Britain’s new antiterrorist legislation that comes into force Monday has generated mixed reaction in various circles within Britain as well as internationally. While the British government has hailed the bill as a powerful means to curtail terrorism worldwide, opponents of the legislation claim it is Draconian and inhumane.
The case of Sri Lanka serves as the best example of the impact the law may have outside of Britain. The former British colony has been devastated by nearly two decades of ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. Both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil militants are now waiting to see the affect of the British antiterrorist law, which could substantially change the course of the conflict.
The antiterrorist law will broaden Britain’s traditional definition of terrorism. It will include violent groups that are motivated by religion or ideology, and it will make it illegal for such groups to raise funds, possess information and use computer networks, such as the Internet, on British soil.
Britain has been a safe heaven for many overseas groups involved in power struggles in their home countries, particularly after the United States listed 30 organizations as international terrorist groups in 1997 and banned them.
Up to now, the British government has not blacklisted any groups except Northern Irish paramilitary units associated with the IRA and the pro-British Ulster Defense Association, which have been labeled as terrorist organizations. Many critics of this policy believed the government’s lenient attitude — which to some extent may be explained by the constraints imposed on government action by British ideals of liberalism, democracy and political tolerance — has made Britain an attractive base for groups involved in struggles in their home countries. After the U.S. and several European states tightened their antiterrorism laws, the British government came under strong pressure to do the same, particularly from govenments fighting forces attempting to overthrow them.
For the past two decades, the Sri Lankan government has demanded that London ban the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Britain. The new antiterrorist law therefore is considered to be a victory for the Sri Lankan government.
The new law will deal a deadly blow to British-based organizations engaged in struggles in their home countries. The reaction of organizations such as Hamas, the Kurdish Working Party, Egyptian militant groups and many others to the passage of the law has been harsh.
Anton Balasingham, a London-based leader of the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka, has called the law “Draconian,” and criticized its definition of terrorism for being “too wide and loosely conceptualized.”
It is believed that 90 percent of the money funding the Tamil militant’s war in Sri Lanka being collected overseas. With a substantial portion of this money coming from British-based Tamil militant organizations, the threat the law poses to the LTTE is very real.
To avoid being banned under the new law, the LTTE has been attempting to use peace as a bargaining chip. “A serious indictment of one party as ‘terrorist’ at this stage would be considered as a partisan intervention in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict and therefore destroy trust in the Norwegian peace initiative,” said Balasingham.
For its part, the Sri Lankan government fully expects Britian to outlaw the group under the new antiterrorist law, and in doing so help the Colombo government bring the militants to the bargaining table.
Continuous terrorist attacks carried out by the LTTE have claimed thousands of civilian lives in the island. The Sri Lanka government has accused the LTTE of breaking several peace initiatives, actions that damaged Colombo’s trust in negotiating with the Tamil militants.
The new law represents the first time since the Indian peace accord failed in the late 1980s that a third party is involving itself in the effort to end the Sri Lankan conflict.
Predictably, Britain finds itself in a very difficult position. While listing LTTE as a terrorist group may cause the Tamil Tigers to withdraw from the peace talks, failing to do so could help the LTTE boost its war capabilities, leading Sri Lanka into a deeper crisis.
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