Lives at risk if world cannot agree definition on terrorism, says expert

Academics wrangled over definitions of extremism and terrorism at a conference in Wales, UK

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Academics and policy makers have called for global definitions of terrorism and extremism to better fight radicalisation online and in the real world.

Dr Krisztina Huszti-Orban, professor of law and research fellow at the Human Rights Centre of the University of Minnesota, argued that because terrorism and extremism cross state boundaries, global powers need to reach an agreement on what they are under international law.

“There is no internationally accepted definition,” she told an audience of researchers at the Terrorism and Social Media Conference in Swansea, UK

“This poses a very important problem, as the cornerstone of all counter-terrorism policies should be an adequate, internationally-recognised definition.”

Brookings Institution Fellow and extremism expert J M Berger said “lives are at risk” if international definitions of the terms are not agreed.

Also speaking at the conference, which brings policy makers and academics together to share the latest research and ideas on fighting violent extremism and terrorism, Mr Berger said terrorism and extremism must be separated from each other.

“I think in almost all cases with a few very rare exceptions the cause of terrorism is extremism,” he said. "So terrorism is a tactic. It is not a belief system.”

However, not all violent extremism is terrorism, and not all extremists are violent, Mr Berger said.

Governments the world over are failing to discuss a whole raft of harmful actions by lumping in extremism with terrorism as a definition, he explained.

“We are missing out on a lot of things that happened as a result of extremism. For instance, hate crime, discriminatory policies, internment camps and concentration camps which we are seeing an unfortunate resurgence of.”

States are also committing acts against their own people and others based on demonising them as extremist, for example the actions of Myanmar against the Rohingya people, or China against the Uighur population.

“A reasonable definition of extremism would deem the people carrying out the atrocities as extremists,” not the persecuted population, said Mr Berger.

As some of these actions are undertaken by UN member states against their own people or people of other nations, an agreed definition of terrorism at the UN will be hard to come by, Dr Huszti-Orban said.

The UN currently has 19 international conventions and protocols on the prevention and suppression of terrorism, which provide basic legal tools to combat terrorism.

A draft convention to agree a definition of terrorism has been stuck at committee stage for a number of years, and is likely to stay there “until kingdom come”, says Dr Huszti-Orban, for two reasons.

“One of them is whether a state and state armed forces can be perpetrators of terrorist acts, and the other is whether terrorism can be permitted in response to the right of self-determination,” she said. “These are issues that are unlikely to be solved anytime soon.”

However, the academic and policy worlds are not in total agreement on the issue.

Lord Alexander Carlisle, former independent reviewer of the UK’s terrorism legislation for a decade in the early 2000’s, said attempting to define terrorism is a “futile exercise”.

He suggested modelling a definition on how anti-Semitism is treated, by providing a set of examples of actions or uses of language which are considered to be anti-Semitic. This, he said gives the flexibility needed to encompass such a wide-ranging phenomena.

“It is much better to produce a list of examples as is in the definition of anti-Semitism and just allow extremism and terrorism to be interpreted as they evolve rather than a prescribed definition,” he said on Tuesday.