Boston Marathon bombings

Use the law, not a war, to tackle terror

Zhou Zunyou says the Boston bombings show again that the scourge of terrorism will never be defeated by waging a 'war on terror'. And China should take note when tackling its own security threats

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 3:51am

The bomb explosions that rocked the Boston Marathon killed three people and wounded some 180 others, and were reportedly the worst attack on US soil since the September 11 strikes. US authorities now consider the violence an act of terrorism, and identified brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the sons of Chechen refugees, as the bombers.

Americans were not the only casualties of the Boston attack. Two Chinese students at Boston University who were there to watch the race also fell victim to the violence. While Zhou Danling was wounded, her friend Lu Lingzi was one of the three killed .

The attack also shocked China. In a phone call with President Barack Obama, President Xi Jinping expressed his condolences to the US government and people. Media reports on the Chinese victims triggered an outpouring of sympathy from Chinese citizens. The dead girl's account on Weibo, the most popular Chinese microblogging service, was filled with mournful messages. In combating terrorism, China shares common interests with the US.

As a consequence of the September 11 attacks, counterterrorism became the first priority of US national policy. The George W. Bush administration launched a global "war on terror" against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations. The campaign resulted in a war in Afghanistan, another one in Iraq, and other military operations.

This "war on terror" not only served to mobilise resources to combat terrorism, it also became the justification for a vast overreaching of executive power, independent of judicial supervision. Horrifying images of prisoners being tortured by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq greatly damaged the accountability of the American government. The military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where prisoners have been held indefinitely without formal charges and without access to lawyers, is another symbol of the American disrespect for human rights.

The administration of Barack Obama stopped using the contentious term "war on terror" but never gave up the idea of war. Suffice to say, the practice of targeted killing by drone strikes, begun in the Bush administration, has been substantially increased under Obama's presidency. Many innocent civilians have been killed in the strikes.

For China, the US is the most important country for co-operation in its fight against terrorism. At the very beginning of the "war on terror", Chinese authorities demonstrated strong support with the US. But when it came to the invasion of Iraq, the Chinese government sided with many other countries in thwarting American efforts to obtain UN authorisation.

In terms of the East Turkestan independence movement, China views it as a main source of terrorism, whereas the US sees it as primarily a human rights issue. The revelations of torture and other human rights violations committed by the Americans handed Chinese authorities an opportunity to accuse the US of applying double standards: the US pushes other countries to support attacks on what Washington labels terrorists but not on what Beijing considers terrorists.

China has so far used its criminal justice system to deal with terrorism, choosing to rely on its law enforcement departments rather than its military forces. The reason for doing so has little to do with good intentions to conform to universally recognised human rights standards; the fact is, Chinese law on the books and in action is aggressive and harsh enough to deal with terrorism.

Chinese law in fact allows military forces to be deployed for national defence. Considering China's participation in the anti-terrorism military drills within the framework of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and its previous military deployment during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, it is highly probable it would take the military option to counter terrorism if needed.

In this sense, the Chinese fight against domestic terrorism is not in line with a non-military approach, which would be more legitimate in people's eyes.

Terrorism is a despicable crime and constitutes a devastating threat to humankind. In all its forms and manifestations, for whatever purpose, terrorism should be condemned and punished.

The Boston attack is another strong indication that, despite the relentless international campaign to eradicate terrorism in recent years, the scourge is far from being defeated. Although Osama bin Laden has been killed, the US is still plagued by terrorism. In China, due to widespread Uygur resentment and animosity, terrorism continues to be a serious security threat. It remains uncertain whether the Boston attack will bring the US back onto its previous track of more aggressive military action.

It is also questionable whether China will exercise military restraint when dealing with any crisis situations caused by terrorism.

At this point, it is necessary to point out that a war model isn't suited to the fight against terrorism. That's because, when aggressive measures inherent in military action infringe on human rights, terrorists may exploit them as a recruitment tool. Since terrorism is a crime, it can and should be addressed by criminal procedures, where due process provisions are in place to guarantee the protection of human rights.

Both the US, a leader of the free world, and China, emerging as a global power, should ensure the protection of human rights while countering terrorism. This is their undeniable obligation under international law. Moreover, the protection of human rights does not contradict the efficacy of counterterrorism, but helps reduce the conditions that may generate terrorism.

Zhou Zunyou, head of the China section at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, is working on a research project on counterterrorism legislation