As the world grapples with the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, India has tried to refocus attention on a “comprehensive” international anti-terror convention that it proposed back in the 1990s.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the proposed convention at the G20 Summit, asking the world to unite against terrorism, “speak in one voice… without any political considerations. There should be no distinction between terrorist groups or discrimination between states”.
During his visit to the United States too, the Comprehensive Convention Against International Terrorism (CCIT) was a key talking point — UN reforms was the other — in most of his bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
There are 14 international treaties dealing with terrorism, so why another one?
The need for a CCIT first came up after the G7 nations and Russian federation together made a successful push for a sectoral convention against terrorist bombings in 1996, weeks after a bomb attack on a US airbase in Daharan, Saudi Arabia, killed 19 American soldiers and injured over 500 others.
Developing countries, India included, argued at the time that there was need for a convention that could deal with all forms of terrorism, in all countries, affecting all states, and not just bombings. India submitted the first draft of such a convention.
But despite New Delhi’s determined attempts to push for the adoption of the CCIT in the 70th anniversary year of the UN, even Paris 13/11 may not bring the world any closer to a consensus on its text, with countries continuing to have vastly different views on that old question: What is terrorism?
Originally prepared by India in 1996, at the height of Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir, a draft convention has been under discussion since then in the Sixth Ad Hoc Committee of the United Nations, set up by the General Assembly to supplement existing conventions against terrorism.
The panel’s work has already led to the adoption of three other treaties: International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, adopted on December 15, 1997; International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, adopted on December 9, 1999; and International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, adopted on April 13, 2005.
Rohan Perera, the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the UN, who is also chairing the Committee, told The Indian Express that countries pulled back from a near agreement in 2001 due to “concerns”.
One set of concerns was voiced by countries of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, who wanted acts committed by national liberation movements to be explicitly excluded from the draft. The Palestine-Israel conflict was the context to this. Latin American countries wanted the draft to cover “state terrorism”. And western countries, including the US, wanted the draft to exclude acts committed by military forces of states during peacetime.
Since then, there have been several drafts. Without actually defining terrorism, they have sought to define acts that would constitute international terrorism, and set out rights and obligations of states in bringing the culprits to justice. Issues of definition and exceptions still dog the proposals. No country has rejected the need for a convention, but agreement has proved elusive.
The last meeting of the committee took place in April 2013, and is instructive on the sticking points. As reported on the media site of the UN:
“Several speakers rejected the double standards of States that publicly condemned terrorism, on the one hand, but sponsored it on the other. “There is an elephant in the room in this debate,” declared Israel’s representative, stressing that some were content to condemn terrorism that took place in their backyards, yet condone — or even support — attacks carried out elsewhere. Such duplicity could not be reconciled with a genuine intent to counter terrorism.
“Nicaragua… rejected double standards in the context of State terrorism — “abominable” behaviour which enjoyed impunity.
“For many, a… comprehensive anti-terrorism convention must address root causes, including festering international disputes, and political and economic injustices. It also must contain a consensual legal definition of terrorism that clearly distinguished terrorist acts from the legitimate exercise of the right to self-determination.”
The last draft was in 2013, and the Committee’s report shows that many countries are still not satisfied. Some, for instance, want the right to self-determination as set out in the UN charter included in the preamble.
“95 per cent of the work has been done,” said Perera. As a compromise, he said, there was agreement to move ahead on the negotiations with the understanding that there would be “carveouts” — for instance, the activities of militaries, which are governed by other international laws and conventions, would not be covered by the convention.
Similarly, acts committed by national liberation movements would be excluded by reference to international humanitarian and human rights laws. The preamble of the latest draft also reiterates the right to self determination.
Perera also said a resolution recalling the obligations of states under international law could be adopted along with the convention to address concerns over state terrorism.
“Ten years of work has gone into it, now it’s a matter of political will,” said Perera, adding that the emergence of new threats such as Islamic State had made such a convention all the more necessary.
From the manner in which he has aggressively pushed for it on every available international forum — he spoke of it even during his speech at Silicon Valley — Prime Minister Modi seems to believe he can singlehandedly persuade the world to come together on the CCIT. But there is no evidence that this is about to happen.