Among the many reasons to beware the United Nations as a vehicle for peace in Israel, Lebanon, or any other part of the globe now threatened by Islamic terrorists, there is one item so obvious that in the current debate over “ceasefires” and Security Council resolutions it has almost entirely escaped notice. Quite simply, while terrorism may be the defining security threat of our time, the U.N. has failed — literally — to define it.
If that sounds like a minor semantic lapse, far removed from the bloody conflict in Israel and Lebanon, it is anything but. The free world faces a war in which victory — if one may be allowed such a blunt word these days — starts with understanding the real nature and tactics of our enemies. So, with top U.N. officials calling for instant peace that would effectively equate “both sides” in the war launched out of Lebanon last month by Hezbollah against Israel, I e-mailed the U.N. Secretary-General’s office recently to ask: Does the U.N. consider Hezbollah a terrorist group?
Back from one of Kofi Annan’s spokesmen came the answer: “The designation of ‘terrorist’ would require a definition of what terrorism entails.”
Let us note that in the case of Hezbollah, the group has entailed enough atrocities to have earned it the nickname, “the A-Team of Terrorism,” even before Hezbollah on July 12 launched its killing-kidnapping-and- rocket-firing assault on Israel. Hezbollah’s prior record entails well over two decades of kidnappings, hijackings, suicide bombings, massacres, and collateral carnage worldwide, in countries including Lebanon, Israel, Spain, Denmark, Germany, France, and Argentina. Created by the totalitarian ayatollahs of Iran just after their 1979 Islamic revolution; trained and bankrolled by Iran; supported by Syria; seasoned in extortion and smuggling operations reaching as far as South America, Canada, and the U.S.; open to alliances with other terrorist groups; peddling terrorist propaganda internationally on its Al-Manar TV station; dedicated to the destruction of Israel and seeking ultimately to supplant the workings of free societies with its Iran-spawned creed and practice of terror… Hezbollah among its butcheries to date has murdered more Americans than any other terrorist group except al Qaeda.
But because the United Nations has not defined “terrorism,” the U.N. does not regard Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
The U.N. does, of course, have a stack of “counter-terrorism” resolutions, and bestrides a dozen or so “international counter-terrorism conventions.” But without a clear definition of what terrorism entails, U.N. member states — including the liveliest terror sponsors — pay no penalty for interpreting these measures in any warped way they might choose, or effectively ignoring them altogether. The result is that even the U.N. resolutions passed a few years ago sanctioning a highly abbreviated list of a few hundred Taliban and al Qaeda affiliates worldwide have been at best erratically enforced. Back in late 2003, a group of terrorism experts employed by the U.N. to monitor member-states’ compliance with these sanctions became bold enough to report publicly and in detail some of the gross delinquencies of specific nations. The U.N. dissolved the group of experts, and replaced it with one more easily muffled.
A former member of the now-defunct, outspoken U.N. counterterrorism-monitoring group, Victor Comras, explained to me in a phone interview last week that achieving a serious international definition of terrorism is a “huge issue.” Once an objective criterion for terrorism exists, said Comras, “At least you have the foundation for asking that concrete actions be taken.”
Without that definition, as Comras wrote this past March, “countries remain free to define for themselves which groups are terrorists and which are ‘freedom fighters.’” Comras observed that “Saudi Arabia uses this distinction, for example, to get away with funding Hamas, while Iran and Syria use it to provide funds and support to Hezbollah.” Beyond that, he noted, “Many other countries have also used it to avoid taking steps to freeze funds or take other civil or criminal action against those individuals or groups which they support.”
The U.N. failure on this score is no accident. It is a direct result of what the U.N. is, and how it works — a collective, saddled with procedures that tend to favor despots over democrats. In the matter of coming up with a global definition of terrorism, the job falls to the General Assembly’s legal committee — the so-called Sixth Committee– which includes all 192 member states, and operates in practice by consensus. In that setting, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) — whose 57 members include such terror-linked states as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran — has for years insisted that any definition of terrorism exempt the OIC’s pet terrorists. These the OIC would prefer to define — notes Comras — as “engaged in so-called ‘struggles against colonial domination and foreign occupation.’”
At the same time, the OIC and assorted “unaligned” states have been demanding that regular armed forces of sovereign states, already subject to other international rules of engagement, be subject to U.N. rules concerning terrorism. That would clear the way to officially invert reality to the extent that by U.N. lights, Islamic terrorists would qualify as liberators, and democratic states trying to defend themselves could be treated as terrorists.
Wisely, the U.S. and some of our allies have refused to sign on to this Big Brother universe (though on some issues, such as the affable view of Palestinian terrorism, and chronic condemnations of democratic Israel, the U.N. seems to dwell there already). Under pressure from the U.S. last year, Kofi Annan departed from U.N. habit long enough to propose a genuine definition of terrorism — only to have it shot down by the U.N. committee-consensus process. And there the matter sits. While terrorism looms ever larger as an Islamic-fascist tactic and threat to the free world — which the U.N. was originally meant to protect — the task of defining terrorism remains bottled up in the U.N. legal committee.
This gridlock goes far to explain why Annan, apparently forgetting his reform pitch of last year, has been calling with the regularity of a cuckoo clock for an immediate “ceasefire” in the current conflict. In doing so, he ignores the desperately lopsided setup of any deal in which Israel would be constrained by U.N. words on paper while the terrorists — by definition, if only the U.N. had one — can be reliably stopped only at gunpoint. That asymmetry is pretty much the arrangement that incubated this war in the first place. Israel complied with U.N. rules and withdrew six years ago from Lebanon. Hezbollah violated the rules, expanding its protection rackets and stockpiling illicit weapons under the terror-neutral gaze of U.N. “peacekeepers,” until it was ready to strike.
The gap in the U.N. lexicon also helps explain why, when Annan’s deputy-secretary-general Mark Malloch Brown sat down for an interview last week with the Financial Times, he felt free to deliver the Orwellian line: “It is not helpful to couch this war in the language of international terrorism.”
Wallowing instead in the jargon of peace in our time, Malloch Brown went on to suggest that for Israel’s attackers, Hezbollah, there must concessions, and eventually “a settlement which addresses the political issues of their cause as well as the military ones.” These bland words mask the terrorist nitty-gritty that Hezbollah’s “cause” includes the takeover of Lebanon and the extinction of Israel. Musing that Hezbollah does have its wayward aspects, and in its rocket assaults on Israel “is making no effort to hit military targets; it’s just a broadside against civilian targets,” Malloch Brown arrived at the I’m-O.K.-You’re-O.K. conclusion that “It’s all very challenging.”
And as the Bush administration has increasingly turned to the United Nations in this crisis, the U.N. fog has been seeping into America’s political discourse. Instead of talking about killing, capturing, and defeating the terrorists of Hezbollah, or moving immediately to hold to account Hezbollah’s backers in Baathist Damascus and nuclear-bomb-building Teheran, our own political leaders are now maneuvering via the U.N. for a “cessation of hostilities.”
This has produced a peculiar delicacy of phrase even from President Bush. The U.S. government, with good reason, includes Hezbollah in its list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” But in a press conference Monday, Bush skirted this category, instead labeling Hezbollah “a political party with a militia that is armed by foreign nations.” Sorry, but Hezbollah is not at core a political party. It is an Iranian-Syrian-backed terrorist militia with a Lebanese political front.
There is a deeply dangerous reluctance in the democratic world to face up to the extent of the war already declared and being waged against us — manifest in terrorist attacks on New York, Madrid, London, Bali, Bombay, and beyond, and especially against Israel, which is fighting right now on the front lines. These terrorists, and their sponsors, watch and learn from each other. In the battles ahead, if the U.S. takes its cues from a U.N. unable even to define terrorism, let alone defy it, the result will be that terrorists — protected by their patrons at the U.N. itself — will continue in graphic and ruinous terms to define it for us.
– Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.