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Empowered United Nations: Terrorism's Greatest Foe
17 December 2001
I spend much of my time in this space criticizing what I see as the excesses and evasions of those in power. According to my critics, I love to spotlight problems but seldom suggest solutions. My opposition to our war on terrorism has sharpened their point: What, they ask, is my alternative to U.S. policy? How do I suggest we deal with suicidal Islamic radicals ruthless enough to murder thousands of innocent people?
Here's my solution: Utilize the UN to establish a permanent International Criminal Court with jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity--such as the Sept. 11 attacks. This new court would be granted the police powers needed to enforce its edicts. It would be empowered to pursue terrorists across all borders and force the accountability of governments that protect them.
With a commitment to the civilizing force of law and impartial justice, this new international court would present a tangible alternative to the logic of terror. By contrast, the current U.S. strategy of fighting terrorism-- military ostentation, imperialist swagger, secret military tribunals, etc.--makes the point that power is the only law worth respecting.
In fact, the UN already has the authority to act against international terrorism. But it has no power to enforce that authority, and we like it that way. Washington has been chronically delinquent in paying its UN dues, has refused to establish a military staff committee that could coordinate a UN military response, has failed to provide the UN with military contingents and done many other things to ensure the UN's impotence.
A vital, self-assured UN would limit Washington's full freedom of action; what good is being a superpower if you can't exercise that power? The U.S. uses the UN only to help it spell unilateral. The new court could also bring impartial judgment on vexing issues regarding the legitimacy of armed struggle, or distinguishing between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Remember, former South African President Nelson Mandela and the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin both were classified as terrorists at one time. We once supported Nicaraguan "contras" who today would clearly qualify as terrorists. Sometimes armed struggle is legitimate; after all, peace is not just the absence of conflict but also the presence of justice.
The court would mark a shift away from the patterns of violence that enflame the passions of war. The carnage that characterizes the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is an example of how violence and vengeance reproduce each other in endless progression. I fear we may be echoing that process with our military assault on Afghanistan. Our eager use of extreme firepower, like the 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bomb, reveals the absolute futility of waging conventional warfare against U.S. interests. Potential enemies have no option but to wage the kind of "asymmetric" warfare that we call terrorism. Since they can't win the battle of the bangs, they seek the biggest bang for the buck. The most important deterrent to terrorism is a global reckoning of colonialism's legacy.
Chart the life stories of typical suicide bombers and you'll likely find their grievance was nurtured in some refugee camp or some area of the world sucked dry by colonialism. The global failure to narrow the resource gap between the former colonial nations of the north and the formerly colonized nations of the south fertilizes the field for terrorists. To paraphrase Janis Joplin, "terrorism is just another word, for nothing left to lose." The UN's all-but-forgotten World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held last summer in Durban, South Africa, was a start in this reckoning process. The media focused so intently on America's unfortunate boycott of the conference, they missed the European Union's acknowledgment of its role in abetting the north-south wealth gap and how it is exploring ways to build a more cooperative future with the nations of the south. The process of globalization demands new methods of cooperation, and gatherings like the Durban conference will become increasingly important.
Terrorism is a tactic born in the shadows, but nourished by widely shared grievances. The more candidly those grievances are acknowledged and addressed, the less fuel there is for terrorism. The UN is perfectly positioned to perform that function. But as long as the U.S. is unwilling to empower it, it will remain a global promise rather than the solution I suggest it could be.