Terrorism: An International Crime

By Lawless, Michael | International Journal, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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Terrorism: An International Crime

Lawless, Michael, International Journal

The 21st century has seen a marked increase in the prevalence of failed and failing states and an equally significant increase in acts of domestic and international terrorism.1 The challenge at the present time is for the international community of nations to adopt a common approach to the treatment of terrorism as an international crime. This article argues that terrorism is an international crime and as such requires the international community to act in the prevention of terrorism and the sanction of individuals perpetrating acts of terrorism. In this respect, the events of 11 September 2001 have presented an opportunity for internationalist forces to come to the forefront of the global political agenda. With an international war on terrorism seemingly being sanctioned by the United Nations, it is time for the crime of terrorism-as the act of a nongovernmental organization-to become a part of the universal responsibility of nations, with that responsibility further delegated to an international institution such as the International Criminal Court for prosecution and subsequent sanction.

This article will discuss the current status of terrorism as an international crime. In this respect, a review of existing treaties and conventions dealing with discrete elements of terrorism will be presented, followed by the identification of the definitional problem of what exactly constitutes terrorism. The article will conclude with a review of the current state of international criminal law and argue that the lack of a precise agreed-upon definition of terrorism in the international community does not detract from the criminality of the act, but rather simply provides an excuse for states to not meet their obligations under the law.

It is generally accepted that "international crimes" are considered so heinous that any member of the community of nations may prosecute the offender. An early example of a crime deemed to be universal and for which any nation may claim jurisdiction is piracy. Other international crimes include slavery, war crimes, hijacking and sabotage of civil aircraft, and genocide. Much as piracy developed into an international crime, obligating each state to take positive steps to prevent piratical acts, states are equally charged in the modern world circumstance to take positive steps to prevent terrorism and to effect sanction upon convicted terrorists. This obligation extends to the requirement for states to either bring purported terrorists within the sphere of domestic criminal law or to turn over those accused of terrorism to the international community of nations for trial and sanction (upon conviction) before the International Criminal Court or a similar judicial institution.

Although there may be numerous legitimate critiques of how and under what circumstances individuals will be subject to international legal institutions, it is clear that the international community has continued to apply international criminal law to individuals. Further, it is clear that the international community has effectively established both ad-hoc and permanent judicial institutions for the trial and sanction of individuals found to have breached international criminal law. The matter that remains outstanding at the present time is to assess the current international position on terrorism as a crime under international law and the effect of any such determination of criminality.


At the present time, 13 international conventions or protocols exist that prohibit specific acts of terrorism. These agreements have been developed and are maintained under the auspices of the UN and stand as the expressed will of the world community.

The first of the modern conventions to address the problem of terrorism, the Tokyo convention of 1963, sought to address behaviour onboard aircraft that could affect in-flight safety and was followed in 1970 by the Hague convention, which specifically made it an offence for any person onboard an aircraft to attempt to seize or exercise control of the aircraft whether by threat, force, or intimidation.

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