Revitalized U.S. Support has Given the Convention against International Terrorism a New Lease of Life

By Gurmeet Kanwal —

The United Nations General Assembly. Source: United Nations Development Programme’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The U. S. government has once again thrown its weight behind the United Nations Comprehensive Convention against International Terrorism (CCIT), first introduced by India in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 1996. In a joint statement issued at the end of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with President Donald Trump in late June 2017, the two leaders “affirmed their support” for a CCIT that will “advance and strengthen the framework for global cooperation and reinforce the message that no cause or grievance justifies terrorism.”

Passage of the CCIT would advance a common definition for terrorism and criminalize all forms of international terrorism. The current draft convention, formulated in April 2013, stipulates a ban on all terrorist organizations, denial of access to arms, funds and safe havens, the prosecution of all terrorist groups including cross-border groups and amendment of domestic laws to make cross-border terrorism an extraditable offense.

Contested Provisions

The convention has been opposed by several groups of countries on different grounds. The logic of the old cliché “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” appears to have prevailed. The United States and some of its allies have been reluctant to accept the convention due to disputes over the definition of terrorism and the concern that soldiers serving overseas, such as in U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, would come under its purview.

Some Latin American countries objected on the grounds that the convention would dilute the provisions of international human rights law. Members of the Organisation of Islamic States (OIC) have been concerned about the adverse impact of CCIT on countries like Palestine and Pakistan that have been accused of sponsoring international terrorism.

Meanwhile, on the plus side the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) leaders have repeatedly endorsed CCIT for “expeditious finalization and adoption” at their annual summits since the first summit in 2009. The Xiamen Declaration, issued after the summit meeting held at Xiamen in China on September 3-5, 2017 expressed “concern on the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, ISIL/DAISH, Al-Qaida and its affiliates, including Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP, and Hizb ut-Tahrir” and called for “expeditious finalization and adoption of” the CCIT.

At their summit meeting at New Delhi in early October 2017, the leaders of the European Union and India agreed to strengthen cooperation between their security and intelligence agencies to combat the threat of terrorism and check terror financing. Both sides called for the early conclusion of negotiations and the adoption of the CCIT in the UNGA and agreed to work together to achieve this goal.

Disagreement over the Definition

Part of the challenge is that terrorism continues to be loosely defined. Western democracies associate terrorism with acts of individuals and terrorist groups but not the state. Their version of the definition does not include the activities undertaken by states towards their own citizens even if these are unjustified or arbitrary. The United States and several other states would also like to ensure that Israel’s operations against Palestinian militants do not fall under a counterterrorism convention. Similarly, they insist that operations undertaken during military interventions, especially those that are undertaken without UN sanction, should not be considered acts of terrorism.

Members of the OIC wish to see a distinction made between liberation movements and terrorist organizations. In their view, the activities of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) should be seen as part of a freedom movement and not as acts of terrorism. They would also like to ensure that all states are held accountable for all their actions, both on their own territory and during military interventions abroad.

With most nations working towards protecting their own interests rather than supporting a comprehensive definition of international terrorism, the larger issue of collective action to address the menace of terrorism has not been appropriately addressed. In fact, it has been used as a handy tool to promote the interests of individual nations, leaving little scope for a middle ground.

Moving Forward

India has been steadfast in its support for the CCIT. In June 2016, then-president Barack Obama and Prime Minister Modi issued a joint statement that “reaffirmed their support” for a CCIT “that advances and strengthens the framework for global cooperation and reinforces that no cause or grievance justifies terrorism.” In November 2015, at the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, Prime Minister Modi referred to the proposed convention, urging the assembled world leaders to unite against terrorism without making any distinctions between individuals and nations.

In 2016, India informally circulated some amendments to the 2013 draft to address the misgivings of different groups of countries. India supports the view that the activities of armed forces during an armed conflict should not come under the purview of the CCIT. Sushma Swaraj, India’s Minister for External Affairs, has worked assiduously with the OIC countries to get them on board. In order to assuage the apprehensions of the Latin American countries in respect of human rights violations, the word “peoples” has been introduced in the draft in relation to rights so as to “acknowledge the right of self-determination”.

Continuing support from the BRICS countries, the European Union, the United States, and India has proved to be inadequate to hasten progress on the CCIT. Hence, it is incumbent on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), who now support the CCIT individually, to close ranks and ensure the passage of the CCIT in the UNGA. A UNSC resolution calling on all member states to ensure the passage of the CCIT in the next session of the UNGA will spur efforts in that direction. The resolution must emphasize that without close counter-terrorism cooperation international terrorist organizations cannot be effectively neutralized.

Mr. Gurmeet Kanwal is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi and an adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @GurmeetKanwal.


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