NEW YORK — To the Iraqi civilians who have dragged family members out of rubble, or grieving parents in Beslan forced to bury their children, the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter might seem inconsequential.
But to the 191 members of the U.N. General Assembly, that distinction was enough to scuttle the latest efforts to define terrorism and, ultimately, craft a comprehensive convention against it.
Arab and Islamic nations have demanded an exemption for freedom fighters, while European and most Asian and Latin nations say that targeting civilians is always wrong.
At an impasse, the legal committee of the General Assembly agreed to delay until late February further efforts to draft a counterterrorism resolution that would be the basis for the international agreement.
U.S. officials, who have made counterterrorism one of their priorities at the United Nations, were deeply concerned by what they perceive as a lack of political will to grapple with terrorism.
“This is a priority for us and the secretary-general and it’s unfortunate that it’s come down to some members of the [Organization of the Islamic Conference] being so obstructionist, trying to carve out what’s considered terrorism,” Benjamin Chang, deputy spokesman for the U.S. Mission, said yesterday. “We think that it’s unfortunate that we’re at this stage of things this long after we rhetorically made all these commitments in September.”
On Tuesday, committee members agreed without a vote to postpone work on the contentious language, while denouncing as “unjustifiable” acts of terror designed to provoke fear in the general public. They also agreed that all states should prevent terrorist acts and prosecute perpetrators.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement that he is “disappointed” with the lack of action and indicated that he would soon meet with key players to try to resolve their differences.
Every nation agrees that terrorism is wrong, but many Arab and Islamic governments insist that an exception must be made for those fighting colonial domination or foreign occupation.
Among the groups that might fit that description: Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the West Bank, the insurgents of Iraq, and secessionist movements in Chechnya, Kashmir, the Philippines, Indonesia and Northern Ireland, among many others.
It is the same rift that derailed the terrorism discussions before the World Summit in September, when more than 150 presidents and prime ministers gathered here to lend their political support to a document that ultimately didn’t say anything new in the war on terror.
The legal committee also has wrestled with the question of whether national armed forces would be covered by the convention, because their actions are governed by international humanitarian law, such as the Geneva Conventions.
The question of “state-sponsored terrorism,”’ which is usually a reference to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and, until recently, Gaza, also has been a sticking point.