Targeting the internet

Kofi annan presents "global counterterrorism strategy" but does not explain what terrorism is and how he intends to reconcile the required surveillance and censorship measures with human rights and protect them against abuse

Kofi annan, the secretary-general of the united nations, has called for a united fight against terrorism and presented his concept of a global counter-terrorism strategy, a task he took on at the 2005 un summit. It is striking that annan’s concept only talks about terrorism, which cannot be justified by anything, but the term is never defined in detail. This, however, is of course a decisive obstacle to being able to understand. His general insistence that the fight against terrorism must adhere to international law and, above all, respect human rights, while correct, is probably an appeal that will not carry far.

The internet in sight

Kofi annan presents his recommendations on a global counterterrorism strategy. Picture: un

Annan, of course, points out that there is still no comprehensive agreement on international terrorism. It must come into being as quickly as possible. But the prospects for this are bleak for the time being, because there will still be no agreement on a general definition. Moreover, such an agreement, which does not include state terrorism, would defend the existing state order, whether it be democracies, unjust states or dictatorships, but would not really be able to respect the reference to terrorism.

Annan otherwise tries to combine the direct fight against terrorism with the need to change the causes of terrorism. Thus, the "culture of violence and intolerance" and all extremist, xenophobic and "hypernationalist" ideologies, according to which other people are worth less and may be killed, had to be stopped. Annan refers to security council resolution 1624 (2005), which states that all states should criminalize calls to violence. Violent conflicts were to be prevented or mediated, human rights violations had to be prevented and punished, the rule of law had to be enforced. Religious and ethnic discrimination, political exclusion and socio-economic marginalization" were also causes of terrorism or could be exploited by terrorists.

In addition to the call for respect for international law and human rights, the focus is on denying terrorists the means to carry out attacks. Annan, in addition to efforts to make access to conventional weapons more difficult and, above all, to prevent access to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction through international agreements, advocates monitoring financial flows, tighter border and travel controls, and stronger control of the internet.

Terrorists require means to carry out their attacks. The ability to generate and move finances, to acquire weapons, to recruit and train cadres, and to communicate, particularly through use of the internet, are all essential to terrorists. They seek easy access to their intended targets and increasingly look for greater impact – both in numbers killed and in media exposure. Denying them access to these means and targets can help to prevent future attacks.

Whether annan’s recent call for increased surveillance in all areas is compatible with the simultaneous call for respect and protection of human rights is questionable. This becomes clear in the case of the internet, which annan singles out as a tool used by terrorists to find support and recruits and to disseminate information and propaganda. In 1998, he explains, there were fewer than 20 terrorist websites; by 2005, there were thousands. Again, there is no closer characterization of which websites were terrorist sites. It is claimed that "some gross attacks were supported by content from the internet".

The internet, annan said, is becoming a "virtual safe haven" for terrorists acting transnationally and exploiting national differences. States had to act transnationally as well, basically unifying their approach to the internet, in order to stop punching holes, criminalize terrorism, and ban calls for and glorification of terrorism. Annan considers resolution 1624 of september 2005, which calls on all states to:

…To take necessary and appropriate measures, consistent with their obligations under international law, to (a) prohibit by law incitement to commit an act or acts of terrorism; (b) prevent such conduct; (c) deny safe haven to all persons in respect of whom there is credible and relevant information giving serious reason to believe that they are guilty of such conduct.

Without total surveillance of the internet and identification of each user, it should not be possible to prevent "the use of information and communication technologies to promote or carry out terrorist activities". Even if a definition of terrorism could be found that is actually justifiable and not subject to arbitrary interpretation by states, the question would have to be asked whether the consequences of total global surveillance – especially in a world that will continue to be politically not the best of all possible worlds – are worth the price.

Article 19 of the universal human rights

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Annan states formulaically that this should only be implemented with respect for human rights and international agreements, but he does not say what measures he would propose, and above all he does not discuss the consequences, for example those that follow from the necessary curtailment of freedom of expression or of the press. Without being more specific, it works into the hands of governments that call even legitimate opposition terrorists and fight them, as well as use censorship against unpopular opinions.