The United Nations General Assembly has opened a special debate on terrorism, part of what many states say is a crucial sequence in the effort to build a lasting international coalition against a global threat. Member states heard appeals from the UN secretary-general and New York City's mayor, among others, to form a common front, free of the divisions that have slowed down or weakened UN action on issues in the past.
United Nations, 2 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations member states have begun to debate how to act against a common enemy: terrorism. They are under to pressure to move with uncommon speed.
The special session began yesterday with an appeal from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for states to ratify the existing legal instruments to combat terrorism. The most recent convention -- on suppressing the financing of terrorism -- has only four signatures and has been cited as a potential key weapon against terrorists.
Annan also called on the assembly to agree to a comprehensive convention on international terrorism. He said differences over the definition of terrorism, which have held up a comprehensive treaty, must not prevent the United Nations from upholding universal principles on protecting innocent life.
The secretary-general warned that inaction on terrorism can have consequences even more destructive than the attacks on New York and Washington, which killed nearly 6,000 people:
"The greatest danger arises from a non-state group -- or even an individual -- acquiring and using a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon. Such a weapon could be delivered without the need for any missile or any other sophisticated delivery system."
The assembly special session is expected to hear representatives from more than 130 countries in the coming days. It is aimed at boosting efforts at strengthening the legal framework needed to suppress and prosecute terrorists.
The assembly debate follows the counter-terrorism resolution passed unanimously by the 15-member UN Security Council on 28 September. That binding measure requires the 189 UN member states to pursue terrorists and those who support them, including the freezing of financial support systems.
Annan called on the assembly to move beyond symbolic gestures and adopt far-reaching measures against terrorism.
Like Annan, a number of speakers said the issue of how to define terrorism must be dealt with quickly. This may involve some compromises from countries such as Iran, which has landed on the U.S. official list of countries that support terrorism. Iran disagrees with the U.S. definition of terrorism and considers Palestinians and the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon as resistance movements. Iran's ambassador is due to address the assembly today.
Turkey's UN ambassador, Mehmet Umit Pamir, speaking yesterday, said any terrorist acts must be seen as indefensible:
"There are no gray areas in the fight against terrorism, nor are there good terrorists and bad terrorists. This is the time for the international community as a whole, and for the states individually, to condemn unequivocally all acts, methods, and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation."
Turkey's struggle with separatist Kurds is one of many internal conflicts in which the issue of terrorism has dominated a domestic agenda. Another predominantly Muslim country, Algeria, has suffered tens of thousands of deaths in the past decade, many of them civilians, in terrorist attacks. The violence surged after the government canceled elections in 1992 in which the now outlawed Islamic Salvation Front appeared to be winning.
Algeria's UN ambassador, Abdallah Baali, told the General Assembly that until 11 September, terrorism was an issue that failed to generate a proper international response. He said the international community is now duty-bound to make use of all resources to fight terrorism:
"I must point out that it took so many innocent victims and so many struggles in isolation, including that which my country took part in for years, to realize that terrorism is not a menace solely to one region of the world but a global threat. And no country can feel that it is sheltered."
Before the General Assembly's special session began yesterday, the members also heard an appeal for effective action from New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The mayor has emerged as an heroic figure for New Yorkers since the 11 September attacks. His appearance marked the first time in nearly 50 years that a New York mayor addressed the assembly.
He told UN representatives that citizens of more than 80 countries died in the attacks, which he said represented an assault on UN principles. The United Nations, Giuliani said, must hold accountable any country that supports or condones terrorism. It is not the time, he said, for "further study or vague directives" by the world body:
"The evidence of terrorism's brutality and inhumanity, of its contempt for life and the concept of peace, is lying beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center less than two miles [three kilometers] from where we meet today. Look at that destruction, that massive, senseless, cruel loss of human life, and then I ask you to look in your hearts and recognize that there is no room for neutrality on the issue of terrorism."
The assembly also heard for the first time yesterday from the new U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte. Negroponte repeated statements by other members of the U.S. administration in defense of Muslims, stressing that the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism is not aimed at Islam.
Negroponte said terrorism does not signify a divide between the U.S. and Islam but a divide between the rule of law and the chaos of crime.