Terrorism is both complex and has become in recent years a major concern in many countries. It denotes the use of violence with the aim of creating a climate of fear. The goal of most terrorists is to destroy the sense of personal security in a community, not only among direct victims of attacks, but, more importantly, among a wider public. It is usually done to apply pressure against political leaders in favour of specific political goals.
The greatest danger of terror, aside from the loss of innocent lives, is the disruption it causes in a community's confidence in peace, order and the rule of law. The creation of a sense of anarchy can encourage more acts of violence and potentially lead to a downward spiral towards social disaster. Terrorists often target unarmed civilians, including women and children, and in some cases purposely use them as a shield for violent acts against proclaimed opponents.
Take, for example, the recent incident in Pakistan, when a dozen terrorists ambushed Sri Lanka's cricket team, killing seven people and wounding nine others. By attacking one of South Asia's most popular sports, the gunmen guaranteed themselves international attention, while demonstrating Pakistan's ongoing struggle to provide its 170 million nationals with basic security as it faces militants linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban. An earlier incident in Mumbai had created major problems in India as well.
On September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists hijacked four civilian air flights and flew into the World Trade Centre and other US targets, killing almost 3,000 persons. Some observers thought it was a decisive world turning point. In the subsequent "War on Terror," however, many of the very elements that distinguish rule of law societies from authoritarian ones were compromised by the Bush administration. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are not forgotten around the world.
What can be done to counter or at least minimize acts of terror? This talk looks at three kinds of terrorism that threaten world peace and examines some reasons behind their emergence and the support some terrorists enjoy. The focus will be on three species of terror: by governments, by religious extremists and in ethnocultural conflicts.
Modern state terror probably began with the range of abuses committed by those who held office after the French Revolution, but they have had numerous imitators since, including Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and the ayatollahs today in Iran. It refers in my view to governing parties or individuals, who inflict predatory acts of terror on their own citizens for the purpose of maintaining power. It often involves the use of military, police and other agents of authoritarian governments against unarmed and defenseless citizens, who lack basic human rights such as freedom of speech and religious belief.
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir certainly qualifies as a state terrorist. In order to stay in power since 1989, he has inflicted numerous acts of terror on the people of Sudan and subjected the vast majority to abject poverty, despite the country's vast hydrocarbon and other natural resources. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant on March 4th for al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. He is the first sitting head of state the ICC has ordered arrested.
"He is suspected of being criminally responsible ... for intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, ... murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property," ICC spokeswoman Laurence Blairon said. If brought to trial and convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
In response to the ICC arrest warrant, Al-Bashir ordered the expulsion of 13 international aid agencies, about 40 percent of workers in Darfur, roughly 6,500 national and international staff, potentially threatening the lives of thousands of civilians. In his most recent act of defiance against the international community, his agents kidnapped five aid workers.
Other examples of state terror include what has happened to a number of communities and individuals in China because of religious beliefs or dissent. We well-wishers of China had long hoped that the country’s economic growth would be accompanied by increased respect for human dignity and the rule of law. The reality has been in the opposite direction; instead of honouring the obligations prescribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which China is a signatory, gross and systematic human rights violations continue undiminished. The party-state continues to regard itself as the only group with a claim to power; it employs every implement of government machinery to create an atmosphere of fear and oppress one fifth of the world's population.
To mention only one spiritual community, Falun Gong, David Matas, an international human rights lawyer in Canada, and I concluded after our independent investigation that since 2001 the party-state in China and its agencies have killed thousands of Falun Gong practitioners. This was done without trials and their vital organs were sold for large sums of money, often to 'organ tourists' from wealthy countries (Our report is available in nineteen languages at www.organharvestinvestigation.net). We amassed 52 kinds of evidence and became convinced beyond any doubt that this crime against humanity has occurred and is still happening.
The Chinese party-state will use overwheming force to suppress voices that advocate dignity for all and the rule of law in China. One such voice is Gao Zhisheng, 45, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated attorney in the tradition of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. In 2001, he was named one of China's top ten lawyers by China's Ministry of Justice, partly for representing vulnerable groups such as exploited miners, the poor and disabled and victims of religious persecution. Party agents released Beijing's full wrath, however, when he, a Christian, decided to defend Falun Gong practitioners.
It began with removing his permit to practise law, an attempt on his life, having police attack his wife and 14-year-old daughter and four-year-old son and denying the family any income. It intensified when Gao responded in the nonviolent tradition of Gandhi by launching nationwide hunger strikes calling for equal dignity for all Chinese nationals. In his most recent article released a few weeks ago, Gao wrote about more than 50 days of torture: “Then, the electric shock batons were put all over me. And my full body, my heart, lungs, and muscles began jumping under my skin uncontrollably. I was writhing on the ground in pain, trying to crawl away.” Gao has since disappeared again, presumably rearrested for speaking out again.
It is with a mixed feelings that I share with you the news that two days ago Gao's wife, Geng He, daughter Geng Ge, 16, and son Gao Tianyu, 6, escaped China and reached the United States, seeking asylum. While they will now be safe and cared for, the fate of Gao, the husband and father, remains unknown, to the great concern of us all.
One of many other prisoners of conscience in China is Zhiwen Wang, a Falun Gong practitioner, who has been detained since 1999. This year, Mr. Wang will turn 60 years old. All of his teeth have been knocked out and his only contact with his daughter, Danielle, has been limited to a few censored letters. The story of Zhiwen and Danielle is but one case of many and she hopes that many will speak out against this injustice, not only for her father, but for all Falun Gong practitioners living under persecution today in China.
Terror in the Name of Religion
Throughout history, religion has been used as an excuse, or driving force, for some of the worst atrocities imaginable. Extremists, who hold that religions are exclusive, deny with violence the rights of others whose beliefs or non-beliefs are different from their own. The targets of such terror are entirely innocent civilians whose only crime is, in the eyes of terrorists, to represent "the other".
Religion has been used as an excuse for terror in Northern Ireland, West Asia, Sudan, ex-Yugoslavia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Fiji and the Shia-Sunni divide in Pakistan, among others. 'Us and them' violence is promoted by Osama bin Laden and his followers in India, Pakistan and elsewhere.
Extremists also abuse religion as a way to impose violence on women. Reports indicate that hundreds, if not thousands, of women are murdered by their families each year in the name of family "honour", with the homicides frequently going unreported and the perpetrators unpunished. Honour killings have been reported in Bangladesh, Great Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda., Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
One of the most horrific crimes of terror committed using religion are suicide bombings, not only because they deliberately target the general public but also because the "bombers" themselves are often victims. Some female suicide bombers, who have been sexually assaulted, are then reportedly forced to "cleanse themselves" by perpetrating violence on other innocent people.
The perpetrators of terror under the guise of religion today, in particular Bin Laden and his followers, find support and refuge in such countries as Iran, Syria and Sudan, where the regimes routinely use violence against their own citizens and rarely hesitate to target the most innocent and most vulnerable.
In many countries, political identities today have assumed an ethnocultural complexion. The "us and them" philosophy is equally prevalent in terror acts committed in an ethnic context. Also known as "ethnic cleansing," this kind of terrorism often involves persecution through imprisonment, expulsion, or killing of members of a minority by a majority to achieve ethnocultural homogeneity in majority-controlled territory.
It is about destroying the identity of a people, involving bloody armed conflict and leaving large numbers of people dead, most of whom again are innocent and vulnerable women and children. As author Slatko Dizarevic bluntly noted in his book, In Sarajevo: A War Journal (1993): "Because somebody somewhere decided that the bestial concept of a herd, composed of only one colour, all speaking the same language, all thinking along similar lines, all believing in the same god, must wipe out everything else."
In his attempt to reorder the European continent by force, Hitler murdered six million Jews and committed the most inhuman kind of "ethnic cleansing." Since World War II, we have witnessed time and again similar tragedies take place in widely different parts of the world.
Such was the case in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda when hundred of thousands of people were killed. In both cases, the world watched in horror when the genocide raged on until part of the international community finally intervened with significant military force. On different scales, such acts of terror continue today on almost every continent, with killing, deportation, rape, internment, and intimidation committed by ethnic groups for the purpose of eliminating "the others."
Why Does Terrorism "Thrive"?
There are many reasons for the emergence of modern terror and the support it enjoys in some societies. I`ll briefly discuss three:
1. Bad Governance
One reason terrorists are able to recruit supporters and followers is poverty and despair, as well as the anger of people disenchanted with many failed social and/or economic experiments imposed on them. These are often accompanied by corruption by officials, the denial of human rights and lack of rule of law, which further alienate citizens from their governments.
Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek wrote recently: "The reality—for the worse, in my view—is that radical Islam has gained a powerful foothold in the Muslim imagination. It has done so for a variety of complex reasons... But the chief reason is the failure of Muslim countries to develop, politically or economically."
In their paper, "What Leads Some Ordinary Arab Men and Women to Approve of Terrorist Acts Against the United States?", Mark Tessler and Michael D. H. Robbins of the University of Michigan shared the findings from representative national surveys in Algeria and Jordan regarding the approval of terrorism against US targets. Their results show that approval of terrorism is fostered by negative attitudes toward their own governments and other actors, including US foreign policy, considered responsible for the political and economic status quo.
The vast majority of Muslims, like followers of others of the world's great and small religions, want peace and oppose suicide bombers and terrorists. However, without the freedom of speech protected by the rule of law, moderates living in some countries risk severe punishment or death if they speak out.
2. Misunderstandings among religious communities
A second reason why terrorists seem to enjoy support is the lack of understanding among various religions. A seminar at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa was told several years ago that one of the major causes of violence in the Middle East was the widespread view that Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God. This misunderstanding, we were told, encourages members of both faith communities to dehumanize and thus to demonize followers of the other. When added to other regional issues, the result is terrible murders, bloodshed and mayhem often involving children and mothers.
In reality, we Muslims, Jews and Christians worship the same God, albeit in very different ways and with differing emphases. Each of the three great monotheistic faiths believes that life has profound value and meaning. The widespread profound ignorance about each other is a major obstacle to mutual respect and building harmony. All of us must work harder in this new century to eliminate this knowledge deficit.
3. Indifference, inaction and ineffectiveness on the part of the international community
A third reason why terrorism occurs is the reality that often the international community remains indifferent, delays taking action and functions ineffectively in the face of acts of terror of any motivation. Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, was quoted recently that: “We were criticized, rightfully so, on Rwanda. You can’t watch this and not feel that there has to be something done (in Dafur)."
In their pursuit of short-term interests, Western governments have too often chosen to court authoritarian regimes whose denial of human dignity and disrespect for the rule of law have helped to engender terrorism. This tendency to political expediency continues even as we are fighting against Muslim extremists led by Al-Qaeda.
Terrorism arises often from problems of inequity and a lack of political will to bring justice and fairness to everyone. In addition to necessary military deterrence, all nations must seek to counter terror by working to address the varied cause for it. Here are three recommendations:
1. Rule of law countries must be committed to upholding the same values of human rights and rule of law both domestically and internationally.
We must all remain true to our own principles. In our efforts aimed at fighting terrorism, we must resist the temptation to compromise the rule of law, which is one of the bedrocks of democracy. Our legal system must continue to ensure that those accused of terrorism are provided vigorous defense and due process.
Liberal democracy has been discredited because it is often perceived as being used to attack those the West does not like. It is seen as an attempt by Western governments to impose their influence and will on developing countries. Western governments have been complicit in some of the worst human rights abuses and partner to some of the worst anti-democratic regimes. We need to signal a new approach based on our own revolutionary principles of human rights, justice and dignity for all as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We must all insist that our own governments avoid using democracy as part of a political agenda to advance Western interests or to embarrass and harass those who disagree with Western policies. In the words of a veteran Asian diplomat and a democracy advocate, "Human rights and democracy are worthwhile goals in themselves and must never be used for leverage."
We must also be even-handed. Too often, the Western world is perceived as being silent on the abuses and violations of its friends, while quick to condemn violations by those it does not get along well with. The same diplomat again: "Violations and abuses are just as egregious whether in Singapore or in Iran."
The international community should also ensure that the perpetrators of terrorist acts are held accountable and brought to justice in a timely fashion. The much delayed trial of Khmer Rouge leaders for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people or 1/5 of the country's total population is, for many Cambodians, justice denied. Pol Pot, the lead perpetrator of terror, died, escaping trial many years after the crimes were committed.
2. Work with civil society groups as they are the main precursors of sustainable change in developing nations to address issues of poverty, inequality and injustice effectively.
Effective change comes from within. The challenge is to discover how we can support and encourage change from within without controlling and manipulating such groups. Let the agenda of civil society groups be in the driver's seat. Perhaps a new paradigm is needed in which civil society groups in the West take the lead in linking with and supporting civil society groups in developing countries to effect change. As external supporters, we need to be ready to listen, enter into dialogue, and provide technical advice and assistance where needed, and be willing to do so over an extended period.
For example, the European Union to its great credit has now de-listed the PMOI as a terrorist group. This will allow the organization to direct its attention and resources peacefully towards encouraging Iran to become a country with the rule of law and dignity for all Iranians. Canada and the US should also delist the PMOI and send as well the message to Tehran that henceforth we will all side with the Iranian people, not the ayatollahs.
I have been encouraged by the progress made, with the help of many aid agencies, in Afghanistan, where, despite the ongoing challenges in dealing with armed insurgencies by the Taliban and Al-Quaeda, nation-building and reconstruction have allowed for some seeds of good governance and dignity for all to take root. For example, a joint UN and Inter-parliamentary Union report in 2008 indicated that, with 27.7 percent of women MPs in the Lower House and 21.6 per cent in the Upper House, Afghanistan ranks 27th amongst 188 countries with regard to female representation in the national parliament. Even as they continue to be threatened by violence and traditional practices such as the trading of women as brides to settle feuds in rural and Taliban-controlled areas, millions of girls now attend school and many women own businesses. Shalah Attah, a female lawmaker, announced recently that she will run for president in this year's election, now set for August.
3. The entire human family must build more bridges of understanding among religions and ethnocultural groups in order to create societies everywhere that truly embrace diversity.
Alcee Hastings said: "Not just Christians and Jews, but also Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and the followers of many other religions believe in values like peace, respect, tolerance and dignity. These are values that bring people together and enable us to build responsible and solid communities."
The economic development and technology advancement in the past century has enabled massive migration of population around the world, injecting the richness of different cultural, ethnic and religious background in many developed countries. We must work to ensure that barriers of integration for legal immigrants are removed and opportunities for their full participation and contribution in our societies created.
Former UN secretary General Kofi Annan predicted that "In the 21st century, I believe the mission of the United Nations will be defined by a new, more profound awareness of the sanctity and dignity of every human life, regardless of race or religion."
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently indicated that military action alone will never defeat the insurgencies in Afghanistan, a perspective shared by many and concisely put in Zakaria's words: "Final victory in the war on terror cannot be achieved by military means alone; it also demands political and economic measures that target the social roots of terrorism. B-52s and cruise missiles inspire fear and hatred, but building more roads, schools and hospitals would win hearts and minds."
In addition, we must recognize that until we help build societies where equality and human dignity are protected by the rule of law, acts of terror will continue and terrorists will enjoy a following in some countries. Promoting good governance in all our countries would be a good step in the right direction, especially as there are now more than 6.7 billion of us sharing a shrunken planet.
To counter terrorism effectively, particularly as we are also confronting the fear of uncertain times with unprecedented economic challenges, we must choose a path that rises from our shared love for humanity and common aspiration for peace-one we must follow with patience and greater perseverance.