14 October 2003, 20:59

On different sides of barricades

The word "terrorism" is again on everybody's lips after the Nord-Ost hostage taking. Yet people invest this concept with different meanings, like after first explosions in Moscow and then America's September 11 tragedy. What some view as crime against humanity, others consider heroism. Terrorism has never been ultimately defined, although more than a hundred of different definitions have been proposed. Agreement on this matter, at least nowadays, is apparently hard to achieve even though Russia's Justice Minister Yuri Chaika1 insists on it, because forces on different sides of the barricades profess contrary values and ideologies. To be precise and objective, many researchers therefore prefer not to speak about terrorism, but terrorist acts, as this concept is less disputable.

A terrorist or a guerilla warrior?

In the meanwhile, the matter of definition is far from being just speculative, but an extremely sensitive political problem. For example, Russian authorities resolutely refuse to negotiate with those representatives of the Chechen society they consider terrorists. At the same time, one of the best-known German philosophers of the present, Jurgen Habermas, considers Chechen gunmen's acts a variety of paramilitary guerilla movement typical for the second half of the XX cent. His standpoint is shared by a number of other European intellectuals.

According to contemporary legal notions, terrorist acts cannot be justified, since they cause sufferings to civilians who are not involved in political strife or military action. As for civil war (guerilla war), it can aim against injustices of power or national oppression. Therefore in the 1990s, the international human rights movement developed specific policy with regard to nongovernmental participants in civil wars2 (especially if these are movements enjoying support of the majority of population). This policy was based on article 3, common to all the four Geneva Conventions, and was aimed at forcing guerillas who in prospect sought international acknowledgement to observe humanitarian law rules (which, unfortunately, seldom happened). If militant units using violence have the nature of organized armed forces, operate in a limited area and observe humanitarian law in the area they control, they can count on a different attitude towards them than terrorists who consciously violate all legal norms. Besides, it is emphasized in western social discourse in the last few years that terrorists are not tightly linked to any institutions, nor any definite area. One German researcher formulated this difference as follows: "guerillas want to capture a territory, but terrorists want to capture thought3." International law that took shape primarily in the area of relations between states or proto-state regimes gives in to organizations such as al-Qaida (al Qaeda) and al-Jihad (Egyptian Islamic Jihad). Their amorphous network and cell structure without distinct internal horizontal and hierarchic connections makes fighting such organizations much more difficult. Besides, such terrorist groups and networks chiefly operate in areas where government monopoly of violence never existed or has been destroyed. These are the so-called rogue states, i.e. countries with a weak state system or territories just aspiring to create their own state system (Afghanistan, Sudan, Somali, Tajikistan, and so on). Besides, present-day terrorists are as a rule closely linked to the criminal world, e.g. drug traffickers. Those in some or other way linked to terrorist acts are considered to have committed crimes against humanity and therefore, strictly speaking, they come under the jurisdiction of a special court.

While condemning terrorist acts, the international human rights movement nevertheless imposes definite restrictions on the acts of state, which has a monopoly of violence in accordance with international law, in respect to movements, organizations and individuals using violence (including terrorists). It is considered that as long as violence can be prevented using police measures there is no need to introduce a state of emergency. Human rights must be observed in full. And only if police measures don't work, violence escalates and the society is threatened with anarchy and chaos, introducing a state of emergency is acknowledged necessary. In doing so, policies must be formulated openly, so it can be judged as to whether the means used are proportionate to them.

No less burning in political respect are some other concepts linked to the present-day wave of terrorist acts in the world. One of them - "political terrorism" - includes blackmail and demands forcing government to certain actions. Government as the object of blackmail is the key element in the concept of political terrorism. The latter in turn can be both domestic and international. Domestic terrorism is when terrorist acts are committed within just one country and against its citizens, like e.g. actions of the Islamic Republican Army (IRA), the Basque armed group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) or the Red Brigades in Italy. International terrorism is manifested in violent acts committed outside the country of which the gunmen or terrorist act initiators are nationals and aimed against another country's nationals. After September 11 the label of international terrorism has turned into a psychologically very efficient means of fighting a political rival.

The associations roused by these words are so vivid and indisputable that many just automatically "swallow" the assessment they are offered, without requiring convincing evidence that this is what they are confronted with - that some or other politician is really connected with international terrorist networks, etc.

Unpredictability, randomness, mass character

While terrorism almost defies rigorous scientific definition, its substantial traits and development trends can generally be described. The most important property of contemporary terrorist acts and campaigns consist in their unpredictability, randomness and mass character that palsy society. Personal security, stability and predictability are very highly appraised in the West. We, too, are more and more coming to understand the importance of these factors. Meanwhile, terrorism in its present-day form destroys the atmosphere of confidence, the only atmosphere in which society can normally exist. Terrorism is therefore becoming an exclusively political factor.

The second property of terrorist acts of late is their being deliberately dramatized. To some extent, it was present formerly, too, but nowadays terrorist acts are more and more clearly acquiring the nature of well-directed, elaborate and extremely dramatized actions (remember the September 11, 2001, events in New York and the Nord-Ost tragedy). The gunmen's masks and the black burqas on women with explosives hanging round on them - all these props were meant to make the communicative act, which a terrorist act is, utterly expressive and highlight its super-task - getting the gunmen's message, their demands across.

And the third important property. Unlike actions of the famous units of the Red Army Faction (RAF or Rote Armee Fraktion) in Germany and other similar organizations of the 1970-80s, which conducted elaborate, single and targeted terrorist acts, carefully selected the objects of attacks and guarded their cell members, present-day mass terror is primarily aimed against civilians having nothing to deal with what is going on. These mass character and anonymity when any one can become the victim of terrorists are especially typical for actions of present-day terrorists. They are ceasing to value even their own lives. There is now a category of suicide bombers that kill civilians and die themselves (Palestinians or Chechens as Arbi Baraev's sister Khava who exploded herself along with a truckload of explosives within the precincts of a special police unit from Omsk, Russia).

The lines of change

Terrorism has evolved noticeably in the past two decades. This evolution has in many respects been interpreted and summarized already. The U.S. State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism report published in May 2002 outlines the six basic trends:

1. Growth in the destructive potential of all varieties of terrorism. While it might seem in the 1990s terrorism was receding comparing with the 1980s, there has been a stable growth since the end of last century. The number of terrorist acts was 6,700 in 1998; 741 were killed. Two years later the number of terrorist acts somewhat declined (4,655), but the number of those killed multiplied (3,500). Simultaneously, something like territorial movement of terrorism was observed. Although Latin America as before accounted for the biggest number of terrorist acts, Asia and Middle East accounted for most victims. Terrorists don't hide their seeking to get access to weapons of mass destruction - chemical, biological and even nuclear.

2. A sharp increase in the number of anti-American terrorist acts. It grew from 73 in 1996 to 219 in 2001 and accounted for half of all international terrorist acts. The USA turned into a certain symbol of anonymous state power dominating over the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Latin America.

3. Prevalence of religiously motivated terrorism. According to RAND, in 1980 only 2 in 64 terrorist groups operating on the international arena were religious in their nature; they were already 26 out of 56 in 1995. Presently 16 of the 33 groups the State Department ranks among Foreign Terrorist Organizations operate for religious considerations.

4. Emergence of international terrorist networks or "transnational terrorism." For example, Hizballah and Hamas adherents operate in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Twenty people were detained in Paraguay after September 11, suspected of links to these organizations. Afghanistan is more and more clearly taking shape as the origin of this process. When the Soviet Union warred against that country, the US was intensively training mojahideens. Fifty to seventy thousand people from 55 countries are estimated to have gone through the training camps. A lot of them afterwards headed various terrorist groups at the same time preserving their previous relations.

5. Weaker state support to terrorists. Even Libya has repudiated them; the leaders of Sudan, Syria and North Korea, too, periodically resort to anti-terrorist rhetoric. Only Iran, Iraq and Cuba continue to approve of terrorism.

6. Support to terrorism from nongovernmental forces: various large corporations and simply the wealthiest people from the Arab East (e.g. Osama bin Laden).

Our contemporaries and we are witnessing an extremely dangerous rift in the world. Underway is the consolidation of Southern states with their special political tradition which is different from the Western one. These societies do nt value compromise, they don't know the procedure of developing a political consensus via parliament. I don't claim states that operate a mechanism of working out a consensus admittedly stand on a higher step of social development and their citizens are "first-class" people. We just have societies with different values and political mechanisms, their own ways to mutual understanding.

Willy Brandt, former German chancellor who chaired the international "North-South Commission" (The Brandt Commission), was one of the first in his declining years to indicate the possible consequences of these differences. However, while that time the rift was more likely the subject of intellectual discourse, it is now acquiring visible political traits and in many respects determines the alignment of forces on the international arena.

In the meantime, the world is not ready to resolve this conflict peacefully - either the West, or Russia. We are not yet far from the epoch when official ideologies right away dismissed any compromise as "corrupt." A significant part of society is still thinking in the old way, although President Putin claimed Russia's readiness to accept the Western agenda. Moreover, part of the Chechens for understandable historic and political reasons are more and more clearly feel part of the South, not only borrowing cultural patterns from the Middle East's militant Islamists (e.g. burqa on the female terrorists during the Nord-Ost seizure), but also showing off these borrowings as part of their political signals.

The Nord-Ost events showed how poorly our political mechanism works in solving critical conflicts. The leaders of the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko and of the former Fatherland - All Russia faction acted in extreme conditions. Only Yevgeny Primakov had a political, if good or bad, plan for first steps in regulating the situation in Chechnya. However, they didn't accomplish this task of theirs, acting as private individuals. It was clear that none of them was endowed with legitimate political authority.

The position of the international human rights movement

One of the most burning topics discussed in connection with the wave of terrorism in the last few years is violation of human rights. And restrictions on the part of government are meant more and more frequently at that. Indeed, in critical situations even in countries with a strong tradition of democratic community the power to some or other degree tries to limit its own citizens' right to privacy, inviolability of the home, freedom of speech, assembly, expression and association, etc. As is known, The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 ("USA PATRIOT Act") passed by U.S. Congress legalized measures of chasing terrorists and their associates, right up to secret searches, tapping and control of accounts. However, governments also limit human rights beyond their boundaries (what is meant is civilians' right not to take part in conflicts; right to life, freedom and life without fear; and so on). As is known, Helsinki Watch and other international organizations subjected U.S. authorities to hard criticism for violating human rights with respect of captured Talibs and al-Qaida militants kept in the Guantanamo military prison. Such response of government is quite predictable and more and more frequently receives support from the population assuming that involvement in a terrorist act automatically makes the suspects outlaws. And this doesn't only concern Russian citizens who are not too well-informed about human rights, even if these are their own rights, but also Americans4.

No doubt, terrorists' crimes cannot be justified. No doubt, they violate fundamental human rights such as the right to life, the right to live without fear, the right to freedom and security; they bring sufferings to civilians. But the international human rights movement insists that in conflicts with terrorists government's motivation should remain legal. This means that extrajudicial methods must not be applied even to participants in terrorist acts, those responsible for them or those who stand behind them; the right to a fair trial must not be violated and death penalty must not be used. In this case, international humanitarian law should be observed. Besides, civilians should not suffer from counter-terrorist acts.

Is the human rights era ending?

Increase in terrorism and response to this phenomenon have already led to noticeable shifts in the area of international humanitarian law norms.

All the years after the end of World War II, the problem of human rights was on the agenda of the biggest European powers, the US and international organizations. The entire world was witnessing a constant process of legal acknowledgement and formalization of human rights.

At first, they were included in Western constitutions. Then international human rights norms emerged and individual rights became the subject of international attention and talks.

The notion of "home jurisdiction" became less distinct, but they started to talk of international concern about human rights. This stage of the process of acknowledging human rights as international norms was marked with the emergence of documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They were supplemented with reports of UN commissioners for human rights and other documents. The international norms became the so-called "Jus cohens," i.e. norms that cannot be unilaterally canceled or replaced by any national state. This prerogative belongs to the international community on the whole and its representative institutions. In fact, observing human rights became the key criteria in judging the legitimacy of some or other state or regime.

The next stage was the emergence of coercive mechanisms that compelled governments to observe human rights. There emerged international investigations of crimes against humanity, control of how human rights are observed and international courts. International and regional systems appeared protecting human rights. That is why the US refusal to sign the agreement on creating the International Criminal Court meant to sue people guilty of the gravest crimes from the international law standpoint (genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes) caused a heated response in Europe. Washington went counter to the longstanding trend in the development of international law and international relations. Concerns arising in light of this even caused Mary Robinson in one of her last speeches as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to quote the words of Michael Ignatieff, English writer and journalist: "The era of human rights has come and gone."

November 10, 2002


1 See: http://www.rbc.ru/rbcnewsf/20021105140410

2 R. Marx. Die Menschenrechtsbewegung und der Kampf gegen Terroristische Gewalt (Manuscript).

3 P. Waldmann. Terrorismus. Provokation der Macht. 1998. S.17.

4 Not every state adheres to this position though, but their attempts to observe the rights of those suspected of a direct or indirect connection with terrorists are assessed ambiguously. Thus, official Copenhagen's refusal to ban the Chechen Congress organized by an NGO caused a strong protest of Moscow that refused in this situation to admit the right of another states citizens to freedom of assembly and opinion. Meanwhile, in Denmark the subsequent detention of Akhmed Zakaev aroused suspicion the government took this step under a strong political pressure of Russia, which incandesced the atmosphere so much the Cabinet is threatened with dismissal.

Author: M. P. Pavlova-Silvanskaya, editor-in-chief, Pro et Contra magazine;

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