Recent high-profile attacks include the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27, 2007. In the wake of that attack, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based human-rights group, reiterated its call for international action against suicide attacks. Specifically, the Wiesenthal Center renewed an international media campaign to designate suicide bombing as a "crime against humanity."
Publishing full-page ads, titled "Suicide Terror: What more will it take for the world to act?" including a photo of Bhutto in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post and Canada's National Post, it called on the United Nations to hold a special session on suicide terrorism, designate suicide bombings crimes against humanity, and for religious leaders to acknowledge religious motivations in suicide attacks.
In the words of Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center, "Until we put suicide bombing on top of the international community's agenda by treating it as the leading threat to world peace, this virulent cancer will only spread." Hier and Cooper are slated to meet U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President of the General Assembly Srgjan Kerim in late February to advocate for a Special Session on Suicide Terror.
This call should resonate well with the secretary-general, as the United Nations itself has been the target of suicide attacks. An August 2003 attack on the U.N. headquarters in Iraq killed special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. Ban himself has called suicide terrorism a violation of international humanitarian law that can never be justified. Some religious leaders, such as the Presbyterian Assembly in the United States, support defining suicide bombing a crime against humanity. More interfaith dialogue and support is needed to make this stance a global norm.
From its modern genesis in Hezbollah's 1983 suicide car bombings of the U.S. Marine Corps and French military barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed 241 Marines and at least 58 French soldiers, suicide bombings have spread worldwide. From Israel and Palestine to Sri Lanka, where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's long-ranging suicide campaign, including the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, suicide bombing has grown in prominence as a terrorist tactic. Suicide attacks are a near-daily occurrence in Iraq, and as part of al-Qaida's terrorist network have spread to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria and the United Kingdom.
Suicide bombings are now a staple of jihadist and secular terrorism alike. Terrorist networks, insurgents and gangs, operating outside of the state system and traditional political boundaries, use suicide terrorism, along with the targeting of civilians, and attacks against humanitarian agencies -- such as the October 2003 attack against the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Baghdad -- to wage societal warfare. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the employment of child soldiers as both fighters and suicide bombers are an increasingly frequent side-effect. Recently seized al-Qaida videos show children training for suicide operations.
International humanitarian law, together with human rights law, acts as a firebreak between civilization and barbarism. International action is essential. The United Nations must hold a special session on suicide terrorism at the earliest opportunity. Remember, Sept. 11, 2001, was a suicide attack. The United States must strongly advocate a U.N. Convention Against Suicide Attacks. The United States should call upon all states to support such a convention and enforce it with universal jurisdiction once enacted. All human rights and humanitarian aid organizations should support these steps. Finally, all religious groups and interfaith initiatives should engage in dialogue to build support for these steps.
Suicide bombings must be considered a grave and serious breach of international humanitarian law irrespective of the countries and adversaries involved. While suicide attacks are already crimes in all cases, the increased incidence and reach of this tactic demands concerted action to contain its use. Suicide attackers are not martyrs -- they are criminals.
(John P. Sullivan is a senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism. A career police officer, he is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He is also co-author of the Land Warfare Paper: "Suicide Bombings in Operation Iraqi Freedom," and co-editor of "Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a global counter-terrorism network" (Routledge, 2006).)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)