Today’s ISIL: What is the legal definition of Terrorist?

What is the legal definition of a terrorist?  This is pertinent because of urgent international action being sought against groups like ISIL, that invoke “terror” and crimes against humanity and international norms.  International criminal acts are defined in treaties such as the Rome Treaty creating the International Criminal Court.  Nuremberg punished Nazi leaders for mass crimes – the use of terrorist is rhetorical and not sufficiently defined.

This post is reproduced from EJIL/Talk:

The United Nations Security Council urges states to combat “foreign terrorist fighters”, but does not define “terrorism”’ The aim of Resolution 2178 of the UN Security Council, which was passed unanimously on 24 September, is laudable in principle: to combat the growing jihadi “terror tourism”, coming from France, Germany, the UK and other Western states, in a comprehensive manner, not just through criminal and police laws. In its preamble, the eight-page Resolution explicitly recognises that international terrorism cannot be defeated through military and other repressive measures alone.

However, it does not define terrorism, its key object of reference, instead speaking vaguely of “terrorism in all forms and manifestations”. Its operative paragraphs (paras. 2 ff.) refer to “terrorists”, “terrorist groups”, “individuals” and “person[s]” travelling abroad to fulfil a terrorist “purpose”, making no distinction between them. This terrorist purpose supposedly consists of the perpetration or preparation of terrorist acts, or the participation in terrorist acts or terrorist training. UN member states must prosecute the persons in question. Furthermore, they must make any financing of such journeys and assistance in carrying them out, including the recruitment of “terrorist” fighters, subject to criminal sanctions and prosecution.

Finally, the listing of the persons in question – famously called a ‘civil death penalty’ by Dick Marty, the former chairman of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Council of Europe – is also provided for (para. 7). But how is all of this to work under the rule of law if the phenomenon to be combatted is not defined? The Resolution remains silent on this issue, referring only to fighters belonging to ISIL, ANF and other groups deriving from Al-Qaida (para. 10), without, of course, presenting this as a definitive list.

One wonders why the Resolution did not adopt para. 3 of Security Council Resolution 1566. This paragraph defines terrorist acts as acts (1) committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, (2) with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which (3) constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism. This is, in essence, the definition of international terrorism recognised by customary international law, which also forms the basis for a UN draft treaty of 2010 and is referred to in international jurisprudence, such as the famous jurisdictional decision (15 Feb. 2011) of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, mainly authored by the late Antonio Casesse.

Unfortunately, Resolution 2178 ignores all of these definitions and thus ultimately leaves it up to each UN member state to apply the measures called for to those individuals defined as “terrorist” by that respective state itself. You may view the full text of the latest post at http://www.ejiltalk.org/our-terrorists-your-terrorists-the-united-nations-security-council-urges-states-to-combat-foreign-terrorist-fighters-but-does-not-define-terrorism.

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