International Law Defines Terrorism As… Oh Wait, It Doesn’t.

Terrorism: the hot topic of the year, if not the decade. The attack on Brussels last week has regenerated discussion on the issue in a world which is yet to forget Paris. Or Kenya. Or Nigeria. Or Norway. Or Bali. Or 9/11.

Deaths attributed to terrorism have doubled in the last three years. In 2013 there were an estimated 18,000 deaths due to terrorist attacks, a number that grew to nearly 33,000 in the last year. The rise of these statistics has much to do with the emergence of ISIS, however Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have likewise all had a part to play.

International citizens are afraid of terrorist attacks within their own cities. Politicians with extreme stances on terrorism are rising in popularity due to this fear while others are calling on the international community to work together to eradicate terrorism once and for all. Yet, this cannot happen.

Why, you may ask?

There is no definition of terrorism in international law. Because of this, international law and by extension the international community, doesn’t have the guidelines within which it can fight terrorism.

Just this week, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, stated that the United Nations (UN) has all the “means and mechanisms” to deal with standard war. However, until there are definitions and resolutions in place, the UN is entirely unable to deal with the lawless conflict that is terrorism.

The primary reason for the lack of consensus on a definition is that no two countries agree on the specifics of what constitutes terrorism. Most nations and international agencies vary on what they define as terrorism. The only common thing between all definitions is that terrorism includes the “use or threat of violence,” and most states also agree that terrorism is used to advance some sort of cause, however any similarity between definitions ends here.

The grey area between the definitions of “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” remains a major contention between states. In the early 2000s, a Lebanese diplomat and scholar, Sami Zeidan, argued that the definition of terrorism “easily falls prey to change that suits the interests of particular states at particular times”.

For example, when the Taliban, supported by the USA, were resisting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, they were labelled “freedom fighters.” A few short years later, they topped international terrorist lists. Palestinians argue that they are freedom fighters engaging in legitimate resistance against the unlawful occupation of their land by Israel; Israel considers them terrorists.

In 2000, the General Assembly suggested drafting a resolution on terrorism, the main purpose of which was to create an international definition of terrorism. Drafting was completed in 2002, yet fourteen years later the General Assembly is still in deadlock over the resolution.

Three guesses as to what created the deadlock. That’s right! The definition of terrorism.

The primary reason for the standoff is due to the Organization of Islamic Conference. Both the Arab Terrorism Convention and the Terrorism Convention of the Organization of the Islamic Conference exclude armed struggles for liberation and self-determination as acts of terrorism, as many Arab states see this as their legitimate right.

In October 2015, the Saudi Arabian delegation to the UN, echoed by Iran, re-stated their belief that “there is a distinction between terrorism and the exercise of the legitimate right of peoples to resist foreign occupation”.

Fourteen years have passed since Zeidan’s original speech, and the world remains at an impasse. His assertion that the “repercussion of the current preponderance of the political over the legal value of terrorism is costly, leaving the war against terrorism selective, incomplete and ineffective” reigns true.

While we have yet to reach a consensus on the definition of terrorism, one thing remains certain: if we cannot work together to define the practice of terrorism, how can we expect the international community to put into place effective measures to eliminate it?

Ellen Storey is a final-year Political Science & International Relations student at the University of Western Australia, and Secretary of the UWA International Law Club.


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