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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:55 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of Lord Rea Lord Rea Labour 5:55 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, has chosen a crucially important subject. Since September 11th many voices have spoken about eliminating the root causes of terrorism. Those have included the Prime Minister. His words at the party conference are familiar:

"Out of the shadow of this evil should emerge lasting good—above all justice and prosperity for the poor and dispossessed".

Former President Bill Clinton voiced similar wise words, as the noble Lord said, at the Dimbleby Lecture. However, the present incumbent in that post has been much more insistent on being—to borrow a phrase—tough on terrorism rather than tough on the causes of terrorism. Tackling those causes is a much longer-term project. Some might say it is an endless task, not worth attempting; that terrorism as an evil must first be stamped out. I suggest that that would be the endless task, rather like the war on drugs—and that will be the case even if the body now being examined by the United States turns out to be that of Osama bin Laden.

Optimists suggest that September 11th should act as a stimulus to redouble the efforts we are making through DfID and international organisations to eliminate poverty, promote democracy and good governance. But as far as I am aware no systematic analysis of the links between underdevelopment and terrorism has been carried out. The noble Lord, by initiating this debate, has started the ball rolling.

As he pointed out, third world poverty underlies some "terrorist" activity, but the relationship is neither direct nor, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, pointed out, universal. Terrorism means different things to different people. The definitions of terrorism in both the Oxford and Chambers dictionaries are interesting. Chambers says that terrorism is:

"An organised system of violence and intimidation, especially for political ends".

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as a "system of terror" or "government by intimidation". The words used by both tend to suggest more that terrorism is a system used by states against the people than vice versa; and that the activities of many repressive states constitute terrorism.

The purpose of torture, for example, is more often than not to intimidate and terrify people than to extract information. The extra-judicial killing of political activists, as well as eliminating the activist, is an instrument of intimidation directed at the population. When there is widespread feeling that a government are not responding to legitimate concerns and are violating human rights, activists and the population that supports those activists are driven to direct action. At first that may be non-violent—demonstrations, for instance, or the occupation of buildings—but if it is then resisted by state security forces using force or brutality, popular movements are driven to take up arms against the state. In that way coercive states can generate "terrorism" which is then directed against themselves in response to their own negation of human rights and intimidation of the population. The indirect link between terrorism and popular political action to reduce poverty by the people of the state in that kind of situation I hope I have made reasonably clear.

Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a lecture that I attended last November that extreme poverty was,

"the worst problem in human rights in our world today . . . [It] means a denial of the exercise of all human rights and undermines the dignity and worth of the individual. And yet, even in situations of extreme poverty the human spirit triumphs in fighting back".

The example she then gave was of a benign NGO-led project in a Delhi slum. But for many others poverty and a desperate and frustrating life, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, lead people to seek desperate remedies. Among these may be to join a religious movement which welcomes them into a faith and brotherhood and offers the promise of a better life and, at the same time, a target for their anger. Fundamentalist Islam fits this bill very well.

In an article in the Telegraph on 24th November, a South African, RW Johnson, described,

"the third world's love affair with Islamic fanatics".

He further stated that,

"the fall of communism deprived the so called non aligned bloc of the leadership it had [formerly] implicitly accepted".

More crudely, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, recently described militant Islam as "the new Bolshevism", with the implication that it was to be confronted and fought rather than be made redundant through increasing prosperity.

Again I echo the right reverend Prelate. Although poverty may underlie terrorism, the immediate trigger is almost always widely perceived as unbearable injustice. An example is the central—but not the only—reason for the anti-American stance of Al'Qaeda and similar radical Islamic movements. That is, the United States support for Israel while it is illegally occupying parts of Palestine. A solution to this problem would truly be a "giant leap for mankind" against terrorism. Let us hope that George W Bush, in cautiously welcoming the current Saudi initiative, has perhaps seen the light.