Terrorism has framed a great part of the international context from the beginning of the century until today, it has been the invisible enemy the world engage in war repeatedly. However, terrorism is neither definable within geographical boundaries nor is it within traditional moulds of rationality. The number of deaths from terrorism has multiplied by 9, reaching a high of 32,685 in 2014 according to The Global Terrorism Index 2015 (GTI). Experience from the evolution of this century implies that victory should not be the final objective; peace is ultimately the final goal. Therefore the challenge is not to win a war, but to win the peace. The examples of Afghanistan or Iraq reveal the concept of victory as something relatively easy for a great military power, but a tremendous blow to peace building.
Terrorist activity historically takes place within nations that are experiencing a broad internal armed conflict. The social problem that supposes the collapse of a nation is not easy to resolve, but undoubtedly it is a situation that must be tackled. The GTI 2015 concludes that 57% of all attacks and 78% of all deaths occurred in only five countries; Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. Interestingly enough, those countries have a deficit of state structures and political institutions, usually as a direct consequence of foreign intervention or interference. Every conflict is different and offers a unique combination of elements. However, an independent framework of international law emerges as the basic tool for peace building, and the best approach to devise an international peaceful arena. Nevertheless, too often national interests prevail over international law. Since the end of the World War II, a number of international documents and agreements have been signed in pursuit of a framework to deal with possible conflicts and violations of rights, whether collective or individual. But conflicts break out and the current international laws are not a tangible reference framework for political action. Plainly, the enunciation of principles means nothing without the application of those principles – even the most perfect documents will only have political meaning if they turn into political action.
International law and international criminal justice have been the subject of allegations of bias and political selectivity. These criticisms show a number of cases in which national interests of some governments prevail over international law. Oftentimes these same governments portray themselves as leaders in the human rights struggle. International law seems to operate in many cases on a selective basis, bringing to life the statement: “the law is not the same for everyone”. Since the reach of international law is constantly changing, so too is the line between what is, and what is not covered by that set of rules. The international law has not caught up with globalization, and thus we find sites such as Guantanamo Bay, or the former Abu Ghraib Prison in which human rights and international law do not apply. Following this, the rules binding the relations between nations must be independent and serve as an equal framework for the virtue of peace.
On the other hand, the approach of international leaders towards terrorism is strikingly contradictory. Terrorist groups often seem to be used or manipulated by global or regional powers. Many are the suspicious cases; the Mujahideen in Afghanistan is paradigmatic. They were supported by the US to fight the Soviet Union, once the most wanted man on earth Bin Laden was among the veterans from this conflict, and nowadays the Taliban play a political role and maintain negotiations with US and Afghan officials. Another case occurred during the Iran-Iraq War, when Saddam Hussein enjoyed the support of the US. In Syria, Al Assad might have been buying ISIL’s oil and avoiding a total confrontation until mid-2014 for personal interest, portraying the conflict as a war against terrorists and gaining international traction. Similarly conspicuous examples are on the many terrorist organisations lists. There are national or autonomous lists, the most known are the US State Department list, the recognised list by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, the European Union list, and others. This game of definitions, lists and characterization is awarded by the great powers of the world. Those who are the powerful have the privilege to label, and therefore that recognition or revocation are political and operate for specific interests. This hypocrisy represents more an instrument for carrying policies and actions than a standardized system to punish terrorist groups or their sponsors.
On the other side of the imbalances within the international framework is the United Nations Security Council (SC). It normally serves as body to legitimize actions at an international level, but this is a political organization that includes five permanent members who hold the right to veto. It must be understood that under these circumstances, it is difficult to legitimize international law and its bodies as a perfect system, in which even the most powerful are equal before the law. This anachronistic and self-serving system represents, as Kofi Annan tweeted “a reflection of the political realities of 1945”. The veto power often implies that many issues deemed as fundamental are left out of the discussion or simply vetoed. Since the end of the Cold War the power has been used 24 times. Not surprisingly, the most frequent user of this power is the US: it has used the veto 14 times, and 13 of them were in isolation blocking resolutions related with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, arguably the most sensible conflict in the most volatile region. The other side of this status quo is the proliferation of narratives that justify violence and terrorism by claiming unfairness or lack of justice at the international level. In addition to this undemocratic system, the five permanent members of the SC export by far more weapons each year than the rest of the world combined. When, in the international arena national interests prevail over justice and fairness, the obstacles to win ultimate peace appear to be of enormous proportions.
In relation with the psychological elements of terrorism, the world faces fundamental challenges to achieve a realistic space for dialogue and cooperation. Terrorism, and particularly ISIL, is more than just a military problem. The increasing support of the narrative of crusade by western elements implies an inherent risk. This risk is precisely what fuels the ultimate objective of the terrorists: the clash of civilizations. Some western media, and some politicians are nourishing this narrative of the terrorists, neglecting that it is not possible to neutralize terrorist narratives by repeating them. It is a collective social failure when we cannot come up with a narrative that can defeat that of the terrorists. The narrative of victimhood, denial, and conspiracy theories can be easily dismantled, but not many seem to favour taking steps towards this counter-narrative. On the other hand, external pressure will never work in order to impose institutions, values, and principles similar to those of the West. Democratization must come by consensus and diplomacy rather than unilateral decisions and weaponry. And in some cases such as that of Egypt, where the electoral wins of the Muslim Brotherhood threw many into an alliance with the military and undemocratic values, these attempts widen the social crisis. It should be said that the appearance of democracy is weak, but there resides precisely its strength; thus, fear should not be the driving force of any society.
In order to truly lead in the struggle for international law and human rights, powerful governments should lead by example and consider diplomacy, collaboration, and cooperation as the most effective tools to defeat the threats that now menace security worldwide. A reform of international institutions, such as the Security Council and the creation of an independent and fair international legal framework, seems to be the prerequisite to achieve this long-awaited world peace. This path requires, somewhat paradoxically, the same values warmongers advocate as their principles: courage, loyalty, discipline, and endurance. In addition the promotion and empowerment of independent political institutions in those countries must be a target within the fight against terrorism and fundamentalism. The need for pedagogy is vital along the reconstruction of those state structures and societies that are weak or seriously damaged. As accurately quoted by Gorbachev “Political leaders still think things can be done through force, but that cannot solve terrorism. Backwardness is the breeding ground of terror, and that is what we have to fight.”