The complexities of managing ‘terror’

An anti-government protest in Myanmar

Given its enduring topicality, ‘terrorism’ unfailingly surfaces in international forums focusing on law-and-order questions in particular. For example, Sri Lanka is on record as calling for ‘greater political will’ in managing ‘terrorist financing’ at the recently conducted third ‘No Money for Terror’ international ministerial conference held in New Delhi.

Reports said that Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda, who led the Lankan delegation at the conference, had called for the setting-up of a group of eminent persons which would be tasked with mustering the required ‘political will’ internationally to ‘create awareness among states on the importance of combating terrorist financing’. There is no questioning the importance of the need to cut off those practising barbarism and butchery, for whatever reason, from their funding sources, for instance, but the world cannot avoid confronting the conundrum that refuses to go away: Who is a terrorist?

Considering that the term is bandied around locally and internationally and used with no precision by any quarter, there is no getting away from the vexing task of defining who a ‘terrorist’ is and what ‘terrorism’ denotes exactly. In the absence of an international consensus on these matters, not much progress is likely to be achieved in ‘terrorism’ related undertakings of the kind just outlined.

Interestingly, the Sri Lankan government has itself, wittingly or unwittingly, helped keep some of these complex issues alive. For example, it had imprisoned a few activists at the height of the recent anti-government protests or “Aragalaya”, apparently under the provisions of Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. The inference is inescapable, on the basis of these actions of the authorities that protesting against the state and criticizing it are akin to acts of ‘terrorism’.

The same goes currently for the Russian, Iranian and Myanmarese governments, to cite just three countries facing anti-government protests; most of them non-violent. The tendency of these governments is to label vehement anti-government protests acts of ‘terrorism’, whereas in democratic countries criticizing and protesting state actions, that are seen as harmful to the public interest non-violently, are regarded as perfectly legitimate actions, since they are manifestations of the people exercising their fundamental rights.

Obfuscation and confusion, rather than clarity and perfect understanding, therefore, prevail in international and local discussions of ‘terror’. The latter conundrum is greatly compounded for Sri Lanka, considering that it describes itself as a democracy. One is compelled to comment that governments in Sri Lanka are prone to ‘double-speak’ and even ‘double-think’ when they deliberate on ‘terror’-linked questions.

The issues confronting Sri Lanka and the mentioned countries in the ‘terror’ context are proof that the world community is, as the saying goes, ‘putting the cart before the horse’ when advocating action aimed at stymying ‘terror’ financing, for instance, prior to arriving at a clear conceptual understanding of what ‘terrorism’ is.

Needless to mention, this is a decades-long dilemma. The complexity of the undertaking gets in the way of the world working consensually on containing ‘terrorism’.

However, all is not lost on this front. There is a possibility of the world community narrowing its differences on the issue of ‘terror’ if it makes some progress towards understanding what the sovereignty of the people consists in and how best it could be achieved. Agreement on these questions would enable greater international understanding on the issues, processes and systems that harm the inalienable interests of the people.

Thus far, it is the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that best spell out the vital interests of people anywhere or what people’s sovereignty consists in. This is one of the most important reasons why the UN system must be upheld by the global community and made to prevail. The clarity with which the UN defines the best interests of people is yet to be equaled. For example, the Right to Life and the Equality of Dignity among humans remain cardinal values of governance among the civilized. They are sound starting points for a greater conceptual understanding of ‘terrorism’.

Regardless of its flaws, democracy remains the sole governance system that best serves the vital, legitimate interests of people. It provides best for broad agreement among the people in a polity on matters relating to governance. It is left to the respective publics to fine hone their democracies and render them increasingly sensitive and responsive to their needs. This is a continuing process.

It is possible that not all sections within a democratic polity would be in agreement always on how they are being treated and served by their governance system. In such an event, the system should be resilient, flexible and sufficiently judicious to address these disaffections before they develop into frustrations and eventuality militant opposition to the system. If the latter fails on this score, it would sooner or later be confronted with a rebellion with ‘terror’ overtones.

As happened in Sri Lanka’s North and East, frustrations with the system, were allowed by consecutive governments to degenerate into ‘terrorism’. That is, excessive and unconscionable civilian blood was unleashed by militant, disaffected sections, who justly came to be described as terrorists, but whose legitimate grievances went unaddressed. Thus, state negligence becomes a key factor in the outbreak of ‘terror’ and needs to be focused on in comprehending the problem.

However, states reacting to such militant opposition could also stand accused of terroristic conduct. This happens when they discard democratic norms and values, totally jettison the sovereignty of the people and conduct themselves dictatorially. Thus, comes to be unleashed ‘state terror’. This is another dimension to the problem of ‘terror’ that makes it defy simplistic understanding.

Accordingly, ‘terror’ is a tangled problem and lessening its severity is a long drawn out process that requires patient handling by the international community. However, the primary principle in managing ‘terror’ is the recognition that the taking of life, for whatever reason, cannot be condoned. It is the responsibility of the world community under the guidance of the UN to ensure that democratic values and traditions are implanted the world over, since it is democracy that gives primacy to the sovereignty of the people in its most meaningful form and makes provision for cooperation among a state’s people rather than conflict.

Focusing constantly on ‘terror’ is vital if it is to be managed effectively by the international community and forums such as ‘No Money for Terror’ achieve this aim to some extent, but the re-invigoration of democracy and its values needs to be prioritized over ‘terror’ management. This is a more cost-effective approach to handling ‘terror’.

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