history, the world has known political violence and war. For centuries
political and religious thinkers from many traditions have wrestled with
two key questions. When is the use of force acceptable? What principles
govern how force that may be used? These two questions are central to
something known as "just war" theory.
These two questions and the concepts of just war theory may also be useful
in considering terrorism. In past debates about terrorism, some have suggested
that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. Are these terms
merely labels that have to do with whether one agrees or disagrees with
the cause? Or is the distinction based on more concrete and objective
Today, just war theory underlies much of accepted international law concerning
the use of force by states. International law is explicit about when states
may use force. For example, states may use force in self-defense against
an armed attack. International law also addresses how force may be used.
For example, force may not be used against non-combatants. Despite these
laws and norms, there are those who oppose the use of violence under any
circumstances. For example, this commitment to non-violence led Mohandas
Gandhi to build a movement of national liberation in India organized around
the practice of non-violent resistance.
Over the years, the international community has been working to better
define the rules of war. The Geneva
Conventions established in the aftermath of World War II introduced
new internationally accepted regulations on the conduct of war between
states. These rules protect non-combatants, govern the treatment of prisoners
of war, prohibit hostage-taking, and respect diplomatic immunity.
In addition, the concept of proportionality-long a part of just war theory-has
gained new importance as the weapons of war have become increasingly destructive.
Proportionality argues that it is wrong to use more force than is necessary
to achieve success.
After the Second World War, the use of violence in struggles for self-determination
and national liberation fueled a new aspect of the debate on legitimate
use of force-the differences between freedom fighters and terrorists.
For example, newly independent Third World nations and Soviet bloc nations
argued that any who fought against the colonial powers or the dominance
of the West should be considered freedom fighters, while their opponents
often labeled them terrorists.
Following the violence at the 1972
Munich Olympics, U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim called on the
General Assembly to discuss measures to prevent terrorism. Waldheim's
suggestion provoked furious debate over the nature of terrorism and the
role of armed struggle in national liberation.
the U.N. debates on terrorism, some argued that the methods of violence
used by states can be morally reprehensible and a form a terrorism.
methods of combat used by national liberation movements could not
be declared illegal while the policy of terrorism unleashed against
certain peoples [by the armed forces of established states] was
Representative to the U.N.
liberation movements are described as terrorists by those who have reduced
them to slavery.
[The term] terrorist [can] hardly be held
to persons who were denied the most elementary human rights, dignity,
freedom and independence, and whose countries objected to foreign
- U.N. Ambassador from Mauritania Moulaye el-Hassan
that this argument was misleading because it failed to consider the issue
in its entirety. What mattered was not the justness
of the cause (something that would always be subject to debate) but the
legitimacy of the methods used. The ends, they argued, could
not be used to justify the means.
By the late
1970s, significant portions of the international community (though not
the United States) had decided to extend the protection of the Geneva
Convention to include groups participating in armed struggle against colonial
domination, alien occupation, or racist regimes; and to those exercising
their right of self-determination. The significance of this change is
that it seemed to extend legitimacy to the use of force by groups other
of September 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism have led us to consider
important questions concerning
the use of force. When is force justified? What is a terrorist? How does
a terrorist differ from a freedom-fighter? Who decides?
lesson is excerpted from Responding
to Terrorism: Challenges for Democracy (© August 2002, Choices
for the 21st Century Education Program, Watson Institute for International
Studies, Brown University. All rights reserved.)
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