The SCO, to build any probable list against terrorism will have to build a consensus on how to define it.
The 2022 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit hosted by Uzbekistan in the historic city of Samarkand was held during a time of duress in international politics. With most countries still reeling from the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, now in its seventh month with no end in sight, has jolted the international order and economy alike, adding more weight to a developing crevasse between the West and a Russia-China led alternative political anchor.
One of the aims of the SCO going forward, highlighted by the grouping’s joint statement, is to develop a mechanism under this multilateral structure to designate terrorist organisations and individuals. “The Member States, in accordance with their national legislation and on the basis of consensus, will seek to develop common principles and approaches to form a unified list of terrorist, separatist and extremist organisations whose activities are prohibited on the territories of the SCO member states,” the statement read.
However, despite the aspirational notion of developing such a framework, the road to building such listings under a multilateral group is an extremely difficult task. To put it in further perspective, on the same day the SCO joint statement envisioned such a mechanism, China blocked a proposal led by the US and India at the United Nations (UN) to blacklist Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist Sajid Mir, wanted for his role in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Both China and Pakistan are members of the SCO, along with India, and 26/11 remains the most audacious terror attack conducted on Indian soil.
Whilst terrorism is repeatedly brought up as a top challenge to global security, the geopolitics behind addressing it politically remain complicated, so much so that seven decades since its founding, the UN still does not have an agreed-upon definition for terrorism.
Whilst terrorism is repeatedly brought up as a top challenge to global security, the geopolitics behind addressing it politically remain complicated, so much so that seven decades since its founding, the UN still does not have an agreed-upon definition for terrorism. This aberration in the diplomatic framework gives ample space to states to use such vacuums for political one-upmanship for short-term gains. Some recent examples include the US delisting Houthi militants in Yemen in February 2021 under the guise of a critical humanitarian crisis in the country due to civil war, but also to give strategic space to Iran—which is known to back the Houthis—to push forward the stalled Iran nuclear deal. Another example was the US delisting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Uyghur-run militancy targeted at China, as Washington moved to apply more pressure on Beijing in a fast-increasing great power rivalry between the two countries.
To add another layer of perspective, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Islamist militant group operating in northern Syria that has been previously linked to both al-Qaeda and ISIS, in an interview objected to HTS being listed as a terror organisation. The leader of HTS, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, controls a part of northern Syria where in more recent past some of the most high-profile ISIS leaders have been killed, raising questions about whether in a bid to ‘normalise’ his group and market it as a reformed entity, HTS is aiding western efforts to target and eliminate ISIS leadership. And if this is indeed true, how does this factor into multilateral diplomatic engagements in cooperating against terrorism at a point when the threat is only becoming more ideologically expansive swinging between Islamist terrorism to right-wing terrorism, with the addition of modern technology and information tools being coopted by extremist groups, from messaging apps and social media to drones?
To clarify, a base-level acceptance of what defines terrorism is largely universal. Attacks such as 9/11 showcased a largely cooperative approach to condemn al-Qaeda across state divisions and ideologies. However, on a less global level, terrorism definitions become blurry and are either used or shunned as per the strategic requirement of states, governments, and so on. This was seen by China and Pakistan’s protection of Mir at the UN, where their own strategic interests trumped any universal design of condemning terrorism purely as an act of violence. It is also perhaps important to highlight here that Russia, India’s most consequential international partner for decades, has never sponsored a move at the UN to blacklist or ban the top most-wanted terrorists by New Delhi from groups such as LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammed, etc.
The SCO, to build any probable list against terrorism, terror actors and groups will need to build a consensus on what ‘terrorism’ is, at least from this grouping’s perspective. Considering the members include Pakistan, China, and India, with Islamabad’s state sponsor of terrorism against New Delhi, deployed as a strategy and China’s support for the same to protect a major influence zone in South Asia, building consensus on this already looks like a fraught exercise. All countries may indeed agree to chastise groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, IS Khorasan (ISKP), and jointly agree on taking on terrorism emitting from Afghanistan, but leaving out other groups to not infringe on ‘state policies’ of other countries will not give any weight to such a listing within the SCO ambit. This is precisely where the SCO 2022 statement using “national legislation” and “consensus” building as core tenets for the list becomes problematic. The fact that the SCO’s Regional Anti-terrorism Structure (RATS), under which such a list would reside, already garners flack due to Pakistan’s inclusion in it showcases that whilst ecosystems like SCO are important for India’s diplomacy, counterterrorism as a policy has domestic and regional impact first, and then international, if any. With Iran also becoming a full member of the SCO this year, this exercise will only become more complicated as it is pursued further.
Terrorism from a regional perspective is a much more politically (for each state involved), geopolitically, and geographically charged issue compared to terrorism as a broad problem and counterterrorism as a broad deliverable under larger frameworks such as the UN, or even the umbrella of great power competition.
There is, indeed, a pertaining argument that cooperation against terrorism in smaller multilateral or ‘minilateral’ initiatives may bring faster results if there are agreements reached on this front. Terrorism from a regional perspective is a much more politically (for each state involved), geopolitically, and geographically charged issue compared to terrorism as a broad problem and counterterrorism as a broad deliverable under larger frameworks such as the UN, or even the umbrella of great power competition. The recent use of the term ‘terrorism’ by both Russia and Ukraine against each other shows the increasing dilution of the terminology itself. And this, of course, is not only true to the current happenings in Europe but other parts of the world as well.
Finally, India, despite its optimism, should be careful of an SCO-led endeavour for a terrorism list. For any such list to be anywhere close to being functional and useful, SCO members such as Pakistan and China would not have blocked the blacklisting of Mir at the UN to underline their strong resolve against terrorism. The probability of such a listing being developed mostly as a marketing proposition for the SCO remains high, but actual terrorism lists as part of multilateral groupings historically have been very difficult to execute.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +