United Nations

All acts of terror are equally criminal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2008, 12:00am

Suicide bombing strikes most people as inherently abhorrent and heinous. In the past, old-style terrorist groups generally tried to extract their comrades after perpetuating crimes against innocents. For most military groups, suicide missions - spearheaded by commandos who knew they had little chance of survival - were deployed either out of desperation or to achieve objectives of high strategic value.

Nowadays, the new terror movements have no trouble training and sending their own people to their death to carry out routine, even random, attacks. This is often done as a matter of course. In our time, the use of human bombers has gone from being a method of low-tech warfare to being a cancerous cultural and religious phenomenon. It is the most extreme form of nihilism imaginable.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there are now voices calling for making this method of terror a crime against humanity and holding those who organise and advocate it responsible for this highest of criminal offences. Following the suicide-bombing assassination of Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the Jewish human rights group Simon Wiesenthal Centre yesterday took out a full page advertisement in The New York Times demanding that the United Nations formally address suicide terror and make it a crime. The centre's spokesmen have rightly noted that the UN has previously convened special sessions to address international issues of pressing importance such as global warming and the spread of Aids. There is no doubt that suicide terror is a scourge of our age. It deserves international attention at the UN level.

However, making a particular style or method of terror a distinct crime against humanity is problematic. There are other methods of terror that are equally capable of inflicting severe suffering and committing mass murders. It is not clear that a man who kills thousands with a biological weapon has committed a lesser crime than the one who sends a suicidal terrorist to sacrifice himself to release the same weapon.

Murder, if it is committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, is already recognised as a crime against humanity under international law. The centre's proposal is tantamount to creating a distinct category of murder within the same set of laws. It will, no doubt, help to focus world attention on a serious problem. But the proposal needs to be thoroughly thought out by the authorities before the law is moved in that direction.