January 23, 2003
The war of words which broke out last year over statements by the People’s Progressive Party-Civic (PPPC) Administration, describing the conduct of the main opposition People’s National Congress-Reform (PNCR) as ‘terroristic’, has done little to clarify the meaning of the term.
Head of the Presidential Secretariat and Cabinet Secretary Dr. Roger Luncheon triggered the debate in April 2002, declaring that the Administration would seek to persuade the international community and local civil society to reject the alleged behaviour of the PNCR and sections of the communications media and “...call for this behaviour to be recognised as terroristic”. The HPS promised to prove to the domestic, regional and international communities that “...this behaviour, if it is not terroristic, it is perilously close, and it should be treated as such.”
As Dr. Luncheon promised, a group of citizens, apparently with the support of the Administration, quickly conducted a signature campaign and sent the signed petition to the governments of Canada, the UK and the USA. The petitioners claimed that the Opposition PNCR was giving support to “agents of terror operating in our country” and urged the international community, especially the American, British and Canadian governments, to “immediately impose sanctions” against leading PNCR members “whose actions are aimed at lending support to violence against law-abiding citizens.”
Amnesty International (AI), however, promptly issued a statement criticizing the Administration’s use of the term `terrorist’ as “hasty and ill-advised” and urged the Administration not to resort to “inflammatory language that may undermine the right of freedom of expression and lead to further human rights violations.” AI asserted that “many states describe as `terrorist’ political motivations that they oppose” and contended that the “recent branding of the opposition party and media as `terroristic’ risks debasing legitimate public debate and encouraging violence against certain individuals”. AI appealed for all in society to unite to condemn abuses by the security forces and work towards a society where the fundamental rights of all citizens are respected, reiterating its call for an immediate review of the activities of the Police anti-crime Target Special Squad (the `Black Clothes’).
Thereafter, both the signature campaign and the use of the term ‘terroristic’ seem to have petered out and the reaction of the American, British and Canadian Governments to the citizens’ petition remains unrecorded. But the debate did raise the question of defining what is terrorism in Guyana, a task that was not quite as easy as it seemed.
Over the seven decades or so since the League of Nations started to grapple with this matter, international institutions and organisations have failed to agree on a comprehensive definition of terrorism. The United Nations also, instead of attempting to promulgate a definition, opted to delineate some broad characteristics of the phenomenon. According to the official Report of the Working Group on Terrorism and the United Nations: “Terrorism is, in most cases, essentially a political act. It is meant to inflict dramatic and deadly injury on civilians and to create an atmosphere of fear, generally for a political or ideological (whether secular or religious) purpose.”
But, conscious of the fact that the State itself is capable of inflicting ‘dramatic and deadly injury’ on its own citizens, the “Report” went on to suggest that:
“ While terrorist acts are usually perpetrated by subnational or transnational groups, terror has also been adopted by rulers at various times as an instrument of control. The rubric of counter-terrorism can be used to justify acts in support of political agendas, such as the consolidation of political power, elimination of political opponents, inhibition of legitimate dissent and/or suppression of resistance to military occupation. Labelling opponents or adversaries as terrorists offers a time-tested technique to de-legitimize and demonize them. The United Nations should beware of offering, or be perceived to be offering, a blanket or automatic endorsement of all measures taken in the name of counter-terrorism.”
The Administration’s conviction that ‘terroristic’ elements were at work in the country probably propelled it to introduce a package of amendments to certain existing laws last August. From the point of view of defining terrorism, the most significant was the Criminal Law (Offences) (Amendment) Act, 2002, which introduced the new offence of commission of a terrorist act and defined as a ‘terrorist’:
“Whoever with intent to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of Guyana or to strike terror in the people or any section of the people does any act or thing by using bombs, dynamite or other explosive substances or inflammable substances or firearms or other lethal weapons or poisons or noxious gases or other chemicals or by any other substances (whether biological or otherwise) of a hazardous nature or by any other means whatsoever, in such a manner as to cause, or likely to cause, death of, or injuries to any person or persons or loss of, or damage to, or destruction of property or disruption of any supplies or services essential to the life of the community or causes damage or destruction of any property or equipment used or intended to be used for the defence of Guyana or in connection with any other purposes of the government of Guyana or any of its agencies, or detains any person and threatens to kill or injure such person in order to compel the Government or any other person to do or abstain from doing any act, (commits a terrorist act).”
These amendments, which now incorporate an unsatisfactory sort of definition of terrorism, have been enacted over the objections of the Guyana Bar Association and others. But they raised more questions than they answered. In a statement published on 13 January (and cited in the Catholic Standard of 17 January), AI specifically criticized the definition in the amended Act as being “broad, complex and vague”. Its loose wording, for example the phrase: “...intent to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of Guyana...”, leaves the new law open to a wide range of different and subjective interpretations.
In light of the approaches to the definition of ‘terrorism’ adopted by the UN and AI, the Administration must be aware that anti-terrorism law could be a two-edged sword which could cut citizens as sharply as agents of the State, such as policemen and paramilitaries. This could open a Pandora’s box of recrimination and litigation.
Can another war of words be expected if the Administration attempts to enforce the law and apply its own idea of what is terrorism?