Paddy Ashdown: The only way to answer global atrocity is with global law

'We should make it illegal under international law for any nation to harbour terrorists'

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The images of those horrors in New York and Washington last Tuesday will be, for each of us, something we shall never forget. They will also become an icon of this century, in the same way as those of Pearl Harbor were for the last.

The era of the superpower that is invincible and inviolate is over. The era of globalisation has arrived. On Tuesday global terrorism struck at the very heart of global capitalism and global military might. And nothing will ever be the same again.

How we react to this will shape the future – and if we get it wrong, great danger lies ahead.

All this overuse of the word "war" worries me. If it is meant metaphorically, fair enough. But increasingly I hear some people speaking as though, somehow, a legal state of war exists, generating a public expectation of instant, rough retaliation. Mishandled, it is not impossible to see last Tuesday's horrors as the beginning of a chain of events that leads to real conflict between nations. Then we shall know the difference between this and real war. And bear in mind that at least two of the nations that are most closely involved (Pakistan and Israel) have nuclear weapons.

President Bush's task now is to act as a world leader, and not just as the leader of the United States; this was an attack on all of us and the values we hold. And the right response is a united one. That will make life more difficult for a US president. It will also make the action we take more powerful and less dangerous.

The proper sequence to follow now is fourfold; rally, investigate, identify and act.

Every tragedy, however horrific, is also an opportunity. And the opportunity now is to rally and maintain world opinion in order to take decisive action to punish and to make sure this never happens again. It was therefore right for Nato to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US. The early danger was that the US would retreat in its pain into isolationism. But it is also important for the US to realise that, in Nato, the principle of solidarity goes hand in hand with that of consultation.

However, the coalition of revulsion goes far wider than just Nato. It now includes many who are not naturally allies of the US. This is the most precious asset we have in dealing with this crisis, and we must preserve it.

Finding the perpetrators of these horrors will be neither easy nor quick. But here, too, the key is international co-operation, and Britain, with its intelligence assets, has an important contribution to make.

The temptation to jump to quick conclusions must be resisted. If we are to maintain international support for what happens next, then we will need more than pretexts for revenge. We will need evidence that stands up to scrutiny. For we should seek to follow as closely to a process of normal justice as the circumstances of international terror and swift but measured action will allow. Which means that once the culprits are known, it would be best for the world to hear their names, provided that revealing these names does not impede the action that can be taken against them.

How to act is the final question. And the answer is in a focused way, to preserve world support. Best of all would be to bring the culprits to trial before the eyes of the world, as we did after Lockerbie. I do not exclude swift and closely targeted military action, if that is what must be done, though this carries greater dangers for destabilisation in a world already facing great instability, especially in the Middle East.

Throughout all this process, we should bear in mind the aim of those who perpetrated these atrocities. They want to provoke us into an over-reaction to these suicide attacks, just as Israel has been provoked in her cities. Their aim is to widen instability and provoke conflict. If that is what we do, they win.

The days ahead will be difficult, tense and potentially very dangerous. But President Bush has handled this so far with restraint and wisdom. And our own Government has played a leading role in encouraging an international and careful approach, rather than a unilateral and hasty one.

Finally, when this is over, we must prevent it happening again. The truth is that there is no sure defence against determined terrorists. Once they leave their training camps, armed with the will to die and weapons of mass destruction, stopping them becomes a matter of luck more than anything else.

The only answer is to kill this evil at its source – in the havens that too many terrorists enjoy in some nations. We should make it illegal under international law for any nation to harbour or give succour to terrorists. This will cause some difficulties for Western countries (remember the US trained the Contras and Sikh terrorist cells in London). We need to define the difference between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists". But this ought not be too difficult; the UN Charter enshrines the principle of democracy.

A terrorist could be defined as any group that uses terror against democratic governments. Support for "freedom fighters" could be acceptable where the cause favours democracy and opposes dictatorship. But succour for those who use terror against democracy wouldn't.

What is clear is that Tuesday changed the world. Terror, too has moved on to the global stage. The only way to fight it is globally, through global action, global institutions and new international law.

jjda@cix.co.uk

The writer is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats

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