Dayan's Theses on Terrorism Examined

Dayan Jayatilleke is the representative of the President Mahinda Rajapakse (MR) at the UN Office in Geneva. He was earlier noted as a peacenik advocate for Tamil separatism, some even accusing him of openly supporting the LTTE. He had the reputation of being a left-wing intellectual and this was no doubt why Dayan had been selected for this important diplomatic position. MR, surrounded by people like Minister Boggles and P. Kohona, had to find someone who could at least give some kind of learned gloss when confronted with the array of LTTE-leaning intellectuals who abound in the UN. MR must have thought that his previous quasi-support for the Tamil cause would lend him greater credibility just as Kadirgarmar as a Tamil was listened to with greater respect that the typical Hela politician. However it is apparant that despite his well-funded position he has not been successful like Kadirgarmar. But Dayan was a frequent writer and cannot be expected to put down his pen even after his appointment to his diplomatic post. So we have been regaled by a series of articles written by him, some posted on web page of the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the UN in Geneva which he has set up. This is something we must welcome as it indicates that GOSL diplomats are capable of writing, someting unusual for them. Who, for instance, has heard any sense from the High Commissioner to Her Majesty's Government in London?

In the article "Five Theses on Terrorism and Counter Terrorism" (given below) Dayan gives his side of a debate with Oxford Professor Vaughan Lowe who recently gave the Europaeum Lecture in Geneva on "The Double Helix of Terrorism and Tyranny: Can Civil Liberties survive the 'War on Terror'?". Unfortunately we do not have the text of Prof Lowe's paper, so we are not able to put Dayan's comment in proper context. Dayan does not actually deal with the question whether the fight against Terrorism will fatally damage civil liberties but he does mention five aspects of terrorism which he, rather grandiosely, describes as "theses". As the representative of Sri Lanka one would expect Dayan to say whether the War to eliminate the LTTE now waged by MR could be justified as a legitimate response to terrorism despite the ineviable cutailment of civil rights that any counter-terrorist war will impose on the people. Nor does he say which, if any, of his five theses apply to the anti-LTTE war. This is surprising given that Dayan refers to conflicts in many other parts of the world but only barely mentions the conflict in his home country. In view of his diplomatic silence on this question we should try to see how the "theses" identified by Dayan bear on MR's own "War on Terror".

One surprising omission in his "theses" is that Dayan does not consider the case where terrorism also has an ethnic dimension. He thus mentions the Civil War in the 1860s which the US waged against Confederate rebels and the Castro insurgency against the the Batista regime in Cuba as being "legitimate" military exercises. But these did not have an ethnic element as both sides were ethnically the same. But in many of the terrorist and separatist conflicts now raging in the world there is a distinct ethnic dimension. The insurgeants belongs to one ethnic group while the defending government is predominantly, though not exclusively, of another ethnic group. This raises the question whether the experience of the US and Cuba can be applied to these insurgencies.

Dayan makes a distinction between what he calls the "neo-conservative war on terror" best exemplified by the Iraq war and what he calls "liberation struggles" which he says are demonised as terrorism. He gives only one instance of the latter, the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. So Hamas is not a terrorist movement in his eyes even though it has exploded many suicide bombs whose vitims have been civilians, which would be encompassed in his definition of terrorism (considered later). But what we are interested in is how he would classify the GOSL-LTTE military confrontation. Is this a neo-conservative type of war conducted by GOSL, or is it a "liberation struggle" conducted by the LTTE? Or can it be both at the same time. Dayan does not address this question.

Dayan's description of the Iraq war as a "neo-conservative war" is also misleading. The British government which is a social-democratic labour government, not a neo-conservative one, is also equally involved in the Iraq war as is the US. All the labels that he attaches to counter terrorist wars are in reality meaningless ones. Thus he makes a distinction, between "liberal democratic discourse" and a "resurgent Realist discourse" although these terms are not defined (unlike ACSLU which defines the terms its uses in its GLOSSARY). Fortunately he forgets this distinction as soon as he has made it. Dayan is advised to post a glossary of his terminology in the website of the Geneva office if peple are going to take what he writes seriously.

All this jargon is a prelude to his main topic the five "theses" on terrorism that he advances. We amy examine these five theses (after quoting his statement of the theses0 as follows:

  1. "Terrorism is defined by method, not objective, however laudable the goal, if the method included the witting targeting of unarmed civilians, then that movement or state is engaging in terrorism. If the recourse to this tactic is widespread, then the movement concerned is describable as terrorist." (Dayan). This is the usual definition of terrorism as deliberate attacks on civilians not involved in the conflict. Dayan makes two qualifications: the attacks should be deliberate, and they should be widespread. But intention is not always easy to identify, and 'widespread' requires a measure of frequency. Both qualifications are not defined, so the definition reamins somewhat unsatisfactory. According to this definition it is not only insurgeant groups like the LTTE that are terrorists but also the opposing Governments. Curiously this is the very argument used by LTTE intellectuals who describe the GOSL action as "State Terrorism". The difficulty is that all wars involves civilian causalties. It would not be too difficult to establish that the LTTE are indeed terrorist, but Dayan should at least refute the change that GOSL engages in state terrorism. He fails to do this.

  2. "Terrorism is not defined by feasibility of objective. The Basque ETA has no realistic chance of success, but that is not what damns it as terrorist. The secessionist movement in Chechnya had a greater prospect of success, which did not however, make it less of a terrorist movement."(Dayan). How does Dayan determine that the Basques have no realistic chance of success.. But the relevant question is whether the LTTE stands a realistic change of success. Even though is now fighting with its back to the wall it has yet to be defeated. And even if the LTTE is defeated it is still possible that their objective (separation) may yet succeed. The tradegy of Sri Lanka may well be that after defeating terrorism the objective of the terrorists may well be conceded through devolution.

  3. "Representative character or feasibility of success do not warrant a less warlike or repressive response from the state. The secessionist project in America in the 1860's displayed a distinctive territory and conventional army. In response, Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest, if not the greatest democratic leader, defended the union with a war that approached its "absolute form"."(Dayan). The comparison with the American Civil War has little relevance to modern day insurrections which are based on ethnicity. War is war and there is nothing called absolute form and relative form. The technology of war has advanced greatly since the time of the American Civil War. Dayan completely ignores this aspect. Just because Lincoln was able to defeat the Conferedrate army within a few year yearss SL has not been able to defeat the LTTE which had a much less organized military for over two decades. This is there have been other factors at work which was not present in the US Civil War.

  4. "It is questionable that counter-terrorist military measures inevitably result in an irreversible change in the nature of the state and public life in the direction of greater authoritarianism. India, the world's most populous democracy, had to wage a harsh struggle involving army and police, against a bitter campaign by separatist terrorism, without any long term adverse effects after that terrorist insurgency was defeated."(Dayan). The reference to the separatist insurgency in India is to the Khalistan insurgency. Given the size of India This insurgency was relatively minor and the rebels completely gave up after their defeat. But this is not the case with the Tamils. When the LTTE is defeated the Tamil separatist problem will still remain in slmost the same dimension that it was before the LTTE emerged in the late 1970s. Besides the devolution proposals of both the UNP and the SLFP will make a fundamental change in the structure of the SL state. Thus it is wrong to assume that in the case of SL there will be no change in the nature of the state after the counter insurgency operation is over.

  5. "As for the distinction between two ways of treating with terrorism: one, as a problem of criminal law, the other as a problem of the law of war, that policy choice is not a "free" one. It depends on the scale and scope of the terrorist threat. If it is a small terrorist group, a matter of terrorist cells, then it is a challenge that can be dealt with by the police, under criminal law. However, if it is a challenge against the military, waged by relatively large units, then it has to be dealt with by the armed forces. The Taliban, al Qaeda, the Chechens, Sendero Luminoso and the Tamil Tigers fall into this category. In such situations, the more profitable theoretical framework would be the Just War tradition and its recent refinement by Michael Walzer."(Dayan). Here Dayan equates the LTTE to Al Quada. This comparison is not correct. Al Queda has become an international Muslim insurgency while the Tigers are exclusively Tamils. The argument seems to be that the criminal law should not be applied to the LTTE. In a way this is what SL governments, both UNP and SLFP have done. No prominent terrorist have been tried under the criminal law. But it is wrong. The law of war should apply to international conflicts. Since the LTTE insurgency is not an international movement it should be treated as a criminal movement. Here Dayan has reverted to his previous glorification of the LTTE.

The above examination of the five theses show that this are for the most part trivial statements, and do not give much insight into assessing the nature of the terrorist crisis in SL. The recent attempt by the Marhinda Rajapakse administration to embrace the TMVP terrorists as democrats shows that it has no understood the nature of terrorism at all. Dayan's theses will not help to explain their embrace of the Pillaiyan gang. Just because people vote in an election does not mean that there is democracy. All dictators have been good at staging elections. So staging an election in the East does not make it a democratic election. In effect there is only one force in the East, and this is not even GOSL. This is the Pillaiyan's TMVP. The conundrum faced the Mahinda regime is that it treats the LTTE as terrorists (at least since the recent proscription of the LTTE) but treats the TMVP who share most of the characteristics of the LTTE as full-fledged democarats.

It is clear that Dayan Jayatilleke has to rewrite his theses so as to make them applicable to the Sri Lankan terrorist situation.

VG


Five Theses on Terrorism and Counter Terrorism:
An Exchange in Geneva

by Dayan Jayatilleke

The Island : 2008-03-18

How best to combat terrorism? What is permitted and what is not, in counter-terrorism? With the negative experiences of Western military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the former, the hitherto dominant doctrine of counter-terrorism, that of neo-conservatism, has been badly damaged and discredited both intellectually and as a policy discourse.

The struggle against terrorism has an intellectual dimension. How does one distinguish between legitimate struggles for liberation, and terrorism? Terrorism strives to hide behind the mask of legitimate liberation struggles. Conversely, liberation struggles are sometimes demonised by being dubbed terrorist. Some liberation struggles and movements (such as those resisting Zionist occupation) also erode their legitimacy by resort to terrorism. Hence the need for conceptual clarity on these different, yet sometimes intersecting, forms of the political violence of non-state actors.

How best to combat terrorism? What is permitted and what is not, in counter-terrorism? With the negative experiences of Western military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the former, the hitherto dominant doctrine of counter-terrorism, that of neo-conservatism, has been badly damaged and discredited both intellectually and as a policy discourse. This is deservedly so. It has been replaced by two theoretical frameworks: a resurgent liberal democratic discourse and a resurgent Realist discourse.

On Tuesday, March 11th at the Auditorium Jacques-Freymond, rud de Lausanne, Geneva, an outstanding British scholar delivered a prestigious lecture which set out with great lucidity, the liberal democratic outlook and policy framework. Prof. Vaughan Lowe, Chichele Professor of Public International Law and Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford delivered the Europaeum Lecture entitled The Double Helix of Terrorism and Tyranny: Can Civil Liberties survive the "War on Terror?"

According to this framework, there are two attitudes a society may have: to focus on what someone does or to focus on what someone is. If what one does is the key criterion, then one is innocent until proven guilty. Criminal law is then the guiding framework. If one the other hand, one is guided by the notion of "the enemy", then it is the law of war that becomes the operative framework. This latter approach is damaging to the social fabric and social life of democracies. The repressive measures that are taken during the conflict, award a victory to the terrorists because it is exactly the kind of polarising reaction they are hoping to trigger off. Terrorism and tyranny interact and create a downward spiral. The repressive measures are rarely rolled back and continue to weigh upon society down the decades.

This distinguished scholar also drew a distinction between separatist movements – and the necessary treatment of movements – that have little chance of success, such as the Basque ETA, and those that control territory and "maintain a perimeter". The dangerous implications of such an approach for Sri Lanka, especially after Kosovo, are obvious. This was one of the reasons (apart from my own intellectual specialisation) that led me to articulate a critique and suggest a counterview.

The following points were made by me as a verbal response to Prof. Lowe, to whose lecture I was an invitee. The lecture was organised by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies of the Graduate Institute, Geneva.

  1. Terrorism is defined by method, not objective, however laudable the goal, if the method included the witting targeting of unarmed civilians, then that movement or state is engaging in terrorism. If the recourse to this tactic is widespread, then the movement concerned is describable as terrorist. Thus, Sendero Luminoso in Peru was terrorist while Fidel and Che's guerrilla army in Cuba was not.
  2. Terrorism is not defined by feasibility of objective. The Basque ETA has no realistic chance of success, but that is not what damns it as terrorist. The secessionist movement in Chechnya had a greater prospect of success, which did not however, make it less of a terrorist movement.
  3. Representative character or feasibility of success do not warrant a less warlike or repressive response from the state. The secessionist project in America in the 1860's displayed a distinctive territory and conventional army. In response, Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest, if not the greatest democratic leader, defended the union with a war that approached its "absolute form".
  4. It is questionable that counter-terrorist military measures inevitably result in an irreversible change in the nature of the state and public life in the direction of greater authoritarianism. India, the world's most populous democracy, had to wage a harsh struggle involving army and police, against a bitter campaign by separatist terrorism, without any long term adverse effects after that terrorist insurgency was defeated.
  5. As for the distinction between two ways of treating with terrorism: one, as a problem of criminal law, the other as a problem of the law of war, that policy choice is not a "free" one. It depends on the scale and scope of the terrorist threat. If it is a small terrorist group, a matter of terrorist cells, then it is a challenge that can be dealt with by the police, under criminal law. However, if it is a challenge against the military, waged by relatively large units, then it has to be dealt with by the armed forces. The Taliban, al Qaeda, the Chechens, Sendero Luminoso and the Tamil Tigers fall into this category. In such situations, the more profitable theoretical framework would be the Just War tradition and its recent refinement by Michael Walzer.

At the conclusion of the exchange, Professor Lowe and I agreed on one of each others' central points. He said that the approach suggested by me was the more appropriate one for situations of "internal war" such as that threat which is posed by the Taliban and the Tamil Tigers. I agreed with him that the criminal law approach, in which the Police should be the main instrument, was more appropriate for the Western liberal democracies and the relatively low level of the terrorist threat faced by them.