Language Matters: What is terrorism?

Academic and terrorism researcher David Tucker once wrote: “Above the gates of hell is the warning that all that enter should abandon hope. Less dire but to the same effect is the warning given to those who try to define terrorism.”[1] Today, his words still aptly describe the continuing search by states and international bodies for a definition of terrorism.

A search for consensus

The United Nations (UN) has made several attempts to provide a general definition of terrorism, in contrast to describing specific acts of terrorism. It had a degree of success in the 1990s, with some progress made towards a general definition. In 1994 the non-binding ‘Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism,’ endorsed by the UN General Assembly, defined terrorism as  “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes.”

This was followed by a 1996 General Assembly Resolution 51/210, which established an ad hoc Committee to find a Draft Comprehensive Convention. However, when the Committee presented its report, the proposed definition was met with controversy and disquiet in the ad hoc Committee.

Without an internationally agreed definition, individual states are left to define terrorism in their own terms. Martin Scheinin, the former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, warned this “carries the potential for unintended human rights abuses and even the deliberate misuse of the term.”

Furthermore, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, counter-terrorist policies can be used “to suppress peaceful protests and legitimate opposition movements; to shut down debate; to target and detain human rights defenders; and to stigmatize minorities.”

Case study: Mass arbitrary detentions in Xinjiang, China

Credit: Badiucao

One particularly stark example of how counter-terrorist policies can be used to suppress human and minority rights is China’s treatment of members of the Uyghur, Kazakh, and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Between one and three million members of these predominantly Muslim ethnic groups are believed to have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps in the XUAR since 2017. Chinese officials have justified the detentions as being part of China’s counter-terrorist strategy, contending that the aim of the ‘re-education camps’ is to deter people from extremism.

At a UN Security Council meeting earlier this year on the threat posed by the Islamic State, Wu Haitao, China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN stated that, in response to frequent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, “China has taken resolute, law-based measures to combat terrorism and extremism, eliminating to the extent possible the breeding ground and conditions for terrorism and extremism, effectively curbing the trend of rampant terrorist activities and safeguarding citizens’ basic rights, including the right to life and development.”

However, CSW uncovered that individuals have been detained for having WhatsApp on their phone, having relatives living abroad, accessing religious materials online, having visited certain ‘sensitive countries,’ and participating in communal religious activities. None of these reasons for internment necessarily indicate terrorist intent or activity.

Reports also indicate that the right to FoRB is routinely violated inside the camps. Detainees are required to renounce Islam and promise not to follow religion, and have been forced to eat pork or drink alcohol in violation of their religious beliefs. To suggest, as China does, that these practices are an indicator of violent extremism is wholly incorrect. On the contrary, the measures it has adopted clearly target the peaceful exercise of some of the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.

China’s treatment of the Uyghurs is an example of how the deliberate misuse of the term terrorism enables states to adopt counter-terrorist policies that infringe on human rights.

Why a definition matters

There is no doubt that any definition of terrorism would be open to abuse and misuse. However, by having a definition, states would have language on which to hinge discussions on terrorism and counter-terrorist policies, and to refer to in domestic legislation. It would also allow for greater scrutiny of claims by states that their actions are directed at tackling terrorism.

In 2001 the UK Permanent Representative to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, suggested that “What looks, smells, and kills like terrorism is terrorism.” However, as long as this broad and vague approach to defining terrorism persists, counter-terrorism policies will have an increased propensity to violate human rights.

Security should not be a fig leaf for repression and fundamental freedoms should not be sacrificed for security. While an internationally accepted definition of terrorism will not bring an end to all violations in the name of counter-terrorism, it will provide the international community with an additional tool for holding states like China to account for policies like the deplorable and arbitrary mass incarceration of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

By CSW’s Parliamentary Officer Joanne Moore


[1] Tucker D, Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire (Praeger, Westport, 1997, p51)