First Person | No One Size Fits All

The UN moves towards evolving a framework for global terrorism

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

On 15 January 2016, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, presented a ‘Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism’ to the General Assembly. By some reckoning, this was long overdue, as various world leaders, including our own Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had been urging the UN to ‘define’ terrorism and to evolve UN-led initiative to counter terrorism worldwide. Inherent in this urging was an understanding that the whole world faces threats of similar kind of terrorism.

After dabbling with the idea that there were different categories of extremists, — freedom-fighters (those it supported) and terrorists (those it opposed) — the United States changed its position after the 9/11 attacks, issuing a blanket definition for terrorism, which included violent resistance movements in different parts of the world. The idea was to deny an extremist the cover of a cause. As the US is usually held as the path-breaker in matters of global import, gradually other countries, including India followed suit. The Kashmiri militants, north-eastern insurgents, Left-wing extremists, all were gradually lumped together as terrorists; especially after the coming of the Modi government. And because a terrorist has no cause except terror, they represented no issue which needed to be resolved or at least addressed.

It is not difficult to see how this formulation by the US played into the hands of autocratic regimes which used it to criminalise legitimate opposition or resistance. In the case of government of India, it has helped it broad brush the insurgency in Kashmir as terrorism-sponsored and perpetrated by Pakistan. This presumes that the people of Kashmir are suffering the yoke of Pakistan’s brutality, when all they want is to live peacefully in India.

With this as the running theme, during the G-20 Summit at Turkey’s Antalya soon after the Islamic State-claimed terrorist attacks in Paris, Prime Minister Modi urged the UN to take on a more proactive role in addressing ‘one of the greatest human challenges.’ He said that terror should be delinked from religion while ‘isolating sponsors and supporters of terrorism’. The world must act in unison and have one voice against terrorism without any political considerations, he added for good measure.

Heeding the larger message, the UN secretary general has chosen to put terrorism in the context in needs if one has to begin to address this scourge. According to Ban Ki-moon, “Many years of experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.”

Hence, he has proposed to the General Assembly a mechanism based on five points. The first, and the most important point, that he has put forward is ‘…we must pay particular attention to addressing the causes of violent extremism if this problem is to be resolved in the long run.’ He adds, ‘As we see in Syria and Libya and elsewhere, violent extremists make unresolved and prolonged conflicts even more intractable.’

His third point emphasises on the values of human rights. He says, ‘All too often, national counter-terrorism strategies have lacked basic elements of due process and respect for the rule of law. Sweeping definitions of terrorism or violent extremism are often used to criminalise the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organisations and human rights defenders. Governments should not use these types of sweeping definitions as a pretext to attack or silence one’s critics.’ He also informs the world that his Plan recognises that no ‘one size fits all’; hence there is a need to engage all members of the society.

I won’t comment on the world because it appears to me that Secretary-General was talking directly to the government of India. How did Ban Ki-moon get to know that a substantial portion of our population lives without fundamental rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution of India, because the government has enforced rights-suspending Armed Forces Special Powers Act in their states in the name of national security? How did he get to know that we frequently arrest and put away human rights activists indefinitely in isolated prison cells because they challenge government’s policies? How did he know that under the over-arching rubric of ‘threat to national security’ innocent people have often been exterminated in what subsequently has turned out to be extra-judicial killings by immoral, greedy uniformed personnel? How did he know that we have enforced anti-terrorism laws under which individuals are forced to condemn themselves under the pain of torture? How did he know that we have institutionalised lynch mobs which pronounce their verdicts, outside the judiciary, on who is a patriot and who isn’t, or who can eat what? How did he know that terrorism in India is not a monolith, but has several shapes and forms and is the consequence of official perfidy and apathy over long decades?

My suspicion is there has been a breach. Someone from within the country has been tattling to Mr Ki-moon; washing our dirty linen in the UN. I cannot imagine the immediate consequences of this breach. But I fear they will serious. Maybe we need to join forces with like-minded nations and stop this UN action plan. After all, it is a question of our national security.


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