Wanted - A definition of terrorism

16 February 2011 by Geraldine Coughlan

For decades, international lawyers have wrangled over the question - What is terrorism? Is it an act designed to spread terror? Does it have a political motive? Does it involve an attack on a few people or alot of people? Since 1914, philosophers have pondered whether the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Sarajevo can be classified as an ‘act of terror’. More recently, the September 11 attacks in the US, have brought the issue of international terrorism to the forefront of debate, and with it the question of its very definition. 

Today, while there are a variety of definitions of terrorism in a dozen international conventions, the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon near The Hague, has taken the first step towards arriving at a single definition of the crime of terrorism.

The Court is due to rule on 16th February, on which definitions of terrorism and other crimes that it will apply. It is expected that this ruling will set a precedent for other international courts, which also want to see a universal definition of terrorism as much as they want to see their prime terrorist suspects, in the dock.

The Lebanon tribunal is the first international court with jurisdiction over the crime of terrorism, but it is grappling with how to apply Lebanese and international law, before including a terrorism charge in potential arrest warrants. As the tribunal applies Lebanese law, but has an international character, the question is – should a definition of terrorism be based on Lebanese law or international law?

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