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World: Analysis From Washington -- Combating "The Evil Of Our Time"

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- French and Georgian proposals for expanding international cooperation to combat terrorism highlight both the increasing threat of terrorism around the world and the difficulties both individual countries and the international community have in combating it.

On Monday, Paris introduced a draft treaty to the United Nations General Assembly that would require all signatory countries to impose criminal sanctions against anyone who provides financial support to those who engages in terrorist activities.

The French proposal is to be taken up later this month by a special UN committee that was set up in December 1996 and, if adopted, would supplement the 1997 international convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said in Tashkent that "terrorism is the evil of our time." He called on "all the countries of our planet" to cooperate in fighting "this evil." And he added that he was thinking about proposing a treaty or convention within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States to push such cooperation forward.

But in his speech, Shevardnadze called attention to three aspects of the problem of terrorism that almost certainly will defeat any effort to eradicate it.

First, he noted that "oddly, terrorists unite faster than we do." That is, terrorists have formed the kind of international cooperation that is far ahead of that shown by the governments of the world.

Second, he pointed out that the problem of terrorism is compounded by the all-too-real complicity of some states in sponsoring or sheltering terrorists. They find it easy to do so because they can use its results while denying responsibility. Specifically, Shevardnadze said, "I state with full responsibility that Russia shelters terrorists," something the Georgian leader said "does not befit a democratic country."

This is not the first time the Georgian president had accused Moscow of doing do. In the past, he has advanced this claim on the basis of evidence that Russia is providing shelter and protection for former Georgian security chief Igor Giorgadze, the man that Tbilisi holds responsible for a recent assassination attempt against Shevardnadze himself.

And third, Shevardnadze suggested that terrorism is the current offensive element in many international conflicts. As such, it enjoys the advantages that offensive moves often have over defensive ones, at least in the initial stages of conflict.

Both the French proposal and Shevardnadze's conflict suggest how serious a challenge terrorism presents to the international community and how difficult it is likely to be to contain, let alone prevent. But the difficulties reflected in these two documents also point the way toward a solution.

As in the past, overcoming a new offensive weapon requires good intelligence, both gained and shared, so that the forces of the international community can be brought to bear against the perpetrators of violence. If states know where and when terrorists plan to act, they are in a position to oppose them with all the powers of the modern nation state.

Moreover, these two proposals for international cooperation focus on the current weak link in the international system: some states do not want to play by the rules and are quite prepared to sponsor or at least harbor terrorist criminals. If either the entire international community or regional associations can secure agreements against such steps, it will be easier, if not certain to limit the activities of would-be terrorists.

And finally, and again both the French proposal and Shevardnadze's remarks highlight this again, in the struggle between offensive and defensive weapons, there are no final victories. While terrorists have enjoyed certain advantages in the international system in recent years, they are likely to lose them as the international community focuses on the issue.

There have been waves of terrorist activities in the past, and they have subsided once states decided to act together. While modern means of violence allow an individual terrorist to destroy more than his predecessors could ever dream of, it is also the case that the powers of the modern nation state, including the ability to gather and share information and to come down hard on its enemies, are also greater than at any time in the past.

And thus the French proposal and Shevardnadze's comments about something that truly has become "the evil of our time" also point the way to a future in which terrorism will be less of a plague as the members of the international community face up to it and decide to work together against terrorists and those who sponsor them.