A
n issue that has assumed global proportions, terrorism has become one of the gravest threats to humanity. Yet even as its expanse and reach have spared none, there seems to be no global consensus on what terrorism is all about. However, unhindered by the absence of a global understanding, attempts have been made by the European Union (EU) to deal with the challenges that the increasing spread of terrorism has been posing.

Located in the background of rising terror activities and their worsening impact, this article will evaluate the impediments to forming a global consensus on the ‘what’ of terrorism, followed by an appraisal of the efforts made by EU fill this void at the regional level. By contrasting the efforts that have been undertaken at two different (but inter-connected) levels of analysis – global and regional – prominent debates in the field concerning international organizations, particularly those related structure-agency, pathologies and institutional capacity, will be highlighted.

What is ‘terrorism’ anyway?

What had once been considered as a sporadic, quasi-global occurrence, terrorism was catapulted to the level of a ‘global epidemic’ with the attack on US on September 11, 2001. Much a cause of global concern, however, ‘no ‘universal’ definition of terrorism exists at the level of international law’.

Often taken to be a ‘political act’ that involves ‘indiscriminate or targeted killing’ with the intention of ‘changing the stance of a country or its government’, ‘terrorism’ as a word has been around as a ‘political descriptor’ for long. In fact, the word ‘terror’ – which according to its Latin etymological root, terrere, means ‘to frighten’ – had ‘entered Western European languages’ lexicons through French in the fourteenth century and was first used in English in 1528’. Furthermore, the absence of a legally defined, working definition of ‘terrorism’ has however not hindered a general acknowledgement of its ‘pejorative, unwanted nature’.

Inevitably entwined with power politics – what Foucault (1980) had described as the ‘power/knowledge’ nexus – the word ‘terrorism’ has generally been heaped on activities of identified ‘others’ whose activities have been deemed ‘undesirable’ by the state. However, such was not the case from the beginning. Much like any other political discourse, the concept of ‘terrorism’ – what to make of it, its forms, actors and the ways to deal with it – has undergone transformation. What had once been associated with ‘state-perpetrated violence’ is now generally seen as ‘non-state actors led transnational activity’ that looks to global action for dealing with it.

…And, how have we dealt with it internationally?

Today, as per the United Nations (UN), ‘acts of international terrorism constitute one of the most serious threats to international peace and security in the twenty-first century’, but what exactly these ‘threats’ are continues to be an unsettled debate. What makes the acknowledgement of the global failure on arriving at a legal definition of terrorism even more glaring is the ‘exclusion of terrorism from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court’.

While there continues to be a lack of legal-proper definition of terrorism internationally, the UN in 2005 described what it thought terrorism is. According to the UN, ‘terrorism’ stood for ‘criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them’. However, as one would come to see, the generic usage of ascriptive terms and the abstract conceptualization of ‘acts’ did not take the world body or its members state any far in dealing with this issue. A clear lack of specifics created an open-ended situation in which potentially all or none ‘actions’ could be described as terrorism.

Furthermore, emanating from the absence of legal parameters regarding the understanding of terrorism are multiple overlapping structures and conventions that are geared to tackle the various facets of the same concern – terrorism. The presence of too many frameworks and their respective policy recommendations has created problems related to prioritization. Realizing that any given country can be a signatory to many conventions simultaneously, the absence of an overarching body overseeing the implementation of obligations has hampered harmonious and in-sync actions against the common issue.

Disjunctions between frameworks are also witnessed and which, as a result, have also created conflicts and lack of coordination between mechanisms that are instituted to deal with the same menace. For instance, the UN ‘now oversees sixteen conventions that target different aspects of terrorism, including terrorist financing, hijacking, acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and hostage taking, to name a few’. Added to which, ‘within the UN alone, (there) are more than thirty agencies conducting relevant work on the issue, and too often, these various elements are uncoordinated and even competing.’

Exerting their sovereignty in the absence of a supra-national, global body, the ‘differing perceptions of threats’ as held by the states, in one way, comes to highlight the lacking of international bodies. For instance, while the UNS discharging its responsibilities as enshrined in the charter of the UN, has attempted to ‘strengthen the international legal foundation for counterterrorism efforts by issuing numerous binding resolutions’, their efficacy has often been placed under doubt. In the post-9/11 era, the UNSC had established Counterterrorism Committee (CTC) that was later followed by the CTC Executive Directorate (CTED), however not much has been achieved with their constitution. Observers have been of the opinion that the ‘response of the world organization (UN) to terrorism has been tentative, halting, even ambivalent’.Added to which, “although the CTC was set up as part of the resolution that explicitly invoked the enforcement powers under Chapter VII of the Charter, it is not an enforcement mechanism; it has no power to impose sanctions” and which effectively makes it toothless.

Another instance that highlights the truncated agency of world bodies like the UN to deal with what is indeed a ‘global’ concern – ‘terrorism’ – is the abeyance in which Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) is found. Discussions on the CCIT had begun in 1996 with the intention to criminalize all forms of international terrorism and deny terrorists, their financiers and supporters access to funds, arms, and safe havens. Among the objectives of this convention was the creation of a universal definition of terrorism that all member-states of the UN are to incorporate into their domestic criminal laws’.

Despite the urgency with which it is required, the CCIT has not materialized into a legally-binding convention to date. The reason: lack of consensus over the ‘universal definition’ of terrorism; an aspect about the proposed convention that has the United States, Organization of Islamic Countries and Latin America disagreeing over.

Faced with sovereign resistance to the creation of a concerted global effort, the UN has endeavored to forge global intention – if not action – against terrorism. In a display of its institutional agency and capacity, and with the intent to ‘increase the legitimacy and add coherence’ to what it does, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted in 2006 the Global Counterterrorism Strategy (GCT). And, even as it is acknowledged that the GCT ‘is either unknown or largely overlooked beyond New York, Geneva, and Vienna’, the fact that the UN could create an ‘important normative and operational foundation for counterterrorism’ can perhaps be taken as an indicator of life that international organizations have of their own, notwithstanding how impacting it might be.

European Union saves the day

As it became evident that global efforts to tackle an acknowledged global issue have not been able take off much from the ground, it was domestic, bilateral and regional initiatives that one had to turn to. Among the regional initiatives, those taken by the EU have proven to be instances of success.

Attributing the swiftness with which the EU adopted and implemented measures to tackle terrorism within its regional territory to ‘greater homogeneity in the interests of the European states’, Eugenia Dumitriu (2004) notes that, ‘as early as in 1977, European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism’ was signed by the then member-states. While ‘this Convention did not offer a comprehensive definition of terrorism, since its objective is of a procedural nature…it drew up a list of terrorist acts defined either autonomously or by reference to international conventions’.

Apart from having been ratified and incorporated into the domestic law by all the member-states of this regional organization, what stands out the most about this convention is the difference that is drawn between acts of terror and those having political purposes and motives. Dumitriu notes,

“European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism is the first to address a wide spectrum of terrorist acts and to impose on States the obligation not to consider them as political offences, offences connected with a political offence or as offences inspired by political motives.”

Furthermore, the Treaty of European Union (or the Maastricht Treaty of 1992) that led to the creation of the EU too reinforced a ‘legal basis for action by the Union in this field (terrorism)’. Developing an ‘effective fight against terrorism’, the “Union has several tasks to fulfill and a variety of instruments at its disposal, an emphasis being laid upon the approximation of member states’ criminal laws in accordance with Article 31 of Maastricht Treaty”.

It was in 2002 that the EU came up with a common definition of terrorism which was ‘combined with standard’ penalties. Institutionalizing a legal framework to fight terrorism, the creation of the ‘Council Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism’ was geared to promote coordination between member-states by creating a regionally universal standard for classifying terrorism and putting in place mechanisms based on that common understanding. As Dumitriu notes, the Framework provides a ‘common definition of terrorist offences, as well as rules of competence and of legal cooperation between member states for the prosecution of persons having committed terrorist acts’. Thus, by establishing a totalizing mechanism to deal with terrorism, this Framework eliminates duplication, lack of coordination and conflicts that could have emerged thereof.

Apart from this larger Framework that informs the various steps taken by the EU for tackling ‘terrorism’, this regional body has put in place certain other legal, financial and judicial measures. These include, creation and enforcement of the ‘European Arrest Warrant (of 2002 which smoothens inter-member-state extradition); Schengen Borders Code and Schengen Information System (to check money laundering which is a known source financing terrorism); EUROPOL (the European Police Office) and EUROJUST (European Union Judicial Cooperation Unit), among many other initiatives that have been taken.

Providing an overall point of convergence is the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP; formerly known as European Security and Defence Policy), which in rendering a common framework to its member-states with regards to the promotion of ‘international security’ equips EU with policies and instruments required for tackling terrorism both at home and abroad.

In this context, it is also important to note that EU has also ventured beyond its shores to create and enforce methods and mechanisms promoting coordination between EU, member-states and other entities (countries and organizations). For instance, the EU has ‘concluded an agreement with the USA for a Terrorism Finance Tracking Programme, (TFTP) which entered into force in August 2010’.

Further enhancement in the power of the EU to preside and decide over matters related to the ‘internal security’ of its member states has been witnessed since the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty (of 2007). These include, greater oversight by the European Parliament over the implementation of provisions related to the Framework and CSDP; bestowing of rights to EUROPOL, EUROJUST to enter into treaties and agreements with external organizations; the expansion of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to cover all freedom, security, and justice issues, including measures on counter-terrorism. (Renard, 2016)

Thus, equipped with policies and mechanisms that assume a life of their own, the efforts made by the EU to define and deal with terrorism have been far more effective than that at the global level. It cannot be denied that management of sovereign realities globally in the absence of a supra-national entity will be a herculean task, but instances such as that of the EU – which too was built on the ashes of Second World War rivalries – can surely be seen as instructive. Also, where the EU stands out as a case of a regional organization assuming agency, the reduction of the UN to a ‘talking platform’ on the other hand highlights the challenges faced by such entities.

Husnain Iqbal holds a Master's International Relations from SAARC-run South Asian University, New Delhi (India). Prior to this, he did his Bachelor's in Political Science from Forman Christian College, Lahore (Pakistan). He is currently associated with Wikistrat as Researcher.

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