- The Washington Times - Monday, September 23, 2002

NEW YORK More than a year after a landmark day of terrorism, the drive to tighten international laws to prevent it has bogged down, and negotiators are expected to miss the 2002 target dates for a pair of new, stronger treaties.
More governments are ratifying pacts already on the books, and statesmen this month renew a U.N. pledge to unite against terrorism. But in the back rooms, the talks on new treaties have been slowed by disputes over the dry, legalistic language of diplomacy.
This month, during the opening week of the 2002 General Assembly session, the focus in the U.N. meeting rooms just a few miles from the World Trade Center site was on terrorism and how to stop it.
A U.N. working group on anti-terrorism policy, established after last year's attacks, issued its first report and declared that "counterterrorism must be firmly grounded in international law." But the working group's lengthy report proposed no new major initiatives of its own on terrorism.
Recent action, instead, has been behind the scenes, and at times discouraging to those hoping to strengthen the global web of treaties and laws.
In Vienna this month, specialists conducted the latest round of talks on a sweeping expansion of a 15-year-old treaty mandating protection of nuclear materials, keeping them out of the hands of terrorists with ambitions to build a nuclear weapon.
The treaty now sets security standards only for international transport, but would be broadened to cover the deadly commodities when they are in civilian use or storage anywhere.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, had set late 2002 as a target date for a diplomatic conference to sign the tougher treaty. But this month's negotiations, while making progress, failed to reach final agreement.
"We are disappointed," said IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky in Vienna. An accord in 2002 "does not now seem possible," he said. "Possibly next year," said Denis Flory of France, chairman of the talks.
Mr. Flory said unresolved issues in the complex and technical negotiations involve such matters as requiring treaty states to prosecute certain criminal offenses involving sabotage, for example under the treaty.
Another, broader treaty on nuclear terrorism looks even farther from final form.
This Russian proposal for an international convention defining potential acts of nuclear terrorism and requiring states to act against them "has been on the back burner for a couple of years," said Rohan Perera, the Sri Lankan diplomat overseeing those negotiations under U.N. auspices.
The key dispute focuses on a definition of nuclear terrorism. Some states want the treaty to describe the use of nuclear weapons by governments as a form of terrorism. Mr. Perera called this "basically a disarmament issue"; that is, an effort to use the treaty to pressure nuclear powers into forswearing atomic arms.
A dispute over the definition of terrorism remains the stumbling block in the "front-burner" talks at the United Nations for a comprehensive treaty obliging states to combat terrorism. Proposed by India and under intensified discussions since the September 11 attacks, this convention would incorporate major elements of a dozen specialized legal instruments dealing with terrorism.
A single omnibus treaty would simplify the ratification process for governments, and close gaps among the narrowly focused treaties, its supporters say. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had called for completion of work this year. But the treaty talks have hung up on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Islamic group of U.N. nations wants any definition to exclude actions on Palestinian soil.
"The definition has to make a clear distinction between acts of terrorism and a struggle for liberation from foreign occupation," said Yussef Kanaan, a spokesman for the Islamic group. This doesn't mean "blowing up skyscrapers in Tel Aviv," he said, but only actions within territory under Israeli occupation.
A compromise in this deep-seated dispute appears unlikely when the U.N. negotiating group resumes talks in October. But Mr. Perera, the talks chairman, remains hopeful.
"Much will depend on the situation in the Middle East later this year," he said.
A senior U.N. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Annan is working behind the scenes to push the treaty talks forward.
The secretary-general, meanwhile, took a highly visible anti-terrorism step early this month, receiving delivery of a new, more secure armored limousine a Volvo S-80 Executive, gift of the manufacturer.

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