A Battlefield of Meanings: The Struggle for Identity in the UN Debates on a Definition of International Terrorism

Since the attacks at the Olympic Games in 1972, debates on a definition of international terrorism as part of a comprehensive convention have been preoccupying the United Nations (UN). However, for nearly forty years the quest for a definition has been fruitless. Current approaches explain the failure due to different factors, most importantly divergences in national interests, preferences and legal traditions as well as institutional constraints or national legal traditions.

These conventional explanations are challenged here. While they have been solely preoccupied with explaining why no definition of international terrorism has been found over the last four decades, the more important question to ask is: why are states still struggling to agree on a definition of terrorism if forty years of debates have not lead to conclusive results? In light of this ‘definitional quest’, the search can be better understood through the prism of collective identity struggles. The desire to define terrorism is not only the desire to give a precise meaning to terrorism and, thereby, create the identity of an Other. It is also the desire to create a collective identity, Self representing and uniting those who oppose terrorism.

It’s the identity, stupid!
By applying a discursive understanding of collective identity construction to analyze the UN debates, it becomes clear how strongly the definition of terrorism hinders a common understanding among those who are opposing terrorism.

Conceiving of identities as discursively constructed and contingent products of social or political action imply that the invocation of, say, the international community in the UN debates on terrorism is not simply the inclusion of a new term. It is a political act inscribing the notion of an ‘international community’ into the discussions. Decisive to this critical concept of identity constitution is the idea, however, that identity is constructed through difference. Collective identities are constructed through a constant attempt of differentiation and linking, aiming at the creation of not only a Self but also a series of Others to which the Self is related in some specific way.

Methods used
The analysis is based on 198 UN documents from 1972-1979 and 1999-2011 and taken from the Ad-Hoc Committee on Terrorism and the Sixth Committee. All documents were coded with the help of the software MAXQDA and then subjected to a discourse analysis. MAXQDA allowed the systematizing of the empirical material to document the research process and ensured the linkages between theoretical premises and material.
Main findings: an absolute enemy but no collective self
Looking into the UN debates on defining international terrorism, one realizes that identity construction implies drawing boundaries between what a Self is and what it is not. These constructions are the desire to give precise content to the Other(s) and the Self in order to partially fix both identities. With respect to terrorism, this differentiation is clearly hostile: terrorism is constructed as an absolute enemy (cf. Carl Schmitt’s concept of absolute enemies). Wrapped into a language of demonization (‘evil’, ‘barbarous, ignoble and heinous’), the construction of terrorism in the UN debates as pure evil gradually empties the notion of international terrorism up to a point where it merely remains defined as ‘the threat to the civilized world’.

We also traced whether the states involved in the UN debates attempt to form a collective Self juxtaposed to international terrorism. The project of defining terrorism is so highly embedded in different reservations that the UN debates resemble a battlefield of different meanings of terrorism, with diverging understandings of what the collective Self is about as a result. On this battlefield, the only commonality of states that aim to fight terrorism resides in the construction of terrorism as an absolute enemy – a chimera of a commonality since it is void of any particular content. Worse, it impedes the desired construction of a collective Self.

This elucidates why states still engage in the UN debates to define terrorism. It is because differentiating themselves from terrorism is essential to what states strive to become. But since terrorism has no meaning above and beyond the lowest common denominator of it being the absolute enemy, the attempt to establish a common identity in juxtaposition, a meaningful Self that is capable of acting purposefully in the fight against terrorism, is doomed to fail.

Implications for research and policy: terrorism as a tactic
First, reading the desire for a definition through the prism of identity struggles provides for a plausible answer not only to why no definition of terrorism has been found but also to why states still keep struggling for that definition.

Thereby, secondly, the ongoing UN debates conceal that one might have to live without a definition of terrorism – and that this might well be possible, even though we’re no longer used to that thought.

Third, and in close connection to this, the gridlocked debates foreclose alternatives on how to deal with terrorism. After all, one does not make deals with an absolute enemy. And from a policy point of view, this is probably the key insight to take away from all of this.

Eventually then, terrorism should be brought back to proportions, away from the established status of an exceptional enemy endangering the civilized world, as it is upheld by current UN deliberations. Rather, terrorism should be considered a tactic employed by various actors at different points in time. Thinking of terrorism as a tactic would still permit states to differentiate themselves from terrorism (as a tactic they do not engage in), but it would no longer accord terrorism the paramount standing on the international agenda. Perhaps this understanding could soften current disagreements and allow the debates to start anew, with a more pragmatic handling of terrorism as a goal. This would properly reflect that we cannot escape or eradicate terrorism because it is deeply involved with creating our identities.

For full article and references see: A battlefield of meanings. The struggle for identity in the UN-debates on a definition of international terrorism, in: Terrorism and Political Violence 25 (2): 183-201.

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