Dialogue  October-December 2008 , Volume 10 No. 2

International Terrorism: Consensus Definition Still Elusive


Kuljit Kaur*



Terrorism is as old as the civilization itself. It existed in all the ages in one form or the other which may be identified with anarchists, revolutionaries, fundamentalists or dissidents against the established authourity or even ruling tyrants having no tolerance for dissent. However, terrorism was not as wide spread phenomenon as it is today in the contemporary political system of the world.

     It has tremendously grown in shape and size in the contemporary world and has attained an international character in view of many and growing links among separate terrorist organisations, or groups the world over and their access to ample funds, modern weapons of destruction, regular training programmes, ever-available sanctuaries, diplomatic assistance and other support services provided either by the sovereign states themselves or by their opponents and other protective services made available to them.

      The Internationalisation of terrorism is fast growing day by day. It has been very aptly remarked in the context that:

“An operation may be planned in Germany by Palestinian Arabs, executed in Israel by a terrorist recruited in Japan, with a weapon acquired in Italy but manufactured in Russia, supplied by an Algerian diplomat and financed by Libyan money.”1

     There may be many more worldwide connections involving more than one State. Such an Internationalisation of terrorism has posed perhaps the most serious threat to the very existence of State and


ultimately the Global security as well as the International order. In fact, it has endangered the very existence of the mankind. For this reason terrorism has attracted the attention of all the communities of sensible

human beings of the world so that it may be fought, resisted, countered or eliminated.

      Though International terrorism is cause of concern for all the nations but many of them are deeply polarized particularly on the basic issues such as what kind of activity constitutes an act of terrorism and whether such activity could in certain situations be justified and not subject to international sanctions.

     Many countries of the world are of the view that there are certain political, economic situations in the world, that give rise to terrorism and the problem of terrorism cannot be tackled unless such causes are removed. Some other countries of the world are of the view that such a discussion causes an attempt to offer justification for terrorist acts and insist upon urgent measures against the terrorists. Such divergent views explicitly  present basic problem with the concept of terrorism and problem is that it lacks an internationally accepted/acceptable definition. The simple reason is that the term terrorism is, both historically and theoretically, not an exact concept and for this reason there is no commonly accepted definition of it. To define terrorism is very perplexing.

     Terrorism is sometimes correctly and sometimes improperly used as a synonym for rebellion, insurrection, guerilla warfare, coup d’etat, civil strife, street battle or many other related terms, which induce fear and terror. Most of times such careless and indiscriminate use of term makes the understanding of specific meaning and character of terrorism more complicated and intricate. It is difficult to define terrorism precisely, objectively and scientifically except that primary act of terrorism is to terrorize.

      In view of the diverse characteristics of terrorism it is too arduous to arrive at a common definition of terrorism, which can satisfactorily cover all the varied analysis. The only generally agreed definition of terrorism is in the briefest form:

“Use or threat of violence to achieve certain objectives and goals by way of inducing a state of fear, terror in victim(s) or other target group(s). Terrorism is always ruthless and publicity is an essential factor to terrorist strategy”.

       One of the earlier efforts to define terrorism was made by Hardman who defined terrorism as:

“The method or the theory behind the method whereby an organized group or party seeks to achieve its avowed aims clarifies through systematic use of violence”.2

      International effort to combat terrorism began soon after World War-I as there was an upsurge in terrorist activities. So a series of International Conferences for the unification of penal law were convened under the auspices of the International Association of Penal laws, and third to sixth such Conferences held between 1931 to 1935 specifically considered the issue of terrorism and adopted appropriate text.

     The term “terrorism” explicitly employed for the first time in Third International Conference held in Brussels, was adopted as:

                “The deliberate use of means capable of producing a common                   danger to commit an act of imperiling life, physical integrity to                            human health or threatening to destroy substantial property”.

    The list of such acts included arson, explosion, flooding or submission; ignition of asphyxiating or noxious substances; interruption of normal operation of means of transport or communication; danger to or destruction of govt properties and public utilities; pollution, fouling or deliberate poisoning of drinking water or staple foods, causing or propagating contagious or epidemic diseases, etc.

      Another attempt to define terrorism was made in the 1937 Convention on the prevention and punishment of Terrorism. Acts of terrorism were referred to, in terms of Article 1(2) of the Convention as:

                “Criminal acts diverted against a state and intended or                                                calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular                           persons, a group of persons or the general public”.

     Article (2) provided an enumeration of such acts with particular emphasis on “any wilful act, causing death or grievously bodily harm or loss of liberty to:

a)     heads of state, persons exercising prerogatives of heads of states, their hereditary or designated successors;

b)    the wives or husbands of above mentioned persons; 

c)     persons changed with public functions or holding public position when the act is diverted against them in their public capacity”

    The Convention not only included attempt but also conspiracy, incitement to offences, wilful participation and knowingly giving assistance.

      As a matter of fact the word terrorism was given different meaning at different times as per the necessity and the term grew wider day to day including many other acts to be of terrorism. In this respect, the major contribution was added by the different International Conferences on terrorism during the period of 1960s and 70s when there was alarming growth of terrorism. During this era, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) with a view to tackle the increasing incidents of hijacking and other related acts convened three Conventions, namely- 1963 Tokyo Convention, 1970 Hague Convention, and 1971 Montereal Convention. It was for the first time in 1970 during the Hague Convention that hijacking was declared an “International Crime” which can be easily included in the definition of terrorism.

      Convention on Protection of Diplomatic mission declared kidnapping, murder, assault against the life and personal liberty of those persons whom the state has duty under International law to give open protection, as well as extortions in connection with those crimes were declared crimes of International significance regardless of motive. The object of Convention was to provide added security to such persons against acts of International terrorism.

     Taking of hostages, murder or assaults on diplomats were declared a form of international terrorism in 1979 International Convention on the taking of hostages.

      European Convention on the combating of terrorism 1977, gave new meaning to acts of terrorism by involving hijacking of air craft, kidnapping of diplomats and others and laid down the principle that in respect of certain specific terrorist crimes the obligatory to extradite is absolute and plea of political offence is inadmissible.

    In some other International Conferences held recently some more acts have been designated as the acts of International terrorism:

-       Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear material, 1980- combats unlawful taking of/use of nuclear material)

-       Convention on suppression of unlawful acts against the Safety of maritime navigation (1988) applies to terrorist activities on ships)

-       Protocol for the suppression of unlawful activities against safety of fixed platforms located on Continental shelf (applied to terrorist activities on fixes off share platforms)

-       International Convention for suppression of Terrorist Bombing (1977) — General Assembly Resolution)

-       International Convention for suppression of Financing of Terrorism (1999).


Difficulties in formulation of all embracing universal definition of international terrorism


     Since World War-I efforts has been made to combat terrorism and many conventions in this respect have been held wherein from time to time specific acts have been included in the term terrorism. Difficulties came in the formulation of all-embracing universal definition of International terrorism, as revealed in the debate of these Conventions as well as that at General assembly, pertaining to the questions concerning:

-       The perpetrators of terrorist acts

-       Range of terrorist acts

-       The international components

-       The motive

-       The targets and

-       Causes of terrorism


(1) Perpetrators of terrorist acts


       The first major hurdle in defining a universally acceptable definition of terrorism is lack of consistent state practice on the question whether a definition of ‘terrorism’ should be confined to the individuals or group of private actors or it should be extend to the govts as well.

     Initially, the concept covered the actions of the govts as well. A study prepared by U.N. Secretariat for the Sixth Committee, however, observed that the term ‘terrorism’ now seems to be mainly applied to the actions by individuals or group of individuals.

        Discussion in Adhoc Terrorism Committee revealed divergent views. The Arabs and other non-aligned states expressed support for inclusion of state terrorism in the concept of International terrorism whereas, the western states opposed it on the ground that international law already restrains such violence, pointing to the prescription of the U.N. Charter, Geneva Convention 1949, Genocide Convention 1948, Nuremberg Charter and so on.


(2) Range of terrorist acts


       States are divided on the issue whether the definition should involve a wide or narrow frame of references to terrorist acts. The third to sixth International Conference for the unification of penal laws and the Convention for the prevention and punishment of Terrorism of 1937

prescribed a wide frame of reference to terrorist acts.


(3) International Component


      Opinion is also divided as to what International element should be included in the definition of international terrorism. Another definition suggested is that a conduct contains an international element when:

          -     the perpetrator or victim are citizen of different states

          -     the conduct is performed in whole or in part in more than one   


    One more opinion is that terrorist acts which are not currently punished or punishable in the domestic legal order of all the states should be deemed to come under international perview. It should not, however, include certain kinds of offences which are of minimal concern to the international community because they are invariably treated by natural law of the states.


(4) Motive


     The issue of ‘motive’ as a component of definition of International Terrorism has been a source of controversy in U.N. Debates and also among the legal scholars.

     The Convention for the protection and punishment of Terrorism of 1937, included the element of motive in the definition of terrorism as also the UN draft convention presented to the Adhoc Terrorism Committee.


(5) Victim Target


    The issue of victim of terrorist acts has also proved to be controversial. In term of UN Draft Convention, any act to be covered by the Convention must be committed within the territory of which the alleged offender is national. The majority states, however, found this definition, as unduly restrictive pleading the principle of thrust of Convention should be on protection of nationals of third parties.


(6) Causes of Terrorism


      Views of states differ on issue whether the causes of terrorism should constitute an essential part of the proposed definition of the terrorism or the matter should be postponed in favour of adopting speedy measures to combat terrorism.

   The western countries have favoured the latter position taking expeditious steps without waiting for the identification of causes of terrorism which obviously is a time consuming process.

   On the other hand, a good number of developing countries, emphasizing the significance of establishing a link between international terrorism and its causes, have categorically stated that any further Convention on eliminating terrorism must also include measures to remove its causes.




     From the above discussion, it is clear that there are serious differences among the states on several issues concerning the adoption of a Universal Convention on International Terrorism. 

   The most important obstacle relates to the definitional problem. Pending resolution of this controversy, a piecemeal step-by-step approach of making Convention regulating specific forms of international terrorism should be welcomed.  An all-embracing single definition of International terrorism is neither possible nor it will eliminate this evil completely.

    Moreover, even if an agreed definition exists, disagreements can always arise between states over its interpretation or application. Nevertheless, a precise definition as a part of comprehensive multinational convention, when attended, might make some real contributions in solving the problem of International terrorism.




1. D.V. Sage and J.H Alder, “The Ecology of Terrorism,” Encounter (London), vol. 40 No. 2, Feb 1973, pp 21-23.


2. J.B.S.  Hardman, “Terrorism” in Edwin R.A. Saligman (ed), Encyclopedia of Social Sciences New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957, Vol.13, p. 575.



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