Idea of South Asian anti-terror taskforce is deeply troubling

February 9, 2009

Editorial, NewAge, February 9, 2009

Against the backdrop of a South Asia increasingly plagued by disparate and diverse militant ideologies seeking to achieve political aims through the use of violence against civilians, we welcome any move that seeks to bring lasting peace to the communities ravaged by these low intensity civil wars. That said, as the talk of a South Asian Anti-Terrorism Taskforce gains currency — recently proposed by prime minister Sheikh Hasina and backed by the US according to a report in Sunday’s New Age — we believe it is important to discuss some of its inherent inconsistencies and pitfalls as an idea that has immense political significance, though its terms of reference and legal outline still remain undefined.

Extremism — be it political or otherwise — no doubt needs to be contained if we as nation states are to build healthy societies founded on democratic and egalitarian values and grounded in the rule of law. Unfortunately, it is not radical groups alone who are using violence as a political weapon as most South Asian governments have themselves too often used the coercive powers of the state as a ‘counter-terrorism strategy’. In attempting to counter the human rights abuses and arbitrary violence of radical militias, most South Asian nations — big and small — have shown a deplorable lack of regard for human rights and, more dangerously, a strategy that seeks to end the conflict politically rather than through the use of brute military force. Given these realities it is important for the South Asian states to recognise that a regional anti-terrorism taskforce could not justifiably combat the terrorism of the weak (typically obscurantist radical groups), while ignoring the terrorism of the strong (national armies and state security forces).

The idea of the taskforce is deeply troubling on a number of points. First and foremost is the reality that the word ‘terrorism’ itself has no universal meaning, applied in a blanket fashion to describe causes seeking economic or political justice, and violent religious dogma alike. In history, it has always been the prerogative of the powerful to denounce weaker opponents as terrorists, drawing attention to their tactics rather than their political demands. For Bangladesh to be part of a South Asian Anti-Terrorism Taskforce alongside regional hegemon India, and with the blessings of global military hegemon US, will likely be tantamount to accepting the context in which these two superpowers define terrorism.

This is clearly problematic given the controversy and the criticism that the unjust US ‘War on Terror’ is mired in — in the wake of the devastation visited upon Iraq and Afghanistan — and given that this ‘anti-terror’ agenda is predominantly driven by the US’ economic and geo-strategic interests.

Moreover, Bangladesh cannot and should not share the responsibility, say, for the repression and the violation of human rights that Delhi perpetrates in dealing with separatist movements in Kashmir or Assam, just as Delhi cannot be expected to share the burden of the human rights excesses Dhaka perpetrates in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It is also important to keep in mind that these are each sovereign states, and military cooperation in combating terrorism in each other’s territories may be equated with an intolerable interference in the internal affairs of the state in question. Thirdly, it would be politically naïve to believe that Bangladesh will be able to assert a contradictory political will in a forum where India represents its own interests, and evidently US political and economic interests in the region. In participating in joint operations that seek to suppress ‘terrorism’ in Assam or Kashmir, Bangladesh would find itself in a double bind: unable to protest, and misunderstood by the aggrieved as a partner in Indo-US strategic alliance.

Most of all, however, there is enough evidence to suggest that each of the states that comprise South Asia — including Bangladesh — have committed horrifying human rights abuses and cruelties in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’ or ‘counter-insurgency’ often serving to radicalise and harden communities that sought economic and political equality with mainstream society. We cannot allow these abuses to be carried out under a more comprehensive umbrella of regional cooperation. Rather, it is perhaps more fitting that the South Asian nations come together in forming a South Asian Human Rights Task Force that will investigate and expose both terrorism of the state and that of radical groups. This may be a more meaningful first step in combating terrorism across the region, offering opportunities for political solutions rather than military ones.