FREELY Don't judge somebody by the
(terror) label By Emma
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After the formation
of Nepal's new cabinet this month, Prime Minister
Girija Prasad Koirala announced an indefinite
ceasefire with rebel Maoists. Significantly, in
conjunction with the declaration of a ceasefire,
he dropped the "terrorist" label that has been
applied periodically to the Communist Party of
Nepal (CPN) since November 2001.
reason for removing the formal label was to pave
the way for peace negotiations between the
seven-party alliance and the
Maoists. Removing the
terrorist label bestows, or in this case restores,
the legitimacy of the Maoists to the extent
required for them to be acceptable dialogue
partners to the alliance.
In this respect,
removing the terrorist label is an attempt to
improve conditions for conflict resolution, not
obstruct them. However, the noteworthy aspect of
this action is not that the label of terrorism is
applied or removed from an organization, but the
custom of using such a loaded term for any context
or political purpose.
Today, there is much
debate surrounding terrorism, and a significant
part of that debate stalls over the issue of
defining terrorism. This gives rise to sterile
debate, which impedes further research and shuts
off practical discussions necessary for devising
effective counter-terrorism measures.
demonstrated by the common inability to reach a
definition of terrorism, there is at present a
lack of consensus on what the concept entails.
Despite this, much of the ambiguity associated
with the concept of terrorism does not lie in the
inability to define it, but rather in the way in
which it is applied in practice.
of the terror label to delegitimize one or several
parties to a conflict is not new, nor is it
uncommon. The practice can be observed in
conflicts worldwide, such as in Russian attitudes
toward armed groups in Chechnya and China's
relation to Uighur organizations in Xinjiang.
Also, the terrorism label is applied to the other
party by both sides in the Israel-Palestine
As such, the overuse of this
term to gain the moral high ground in a dispute
contributes to the confusion and disagreement over
what is understood as terrorism. This confusion is
due the selective and highly normative use of the
terrorism label that undermines attempts at
distinctions and nuances in defining the threat,
incorporating a wide variety of actors, aims, and
methods, and directly diminishes the possibility
for non-violent conflict resolution.
the Maoists first launched their "People's War" in
1996, many of the governments in Nepal have
referred to them as terrorists. Yet it was not
until November 2001 that the CPN (Maoist) was
officially labeled "terrorist". The application of
the term followed a setback at conflict
resolution, since negotiations under prime
minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had stalled.
It also occurred in the aftermath of the
attacks of September 11, 2001, when the United
States incorporated the CPN (Maoist) on the Terror
Exclusion List (TEL). Directly following the
designation, as well as using it as a pretext, the
Nepal government, with the backing of King
Gyanendra, deployed the army against the Maoist
insurgency. As a result, the conflict escalated
and casualties increased.
label remained in effect for two years, during
which time King Gyanendra dismissed parliament.
Yet in January 2003, a mutual ceasefire was
announced and negotiations resumed. Before
negotiations commenced, the "terrorist"
designation was removed. When a peace accord
failed to materialize from the second round of
negotiations and the ceasefire was broken, the
terrorist label was reintroduced.
of using the terrorist label illustrates that it
is subject to shifting political attitudes and
objectives rather than being a concrete reflection
of the actual characteristics of specific
organizations. Obviously, in the case of the CPN
(Maoist), the character of the organization that
had motivated the labeling in the first place had
The political use of the
terrorist label is nowhere more clearly
demonstrated than in the "war on terror". Many of
the organizations and states that have been
accused or labeled as terrorist have without doubt
committed acts that correspond to existing
definitions of terrorism. Yet the consequence of a
politically governed use of the label of terrorism
is that the focus is placed on the application of
the label rather than its definition.
fact that the application of the term matters more
than the meaning of the term and that this
application is politically governed has a direct
impact on conflict resolution. As pointed out by
Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke in their two-piece
article in Asia Times Online, How to lose the 'war on
terror', application of the terrorist
label precludes any form of negotiation or
If some kind of dialogue occurs,
this is almost by definition unofficial, and the
terrorist label can always be employed as a reason
for disavowing the results of any communication.
Thus by applying the label of terrorism, a
considerable obstacle is imposed on the
possibility for non-violent conflict resolution.
Another example that illustrates the
sometimes problematic relationship between the
meaning of labels and their application is the
current dilemma experienced by Western governments
in their treatment of the democratically elected
"terrorist organization" Hamas.
out the negative impact that the use of the
terrorist label has on conflict resolution does
not equal advocating a decrease in its usage, but
rather arguing that the political context and
reasons for applying a label should be critically
An arbitrary, albeit political,
use of the terrorist label will not only lead to
an erosion and confusion about the meaning of the
concept but will diminish the chances of conflict
resolution through peaceful means. Removing the
terrorist label, as has now been done in Nepal,
does not in itself lead to conflict resolution.
But it increases the options available for a
Bjornehed is a project coordinator with the
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road
Studies Program, a joint research and policy
center affiliated with SAIS-Johns Hopkins
University and Uppsala University. She is
currently undertaking research on "Nepal and