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The UN, our only bet.

(Article published in the Aug 15,2012 issue of Manila Standard Today)   

The matter-of-fact definitions of a “terrorist,” of “terrorist acts”, and “terrorist organization, association or group of persons,” in SubSections 3(i), 3(j) and 3(k), repectively, of Republic Act No. 10168, the “The Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012″, belies the difficulty of defining, in a manner acceptable to the family of nations,  what terrorism is.  They remind me of how aghast I was when my college science teacher defined “science” as “what a scientist does.”  His definition, to my youthful consternation, broke the rule drilled into our skulls during the preceding period by my Logic teacher never to use the word being defined in its definition.

Much older now, by nearly 45 years, and, due to having spent my adult life in reading laws and law books, presently unmindful of Science’s constant breaches of Philosophy’s  standards, I look instead to History to understand how thoughts evolved through practice.   That on-the-ground input, on the question of what terrorism is, I gathered from Doctor and Professor Hans Koechler.

Hans Koechler was the founder and, at the time he gave us his insights, President of the International Progress Organization, based in Vienna, Austria.  He gave the Fourteenth Centenary Lecture in the Supreme Court Centenary Lecture Series on 12 March 2002 at the Philippine Supreme Court Session Hall, in Manila.


“Remarkable confusion persists,” according to Dr. Koechler, “in regard to the legal categorization of acts of violence either by states, by armed groups such as liberation movements, or by individuals...The dilemma can be summarized in the saying, ‘One country’s terrorist is another country’s freedom fighter.’   The apparent contradiction or lack of consistency in the use of the term ‘terrorism’ may further be demonstrated by the historical fact that leaders of national liberation movements such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Habib Bourgouiba in Tunisia, or Ahmed Ben Bella in Alegria,...were originally labelled as terrorists by those who controlled the territory at the time, but later became internationally respected statesmen.”

The professor that the doctor is, Koechler attributes the great divide to thought-related disagreement.  He says “Since the times of the Cold War, the United Nations Organization has been trying in vain to reach a consensus on the basic issue of definition [of terrorism].  The organization has intensified its efforts recently, but has been unable to bridge the gap between those who associate ‘terrorism’ with any violent act by non-state groups against civilians, state functionaries or infrastructure or military installations, and those who believe in the concept of the legitimate use of force when resistance against foreign occupation or against systemic oppression of ethnic and/or religious groups within a state is concerned.”

He cites several examples of contradicting characterizations made on the ground: “...the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which is a terrorist group for Israel and a liberation movement for Arabs and Muslims; the Kashmiri resistance groups who are terrorists in the perception of India, liberation fighters in that of Pakistan; the earlier Contras of Nicaragua, freedom fighters for the United States, terrorists for the Socialist camp or more drastically, the Afghani Mujahedeen (later to become the Taliban movement).  During the Cold War period they were a group of freedom fighters from the West, nurtured by the United States, and a terrorist gang for the Soviet Union...”

The root of this contradiction in the definitions is, according to Koechler, the divergent interests of states.  “Depending, ”says the professor, “on whether a state is in the position of an occupying power or in that of a rival, or adversary, of an occupying power in a given territory, the definition of terrorism will ‘fluctuate’ accordingly.  A state may eventually see itself as protector of the rights of a certain ethnic group outside its territory and will therefore speak of a ‘liberation struggle,’ not of ‘terrorism,’ when acts of violence by this group are concerned and vice-versa.”

“The United Nations Organization”, Koechler reiterates, “has been unable to reach a decision on the definition of terrorism exactly because of these conflicting interests of sovereign states that determine in each and every instance how a particular armed movement (i.e., a non-state actor) is labelled in regard to the terrorist-freedom fighter dichotomy.  A ‘policy of double standards’ in this vital issue of international affairs has been the unavoidable consequence.”

Given this legacy born of this dichotomy in the definition of terrorism that is rooted in the divergent interests of the states, where does our The Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012 lie?  The small nation that we are, Congress in passing the bill and the President in approving it into law predictably decided to stick it out with the United Nations, despite its limited success in crafting a universally accepted definition. 

           Not because we have any special love for the United Nations Organization, whose general assembly’s first president, most people younger than myself seem to have forgotten, was our very own Carlos P. Romulo.  But rather because, I hazard a guess, we still see the UN, despite its faults and foibles, as our, and the world’s, only choice for peace on this earth.