the same high standard of civilized conduct on the part of victors including the US, when he spoke at the Nuremberg Trial in the following words: –

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others, which we would not be willing to have invoked against us”.

The Tribunal defined war crimes and crime against humanity. It adopted a definition carefully so that crimes are crimes only if the allies do not commit them. Mr. Jackson’s Chief Counsel for War Crimes, Telford Taylor explained that “to punish the foe – especially the vanquished foe – for conduct in which the enforcing nation has engaged, would be so grossly inequitable as to discredit the laws themselves. Self-exemption of the powerful from international law makes a mockery of the latter. “

The question is, are we winning the war? Perhaps not. According to US magazine Foreign Policy and a Washington based think tank, the US is losing the war on terror and that a major new attack is likely within the next decade. The relative peace the world had seen during the few decades of cold war has been shattered.

What should be done? Democracy is the only answer particularly for the problems in the Muslim world. There is a widening disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. The rulers the US supports are oppressive and corrupt. Dictators and psychopaths are its allies.

People want to be in control of their destinies. Jacques Chirac, former French President held the view that Terrorism will take us back to ages we thought were long gone, if we allow it a free hand to corrupt democratic societies and destroy the basic rules of international life.

War on terror is as much in the interest of Pakistan’s survival as it is of the West. From the number of terror attacks and the number of victims of such attacks which far exceed the total aggregating attacks of victims in the west, Pakistan is the centre point of the war on terror.

The foregoing discussion leads one to conclude that enactments and criminal laws are no remedy for curbing the malady or menace of terrorism. We need to adopt an out of the box approach. Whereas, legal regime is an essential part of responding to the threat of terrorism, yet this alone cannot achieve the objective. We require setting in motion a system incorporating a multi-pronged strategy which includes dialogue with all the stake-holders, granting concessions, declaring amnesty where necessary and retreating from rigid positions that have been taken on certain issues. Concept of victory in war against terrorism should be replaced by addressing the root causes of terrorism, namely, poverty, illiteracy, social inequity and injustice, political oppression. We should, therefore, continue to ameliorate the lot of people who are attracted towards terrorism because of these factors.

There are no easy fixes to the problem of terrorism. The problem has become international and no country is immune to the virus. Blaming it on neighbours or traditional enemies won’t work because the problem has acquired dimensions of home grown variety. Dealing with the subject holistically in all its facets, we, first of all, have to understand the entire complexity of the menace and then only can we come to rational conclusions on how to address it. There is a tendency to link terrorism and extremism. However, the two are very different from each other and addressing them need totally different strategies. It is here that we have to build on hard and soft approaches to tackle terrorism on one side and extremism on the other side.

While terrorism is to be confronted with force, with all the military force at every level globally, regionally and domestically by all countries involved or concerned; extremism, which is a state of mind has to be handled with care. It is a battle for the hearts and minds. There is nothing like imposition here. It needs a totally different strategy. We have to certainly address both, terrorism for obvious reasons, to confront it with force. But extremism spawns terrorism. Terrorism flows from extremism.

It means that the challenge of terrorism has to be met at different levels. These tiers can be identified: First, at the global level. From Pakistan perspective terrorism at this level can be dealt with through a strategy of enlightened moderation. This is a two pronged strategy. One to be delivered by the Muslim world, rejecting terrorism and extremism, going for socio-economic development because the Muslim world is the most backward. Socio-economic development will lead to the eradication of poverty, and ultimately eliminate extremism which grows into terrorism.

The other prong of the strategy of enlightened moderation is to be delivered by the West by assisting the Muslim countries in the process of socio-economic development and by helping in the resolution of political disputes.

Terrorism is a complex, multi-dimensional and growing threat at global level. Therefore, a comprehensive strategy that combines law enforcement, political, social, cultural, financial and diplomatic measures should be adopted to combat it.

Since terrorism is not confined to a single country or one region, there is a need for evolving consensus at global level on a countering strategy incorporating both short and long term measures that work in tandem.

No counter-terrorism strategy can be effective unless causes and conditions that breed, encourage, and contribute to terrorism are objectively identified and addressed.

Since terrorism is a global phenomenon, it can be countered only through international cooperation. Cooperation at global level can be facilitated through sustained efforts for building national capabilities and capacities across the spectrum.

While taking counter-terrorism measures, cooperative rather than coercive national and international strategies should be pursued so that reaction to counter-terrorism measures does not confound the problem.

Carrying out counter-terrorism strategies should not entail violation of human rights and disregard for civil liberties. Rather civil liberties and principles of good governance must be upheld in the fight against terror, because real security can only be achieved through respect for human rights.

Terrorism thrives on hatred, mistrust, and lack of communication between different civilizational and cultural groups. It reminds me of Martin Luther King, when he said and I quote:

“People do not get along well with each other, because they fear each other. They fear each other because they do not know each other. They do not know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

Therefore, inter-faith dialogue and understanding among different civilizational and cultural groups, including struggle for winning hearts and minds must become an integral part of global consensus building to evolve a joint strategy. Such a dialogue must be pursued on the understanding that the root cause of friction between civilizations are not primarily religious differences but mainly issues of power, competing political and economic interests, policies, and misunderstandings.

As a result of concerted national efforts, the terrorist support base has shrunk but the danger still looms large. What we need is a multi-prong counter-terrorism strategy to neutralise the ideological appeal of extremism to address the root causes that breed extremist tendencies: and to strive in surmounting socio-economic challenges.

This Conference could contemplate proposing the following measures:

  1. To abide by the universally accepted principles of international law and human rights in the war against terrorism.
  2. That terrorism must not be equated with any faith or religion.
  3. That this war cannot be won by military means alone.
  4. That we must address root causes or breeding grounds. Without a war on political injustice and poverty we can never defeat terror.
  5. Finally that this war ought not to become a pretext to suppress legitimate freedom movements or compromise on civil liberties.
  6. Intelligentsia, civil society and media should play their role to create public awareness about the dangers that terrorism poses to society.

Efforts have to be geared to evolve a consensus among nations on what must be done. Decisions having international and moral legitimacy stand better chance being respected as opposed to unilateral decisions for international peace and stability.