29 August 2007

Freedom Fighter Or Terrorist?

Nelson Mandela at the unveiling of his bronze statue in Parliament SquareToday's unveiling of the former South African President's statue in Parliament Square affords the opportunity to ask what the distinction is between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.

Strangely, despite several international conventions against terrorism, there is no agreed definition about what the term refers to and more than 100 definitions have been used in recent decades. Consider just the following four:

  • The FBI opts for "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
  • The CIA accepts "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."
  • The British Terrorism Act 2000 refers to "the use or threat of action designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause" that "involves serious violence against a person, involves serious damage to property, endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action, creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system."
  • The European Union deems terrorist offences to be intentional acts "which, given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organisation where committed with the aim of: seriously intimidating a population, or unduly compelling a Government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any acts, or seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation."
As can be seen, the term is widely used but, in each case, definitions tend to reflect a bias towards the status quo, where any attempt to oppose the established order through violence is labeled "terrorism" while violence by established governments is presented as "defence" — even when that claim is questioned by some. Definitions can even embrace, for instance, mere disruption of a computer system in British law or groups of protestors in European law, leading some to voice concerns that "Methods of political protest available to ordinary people are under attack." On the other hand, even the actions of Mugabe's Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe would seem to be covered by most definitions.

Which brings us back to our initial question, is it possible to distinguish between a terrorist group and a liberation movement?Brian Haw's lone peace protest outside Parliament