Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Terrorism said to be defined

Terrorism law is the central concern of the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon, an internationalized tribunal about which we've posted in the past. Established in 2007, it is charged with investigation and adjudication stemming from the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
An ASIL Insight by our colleague Michael P. Scharf reports that last month the tribunal's "Appeals Chamber handed down a landmark ruling"; to be precise, it sets forth what its judges consider to be "the customary international law definition of terrorism." Entitled Interlocutory Decision on the Applicable Law: Terrorism, Conspiracy, Homicide, Perpetration, Cumulative Charging (available in Arabic, English, and French here), the 154-page decision was written by President Antonio Cassese (below right) (prior IntLawGrrls posts) on behalf of a five-man panel (men make up all the judges of this tribunal; a couple of the prosecution and defense officers listed are women).
Scharf quoted paragraph 85 of the decision -- issued in answer to request of the pre-trial chamber considering whether to confirm a pending indictment -- which sets forth the elements of the definition of terrorism at customary international law as follows:

► '[P]erpetration of a criminal act (such as murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, arson, and so on), or threatening such an act';
► '[I]ntent to spread fear among the population (which would generally entail the creation of public danger) or directly or indirectly coerce a national or international authority to take some action, or to refrain from taking it'; and
► '[T]he act involves a transnational element.'

Scharf predicted that the definition will have ramifications that extend past the work of this tribunal -- into the work of the U.N. Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1373 (2001), and even into national legal systems.
That is not an entirely comforting thought.
The definition, at least as stated above, would appear to know few bounds:
► The definition would seem to sweep in state as well as nonstate actors. That should make more than a few countries uncomfortable.
► What's more, the definition would seem potentially applicable to many transnational offenses not colloquially understood to be terrorism. To name one example, much violence committed in the course of cross-border smuggling enterprises would seem to fit the bill.
Those concerns are reflected in definitions set forth elsewhere on the subject.
► For instance, 22 U.S.C. § 2656f(d)(2), which requires annual country reports on terrorism, withdraws many state actors from the net by stating:

the term 'terrorism' means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents ...

► The catchall definition set forth in Article 2(1)(b) of the 1999 International Convention for Suppression of Financing of Terrorism also is narrower, for it applies only to acts
intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict.

Arson of a structure known to be unoccupied -- or of a building occupied by combatants -- would be excluded from the Convention's definition, but not, it would seem, from the definition advanced in the new judgment from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
These 2 counterexamples of state practice stand in tension with the tribunal's contention that its definition constitutes customary international law.
The tribunal's decision, Scharf reports, further endorsed at least some aspects of the encompassing accomplice-liability doctrine of "joint criminal enterprise," about which we've frequently posted. That embrace of expansive culpability, coupled with the breadth of the definition stated above, creates a risk that the stigma of "international terrorist" could be applied well beyond advisable limits.


Evelyne said...

Thanks for this very useful update. I am not sure I understand the point that arson of a building known to host combatants would fall under the terrorism definition suggested by the STL. I agree on the issue of unoccupied structures (where there would be no death or bodily injury in case of an attack), but as far as the second example is concerned, I would assume that if the act would take place within the context of an armed conflict, it wouldn't be a crime to attack the combatants, and therefore element 1) of the definition wouldn't be fulfilled? Or am I missing something?

Diane Marie Amann said...

It would depend on who is the attacker.