Saturday, December 11, 2010

Knowing a Terrorist When You See One By Scott Horton

Over the last decade the world has witnessed an explosion of cases in which the term “terrorist” has been applied to domestic political adversaries, journalists, lawyers, and others who present governments and hyperventilating politicians with unpleasant facts. Today the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights has published a book entitled Blacklisted that meticulously documents this process, with a focus on abuse of the “terrorist” label in Europe. In the post 9/11 period, governments around the world increasingly used the term “terrorist” to muzzle people—insuring that they are denied access to the media, are not allowed to present challenges in court, and effectively disappear from the political stage. The worst abusers by far are authoritarian governments (Zimbabwe and Burma are good examples) that try to pin this label on democracy and human rights advocates. But this study also lays much blame at the feet of the United Nations, which has often allowed individual nations to call “terrorists” whomever they please.

As U.N. rapporteur Martin Scheinen points out in his foreword to the book, “There is a fundamental need for a broader public debate concerning the future of terrorist listings.” Listing foreign terrorist organizations is a powerful tool in the arsenal against terrorism, but it is also the subject of a great deal of official chicanery. If it is to be used effectively, then the international community, with the United States at the lead, has to focus more attention on the sort of conduct which will qualify a group as “terrorist.” Violence, particularly targeting innocent civilians indiscriminately, is an essential element of the definition. A government’s determination that its critics or political adversaries are “terrorists” must be subject to review by courts on the facts involving objective criteria. And the media and the public must be on the guard against political rhetoric that seeks to turn the concept of “terrorist organization” into a weapon against democracy itself.

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