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International Laws to Control Terrorism: A Comparative Study

Updated: Nov 13, 2018

Dr. Shubhra Sanyal discusses the definition of terrorism and why it is so important to be adressed in order to improve international laws.

Terrorism has become a world wide phenomena yet the world has failed to reach a legal definition of terrorism. Even today there is no single universal definition. The UN member states still have no agreed definition. This has become a major obstacle to meaningful international counter measures. Without a clear definition the international community is hard pressed to combat a problem which it cannot with an assurance identity. Cynics have often commented that one states “terrorists” is another stat4es “freedom fighter”. In this way the fight against terrorism will always suffer from “cultural relativism”. (Ganor, 2001). The free world must understand that cultural relativism applied to terrorism irrespective of their goals will lead only to more terrorism.

Limitations in the international laws are many in numbers. It has been accepted by legal experts that the international law is not effective when it comes to dealing with terrorists and international terrorism. Some terrorists are killed and others are captured who are at times not even brought, instead quietly dispersed to some safe haven. Even the states response towards the definition or the basic legal concepts of terrorism remained confused Worse still, how might a definition impact seeming terrorist acts by a state’s armed forces ?. It’s a million dollar question said Subramaniam (2002) to know how far special laws would be of use in containing the menace of cross border terrorism. Terrorism has to be fought according to the rule of law and combating terrorism must be legal. The United Nation has made a concerted effort to arrive at a consensus definition of terrorism and it has been surveyed that all states desire that UN should play a more significant role in controlling terrorism.

The present paper has taken two salient issues for discussion. They are (1) the definition of terrorism as given in various acts (2) the activities identified as terrorism. To obtain an in depth knowledge the anti-terrorist acts of certain countries are studied and the commonalties and the non-commonalties between the different acts are identified. The aim is to make a diagnostic analysis of the laws of different counteies with the help of content analysis. Countries like United Kingdom, USA, Canada, Israel, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are studied. They are selected on the basic of their vulnerability to terrorism in the last few decades.

The paper concludes that (1) that all countries discussed mentioned that the use of threat or action meant to disturb the national integrity and sovereignty were terrorism (11) any an organizations involved in promoting these activities were considered as terrorist organizations. Thirdly there is a growing appreciation that acts of terrorism and political violence are distinct genres and should be dealt separately.


International law cannot be effective until and unless there is a clear and universally agreed definition of the term ‘terrorism’ There is also a need for all countries to identify the acts which define terrorism so as to facilitate in the arrest and deportation of the criminals involved in cross border terrorism. Almost all municipal laws are unclear on the point and fail to evolve common strategies to fight terrorism as an international phenomenon.

National and international laws suggest common practices to control or prevent terrorism. Individual states respond to terrorism by amending their domestic laws to achieve a certain level of control or prevention. The domestic response therefore is part of the international communities collective or regional response but at the same time each country’s legal response is determined by certain factors such as the form of terrorism operating within it’s jurisdiction, the particular political conflicts that engender the terrorism and the extent of public support given by a particular state to the terrorist.

As early as 1930’s the issue of terrorism had been discussed in a series of conferences where emphasis was laid on the unification of penal law. It was recommended that acts which fell within the scope of the definition should be excluded from the protection of political offences. The Chief Justice of India Justice Barucha 1 expressing serious concern over the menace of terrorism believed that it had survived mainly because the definition or basic legal concepts on the basis of which the state responded to terrorism remained confused. He who strikes terror in one country would be given refuge by another country. In his opinion the law should be uniform in making the terrorist in one country a criminal in every other country and should accordingly be subjected to arrest and extradition for trial in the country in which the heinous crime was committed.

Limitations in the International Laws

It has been accepted by the legal experts and by academicians that the universal law was not effective in dealing with international terrorism. Terrorists are killed and some are captured. Few of the latter are not even brought to trial and are instead quietly dispatched abroad to a safe haven. The diversity and the complexity of terrorist activities complicate the task and despite a number of existing classifications there is still no general accepted definition of terrorism. It is observed that terrorism in essence is a criminal activity in many countries. In applying domestically the governments have failed to punish and deter those who use terrorism to advance their political goal.

There is a deep controversy concerning which crimes are to be defined as international offences especially as regards their definition by reference to the nature of the injured person Nations have argued for generations about a legal definition for terrorism. Without a clear definition the international community is hard pressed to combat the problem of terrorism. Differences therefore continue to prevail among the states regarding the types of crimes which could be considered as international offences and can be countered through international measures. As reported(2) the International Conventions are often ambiguous and inconsistent in the use of the form ‘international offence’ The United Nations need to draft a comprehensive convention for which it is necessary to arrive at a consensus decision regarding the definition of terrorism. Consequently even today there is no standard procedure for extradition and deportation of terrorists involved in trans- border terrorism.

Dr S.Sanyal, Former Reader NICFS(MHA Counselor OHB Kinsway Camp , New Delhi

AAKROSH Asian Journal On Terrorism and Internal Conflicts, 2015


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