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C3S Founders' Memorial Lecture - 2023 By Ambassador T S Tirumurti IFS (Retd.)

Updated: Mar 3, 2023


The following is the text of the speech delivered by Ambassador T. S Tirumurti IFS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and Former Ambassador/Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations in New York on the occassion of C3S Founders' Memorial Lecture on the topic “Combatting Global Terrorism: Trends and Challenges” held in The Residency on February 11 2023



Chief Patron Shri B S Raghavan


Director General Commodore RS Vasan


Distinguished friends


It is indeed a great privilege to be asked to give the Founder’s Day Memorial Lecture on “Combatting Global Terrorism: Trends and Challenges.” I thank Commodore RS Vasan for his invitation and for giving me an opportunity to share my thoughts on this important topic. Let me felicitate you on the range of activities the Chennai Centre for China Studies has been undertaking.


The Founders of C3S have indeed contributed in no small measure to highlight the menace of terrorism and strived to enhance and protect our national security. What we are trying to do here is to build on the legacy they have left for us. Build on their thoughts and ideas and their strong national interest. Let me, at the outset, pay my respectful homage to them. They have put together the backbone of our national security architecture. Commodore Vasan and C3S have done much to preserve this legacy of the Founders and my appreciation to him and his team.


When India entered the Security Council in January 2021 for a two-year term, one of the priority areas we had identified was combatting terrorism. Given our own experience with combatting terrorism, especially cross border terrorism, we felt that we could contribute to greater understanding of the phenomenon and to a more robust UN and international response to combat terrorism. Consequently, we also wanted to chair the Security Council Counterterrorism Committee (CTC). Since the chair of the CTC was to fall vacant only in 2022, we did some hard bargaining to get elected.


We are also in an era where contemporary and emerging technologies are being weaponized by terror groups and individuals.

As you are aware, I was Ambassador/ PR to the United Nations for 18 out of the 24 months we were in the Security Council. While I have no doubt that we certainly contributed to enhancing the focus on terrorism both in the UN and outside in the two years we were in the council, it is important to understand the contemporary context to appreciate how India kept the course on this matter in the UN.


Friends,

11th September 2001 was a defining moment in the fight against terrorism. Before 9/11 the world was divided into “your terrorist” and “my terrorist,” since terrorism didn’t quite shake up the West like it did to many others like India. But 9/11 proved that terrorism in one part of the world could devastate the centre of Manhattan in New York. When this shook the world, suddenly it became a collective fight! They became “our” terrorists. It became a collective fight at the global level. The UN Security Council passed a binding resolution no. 1373 on 28th September 2001 and also established the Security Council Counter Terrorism Committee, whose Chair for 2022 was India.


After more than 20 years of 9/11 uniting us to fight the common menace of terror, we are in the danger of drifting back to the era of ‘your terrorist’ and ‘my terrorist”.

In the last 20 years or more, apart from resolution 1373, there have been significant strides taken to bring this collective focus to tackle many aspects of terrorism, especially financing of terrorism, nexus with other trasnational crimes, Islamic jihadist terror etc. We are also in an era where contemporary and emerging technologies are being weaponized by terror groups and individuals. Each of these sources are coming under the scanner. However, while there is definitely a more concerted effort, at a broader level, there is a more disconcerting scenario unfolding. After more than 20 years of 9/11 uniting us to fight the common menace of terror, we are in the danger of drifting back to the era of ‘your terrorist’ and ‘my terrorist”.


We have entered the era where, after pronouncing that there can be no excuse or justification for terror, there are moves to categorize terrorism based on the motivations behind such acts.


For example, talking about Europe, the preoccupation of Europe has turned to the rise of their right-wing. They have identified right-wing violent attacks as their main terrorist threat. They are being called variously like “right-wing violent extremism”, “violent nationalism”, “far-right terrorism” or more simply “right-wing terrorism.” Interestingly, the rise of their right wing has made Europe defensive while accosting other forms of terrorism across the world, including especially the radical Islamist jihadist terror upsurge in their own countries. Consequently, they are increasingly unable or unwilling to fully support counter-terrorism efforts elsewhere, whether in Asia or Africa.


As far as the United States is concerned, their priority domestically changed and they are dealing with what they call “racially/ ethnically motivated violent extremism” (REMVE) and related “terror” attacks. This domestic brand of “extremist terror” has been their main focus. While the US has continued to attack select high value terror targets and closely cooperate with India to bring terrorists under the ambit of the 1267 Sanctions regime of the UNSC, after what happened in Afghanistan and their ambivalence in calling Taliban for full implementation of the benchmarks set out in UN Security Council resolution 2593, especially on terror, and the mixed signals of the US against State sponsored cross-border terror from Pakistan, the US may well step back from a more robust strategy to tackle terror in Asia and Africa.


China has claimed that it has its own terror related issues to tackle, which has made them compromise on a broader global strategy in order to secure their interests. Once again, their moves to legitimize the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, without the Taliban meeting any of the UNSC resolution 2593 benchmarks, can be seen in this context. Their blocking of our attempt to list terrorists under the UNSC resolution 1267 sanctions list is yet another example.


So, when we look at these developments, it seems that the West and other countries are getting preoccupied with terrorist threats, which are, at best, limited to certain national or regional contexts and certainly not global. Though they are important in their domestic context no doubt, this narrow focus on terror by the West and others has diluted their larger global focus. We are now slipping back to the “my terrorist-your terrorist” era.


Another, and probably larger, danger in these labels being given is that they completely ignore that, in democracies, right-wing or left wing is part of the polity because they come to power through the ballot. To demonise these ideologies, rather than the violent acts, by such arbitrary labels may militate against democracy itself. This is serious matter which is, however, not within the scope of my current speech.


Consequently, India’s endeavour has been to keep the focus on a collective fight against terror, irrespective of regional and local variations and motivations.


Friends,

During both our Presidencies in August 2021 and December 2022, we held high-level meetings on terrorism chaired by our External Affairs Minister (EAM). Speaking on this occasion, EAM recalled his statement to the Council in January 2021 and the eight-point action plan he had proposed to counter terrorism. They include

· Summon the political will; don’t justify terrorism, don’t glorify terrorists;

· No double standards. Terrorists are terrorists; distinctions are made only at our own peril;

· Don’t place blocks and holds on listing requests without any reason;

· Discourage exclusivist thinking and be on guard against new terminologies and false priorities;

· Enlist and delist objectively, not on political or religious considerations;

· Recognize the linkage to organized crime;

· Support and strengthen the FATF; and

· Provide greater funding to the UN Office of Counter Terrorism.


We made sure that right through the two years, every issue on the agenda of the Council also addressed the issue of terrorism.


As Chair of UNSC Counter-terrorism Committee (CTC), we kept the spotlight on the increase in terrorist activities in specific regions, especially in Africa and Asia, and on the use of new and emerging technologies for terrorist purposes. In fact, we ensured that a separate meeting on recent developments on terrorism in Africa was held to put the spotlight on the huge spurt in Islamic-jihadi terrorism in that continent.


It was rather surprising when, on one occasion, when I was chairing the CTC, some Member States objected to the use of ‘zero tolerance to combat terrorism' in the Chair’s draft statement. This phrase is used in numerous texts including in the UN. They wanted deletion since, they said, it undercut human rights, including that of terrorists! I had to point out to them that terrorism was, in fact, the biggest violator of human rights. So, at the very least, it is important to ensure that our fight against terrorism is not diluted in any manner.


In a unique initiative, we brought the CTC meeting to India in October 2022 at a time when India was celebrating the 75th anniversary of our independence. The focus of this special CTC meeting was on the use of new and emerging technologies by terrorist groups and the gravity of the threat posed but them. The meeting was attended by more than 400 representatives from 54 member states, 33 international and regional organisations and many others. The highlight was also a visit of the CTC to Mumbai to pay homage to the victims of the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai at a solemn wreath laying ceremony at the site of the attacks.


Social media has been used to create an online echo-chamber of hate.

The landmark Delhi Declaration on Countering the Use of New and Emerging Technologies for Terrorist Purposes was adopted during this special CTC . It focused on three key areas namely:

1. Countering terrorist exploitation of information and communication technologies;

2. Threats posed by terrorist use of unmanned aerial systems; and

3. Countering financing of terrorism as it relates to threats associated with new payment technologies and fundraising methods.


Proliferation in online activities, especially during the pandemic, has given terrorists the opportunity to target youth, including through gaming platforms, for recruitment and radicalisation. Social media has been used to create an online echo-chamber of hate. Sophisticated communication methods like online gaming chat rooms and restricted access sites have sprung up. Modern fundraising and payment technologies and new payment methods are being misused freely. Commercially available unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are used by Al Qaeda, ISIL, and of course by our own neighbour Pakistan, for terror attacks and arms trafficking. Potential misuse of AI, synthetic biology and 3D printing remains high. In other words, we have entered a far more sophisticated and dangerous era of terrorism.


Apart from initiatives undertaken by governments to counter these sophisticated terrorist methods, other significant initiatives include Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT); Global Counterterrorism Forum; Tech Against Terrorism etc. For example, GIFCT is the creation of global tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, You Tube etc in collaboration with governments, industry, civil society etc. Larger platforms, and to certain extent smaller platforms as well, are actively removing terrorist content mostly through AI and algorithm-based machine learning. And therefore, we just need to be conscious that for every technological opportunity, there is an even greater terrorist challenge.


India also proposed several names of terrorists for listing under the UNSC Resolution 1267 sanctions. In a significant development, the US joined us as co-signatories for these proposals. However, our attempt to list these terrorists was thwarted, and a block was placed against listing them. But in a significant development, two weeks after we left the Council, one of our proposals for terrorist listing under 1267 was approved by the UNSC. This was the listing of Abdul Rehman Makki, Deputy Amir/ Chief of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, first listing with India as a proposer in the Council (co-signed by the US). This was also the first terrorist to be expressly named for terrorist acts in Jammu and Kashmir. This is indeed a big success for our diplomacy.


Friends,

This brings me to another parallel development in the UN and outside. This is the worrying attempt is to politicise the phobias against non-Abrahamic religions and justify terror, as well as undertake terrorist acts due to hate against another religion. This has serious implications for multicultural, pluralistic and democratic countries like ours.


I think we all know that the UN has traditionally mirrored Christian values. In fact, numerous such sculptures and symbols dot the UN, including the huge mural in the Security Council chamber, which combines elements from different Christian sources, including from the Greek Orthodox Church. A rare exception is the 11th Century idol of Lord Surya – The Sun God, gifted by India in 1982 to the UN.


Be that as it may, the UN and the rest of the world have traditionally condemned phobias against the three Abrahamic religions namely antisemitism, islamophobia and Christianophobia and rightly so. Let there be no doubt about this, that religious hate should be condemned wherever they are. Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism and Christianophobia also got exclusive references in UN resolutions and a gradual consolidation of this Abrahamic religious grouping has taken place. And in 15th March 2022, taking advantage of the fact that the West was preoccupied with its own form of terror to deal with and given their decreasing global focus, the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) tabled a resolution in the UN General Assembly to declare 15th March as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. The resolution was co-sponsored inter alia by China and Russia. The resolution in effect singled out one religiophobia above the rest even if many in their own OIC flock were not fully convinced that this was the right thing to do. These countries even rejected India’s suggestion to include the word “pluralism” in the text. The West was predictably missing in action. Only India and France made “Explanation of Vote (EOV).” For the first time, combatting the hatred against one specific religion was elevated to an International Day.


What is the implication of this?


Firstly, we have recently seen some fundamental assumptions on which counter-terrorism measures rest, being questioned. One of the things our Permanent Mission also actively participated in during my stint as Ambassador is the adoption of the 4th UN Global Counter-terrorism Strategy (GCTS) in June 2021. This was in the UN General Assembly and not the Security Council. During the negotiations, there was consistent attempts to dilute the references to terror as well as provide justification for terror. As you are aware, the UN Global Counter-terrorism Strategy (GCTS) states categorically that “any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed.” In fact, Para 3 of UNSC Resolution 1566 (2004) says terrorism is “under no circumstances justifiable by consideration of a … religious nature.” In effect, it says, there cannot be any justification for terror. But when three terrorist attacks took place in France in 2020, the Spokesperson of the High Representative of UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) said on 28th October 2020 that “the inflammatory caricatures have also provoked acts of violence against innocent civilians …” In one swift sentence, this UN body justified these terrorist attacks by providing it a justification. And this justification was that of Islamophobia, no less. It is not a secret that UNAOC depends on funding of Islamic countries for its survival! Fortunately, India held its ground in the GCTS report of June 2021 against attempts by countries to provide justification for terror and dilute the fight against terrorism.


Secondly, we are aware that all terrorism concepts say that terror cannot be attributed to any religion. Consequently, when such religiophobic attacks occur, they are conveniently labelled as terrorist attacks. But, on the other hand, religion is used when we need a justification for a terror attack, in many cases Islamophobia has usually been used to justify terror. For example, you would have seen how all analysts dubbed the attack on Salman Rushdie either as a terror attack or an attack on freedom of speech. No one called it a religiophobic attack even though the author was attacked for his views on Islam and for that only. So, if you do not recognize that these types of attack are religiophobic attacks and not mere terror attacks as we understand it, one is going to further dilute the global fight against terror.


Thirdly, even proposals for proscribing terrorists under Security Council resolution 1267 sanctions regime are given a religious colour. Pakistan desperately tried repeatedly to have Hindus listed under 1267 sanctions regime on cooked up charges, which was repeatedly rejected by the Council. In fact, they put up the names of the same persons again under 1267 merely because they were Hindus! This is targetted hatred against one religion and nothing less. As our External Affairs Minister said in his eight points “Enlist and delist objectively, not on political or religious considerations.”


Friends,

The 15th March resolution on the international day actually reflects an even deeper malaise which should be even more worrying – the gradual division of the UN on religious lines – Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic. This is gradually getting mirrored outside the UN as well. What it fails to acknowledge is that in the last more than a decade, the attacks and hatred against non-Abrahamic religions have increased exponentially, in many cases emasculating minority voices. We are now in an era witnessing unacknowledged but unprecedented contemporary forms of religiophopbia, including anti-Hindu, anti-Buddhist and anti-Sikh phobias. We have seen in our own neighbourhood and elsewhere the destruction of temples, the glorification of breaking of idols, violation of gurudwara premises, massacre of Sikh pilgrims in gurudwaras and destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas and other religious iconic site. In Pakistan, attack against Hindu temples and their desecration, and forcible conversion of Hindus and other minority communities have become commonplace. Hate crimes against Sikhs and Hindus have only increased, including in the West, in the US, which the External Affairs Minister himself pointed out, and elsewhere and you have seen several recent news items of hatred against non-Abrahamic religions. We have seen Khalistani separatists – who are Sikhs – attacking Hindu temples! Temples are being attacked in Canada and Canadian MPs are calling it Hinduphobia! These are the contemporary forms of religiophobia I was mentioning about.


In fact, India sounded a warning note in the UN Security Council itself on 12 October 2021 when our Minister of State for External Affairs pointed to contemporary forms of religiophobia and said: “our inability to even acknowledge these atrocities and phobias only gives those forces encouragement that phobias against some religions are more acceptable than those against others.” He warned that we ignore this at our own peril. In fact, in our Explanation of Vote during the adoption of that resolution, as Permanent Representative of India, I said: “Celebration of a religion is one thing but to commemorate the combatting of hatred against one religion is quite another,” and hoped that this resolution does not divide the UN into religious camps.


Understanding this distinction between terrorism and religiophobia is vital and its important that this difference is not papered over. While terrorism, by definition, cannot be attributed to any religion, we are already seeing how hatred against non-Abrahamic religions is taking root in the public discourse, especially in the West. Ironically, they are generating hatred against such communities in their own countries, their own citizens. And many of these are multi-religious and multi-cultural countries. This has serious implication for multicultural, pluralistic and democratic societies like India, leave alone their own societies. Pluralistic democracies cannot afford to watch the world go down this slippery slope of religion, whether inside the UN or outside.


India has a stake in ensuring that these values – our values – find greater resonance both in the UN and outside. In spite of our traditional reticence in foreign policy to get involved in religious issues, we have no choice but to take the lead in the matter of contemporary forms of religiophobia, especially against non-Abrahamic religions.


Friends,

All I would like to mention is that the next time you hear about a terrorist act or a violent act born out of a contemporary form of religiophobia, use the touchstone I have mentioned and you will realise why both these are dangerous for pluralistic societies like ours. As our Minister said in the Security Council, we ignore it at our own peril.


I thank C3S once again for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts on this occasion.


Let me conclude by hoping that the idol of Surya – The Sun God, who stands overlooking the corridor leading to the UN General Assembly, and the bust of Mahatma Gandhi, which has just been installed in December 2022 in the North lawns of the UN, show an inclusive way forward to all the UN Member States.


Thank You


(Ambassador T. S Tirumurti IFS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and Former Ambassador/ Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations in New York. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.)
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