America's double standards on terrorism

Zhou Zunyou says fair and equal treatment by the US government in defining acts of terrorism at home and abroad would help it forge allies in the global campaign to combat the violence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 January, 2014, 3:44am

At the end of 2013, terrorist violence befell both China and Russia. On December 30, nine assailants armed with knives and homemade explosives attacked a police station in Yarkand, a county administered by Kashgar prefecture in Xinjiang . During the clash, eight attackers were shot dead; one was captured.

Also on December 30, a suicide bombing occurred on a crowded trolleybus in the city of Volgograd in southern Russia, a day after a suicide bomber launched an attack at the city's main train station. The two attacks killed 34 people and injured many more.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, President Xi Jinping extended his condolences to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Plagued by Islamic terrorists fighting for ethnic independence, China and Russia have common interests in combating terrorism within the framework of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.

The US also immediately showed its solidarity with Russia, but the message of solidarity was not sent from President Barack Obama. Instead, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf condemned the terrorist attacks in Volgograd "in the strongest terms" during a daily press briefing.

US double standards on terrorism point to an awkward mindset among American politicians

However, when asked about the latest attack in Xinjiang, Harf refused to label that attack as terrorism. Instead, she called on the Chinese government to "permit its citizens to express their grievances freely, publicly, peacefully and without fear of retribution".

So, just what does constitute an act of terrorism in US eyes? Up to now, the international community has failed to agree on a single definition. Terrorism is even defined differently within different US government departments, such as the State Department, the FBI, and the departments of homeland security and defence.

In order to understand America's position on terrorist attacks in foreign countries, it's necessary to look at the definition used by the State Department. According to this agency, "terrorism" refers to "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents". In particular, the term "non-combatant targets" is interpreted to include both civilians and military personnel who are not deployed in a war zone or a war-like setting.

For the State Department, terrorism is perpetrated by non-state entities, involves the premeditated use of violence, is committed against non-combatant targets, and has political aims. Given these four requirements, the Xinjiang attack cannot be categorised as terrorism, because it targeted police officers rather than so-called "non-combatants".

But, if this definition is used to evaluate the jeep crash in Tiananmen Square last October that killed five people, including the three attackers, and injured 40, there will be a different conclusion.

This incident satisfies all four requirements: it was carried out by a group of Uygurs; it involved a premeditated suicide explosion of an SUV; it targeted tourists at Tiananmen Square; and the flag that was found in the SUV calling for "jihad" indicated a political aim.

And while the US government declined to designate the Beijing incident as terrorism, it reacted quickly to call the Boston Marathon bombings in April that left three people dead and more than 200 others wounded "an act of terrorism".

The jeep crash and explosion in Beijing was remarkably similar in nature to the Boston bombings and undoubtedly met the State Department's definition of terrorism. So, if the US had applied the same standards for both cases, it could have labelled the Beijing incident a terrorist attack. The American use of double standards on terrorism has been drawing strong criticism from Chinese authorities and the media.

At the December 30 press briefing, when asked to comment on accusations of double standards in the case of the Beijing incident, Harf said: "We don't just jump to conclusions or call things by a certain name if we haven't gathered all the facts ourselves."

This is clearly a shoddy excuse. When declaring the Boston incident a terrorist act, Obama admitted knowing nothing about who had carried out the bombings. And when Washington identified the attacks in Volgograd as terrorism, the identities of the bombers were not known.

In previous years, the US often displayed sympathy for Islamic terrorists in Chechnya. Its solidarity with Russia this time seems to be a change of policy. One possible reason may be that the terrorism in Russia has caused considerable pain to the US, as demonstrated by the fact that the two brothers accused of the Boston bombings were ethnic Chechens.

US double standards on terrorism point to an awkward mindset among American politicians: political violence may be called terrorism only if it is perpetrated by those they do not like.

Terrorism is a crime against humanity. Counterterrorism requires effective international co-operation. For the sake of global anti-terrorist campaigns, the US must stop this unwelcome practice.

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