Violence and terrorism have a history of worldwide use to promote certain goals, beliefs, and agendas. In the 21st century, this issue becomes increasingly more vibrant with the rise of various terrorist organizations in the Middle East and the radicalization of Islamic communities in Europe and the USA. The world has yet to reach a unified opinion on what actions and motives could be defined as terrorists. The UN does not possess an internationally-agreed definition of terrorist activities, due to a difference of opinion between various members of the organization. In the past century, all attempts at creating a coherent legal definition of the term had failed. As the term “terrorism” is a politically and emotionally charged word, it may be impossible to formulate a clear, unbiased, and objective definition for it.
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Violence has been an instrument of politics, religion, and ideology since the dawn of time. Every country on Earth has a history of failed and successful assassinations, political takeovers, terror raids, religious and ethnic cleansings. Violence was used to prove a point, to eliminate adversities, or to instigate change. The term “terrorism” is a relatively modern one – it first saw mass usage during the French revolution. Back in the year 1794, the word “terror” was used to describe the revolutionary government policy towards those it perceived as enemies and criminals.1
Since then, the meaning of the word changed from that of a centralized government effort against certain groups of people to an individual or group effort against the state. Nowadays, terrorism sees wide resurgence around the world due to the instability in the Middle East and following the radicalization of the Islamic communities. Despite everyone in the world have an understanding of what terrorism is, up to this day, there is no clear definition of the term that could be used in criminal justice systems. This paper is dedicated to understanding why it is so problematic to define terrorism, reviewing different opinions on the matter, and considering what could be done about it.
The hypothesis for this case study is that the reason why the world cannot come to a unified definition of terrorism is that the line between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is very thin. This matter is especially true in matters concerning fighting for liberation and self-identification, where the combatants are branded as either freedom fighters or terrorists, depending on a subjective view of the legitimacy of the cause they are fighting for. This unresolved controversy is dangerous because the unified definition would put a sign of equality between actual terrorists and legitimate freedom fighters – a judgment equally unfair to both. To be able to discriminate between the two, many questions need to be answered. What is terrorism? What acts could be defined as acts of terrorism? Do the motivations of the perpetrator change the perception of what is considered an act of terrorism and what is not? What causes justify the use of violence and what causes do not? None of these questions has a definite and objective answer.
The case study presents and analyses various aspects that are involved in defining terrorism. It explains why creating such a notion is important for security efforts worldwide. Then, it reasons why the efforts to formulate one have been unsuccessful so far. Numerous different views on the subject are presented to show the lack of consensus on the definition. The research data for this project comes from free and open sources available to everybody.
Most countries define an act of terrorism as an act of violence or a threat of using violence against a wide spectrum of people to promote a certain political, religious, or ideological agenda. This act is inherently illegal and morally wrong. It could not be committed by an agent of the state or on behalf of the state. This notion does not account for acts of violence against legal combatants during warfare, acts of self-defense, and collateral damage.
This definition varies from one country to another, and the differences could be explained through a prism of various cultural and political nuances unique to those particular regions. In India terrorism is defined as a war crime during a time of peace, effectively adopting the definition formulated by Alex Schmid.2
In Pakistan, the definition of terrorism includes not only violent acts with the use of weapons and explosives, but also acts of robbery, rape, and child molestation to strike terror. They empathize with the use of the malpractices as a fear weapon against the populace or the government.3
The Terrorism Act of the United Kingdom defines terrorism as an act of violence or threat of violence against someone’s life, health, and property to help advance political and ideological goals, to frighten the population, and to influence the government or international governmental organizations. The bill also labels acts that seriously disturb the stability of electronic systems as terrorism.4
The UN has no definition of terrorism that all the members of the organization have agreed upon.5 There were several drafts and attempts to push the resolution through, especially following the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings. However, it did not pass due to a standoff between various members. The Arab Terrorism Convention along with several other institutions with the definition to exclude the freedom fighters fighting for liberty from being branded as terrorists. Ben Saul states that the semantic power of the term could be used as a tool by various oppressive dictatorships and regimes to stigmatize and degrade their political opponents and justify unfair and repressive actions against them.6
Numerous political difficulties prevented the resolution from being concluded. As stated by Sami Zeidan, a diplomat from Lebanon, the political value of the word greatly prevails over the legal one.
Many terrorist organizations currently operating in the Middle East started as liberation movements trained and supplied by the CIA to curb the Soviet advance into the region.7 The states manipulate the word to fit their political agendas at the time.
It is possible to see a certain pattern when analyzing the facts and definitions presented above. Nearly all legal definitions adopted in various countries match one another, with small deviations present. However, the biggest issue is not with identifying the actions that could be classified as terrorism. Instead, the dispute lies with the motivations behind such actions. Most definitions prohibit the use of violence to promote some kind of agenda. However, adopting a worldwide definition where any agenda is called terrorist would give a powerful tool to the oppressive governments of the world to discredit and dehumanize their opponents. Rebels and freedom fighters often use tactics that could be considered terrorist – they plant bombs that cause collateral damage, and they do not wear a uniform that identifies them as a hostile combatant. These measures are forced, since they are unable to face the regular army and the police forces out in the open, and have to resort to guerilla tactics.
Doing the opposite and excluding the freedom fighters from the definition is an equally dangerous path to take. Many terrorist organizations, as it was mentioned above, initially were created to fight for freedom. Many of them still maintain these goals, as the Middle East still faces numerous military interventions from the USA, Europe, and Russia. One of the goals of the Taliban is to drive the foreign invaders from Afghanistan and topple the “puppet government” set up by them.8 Are they, terrorists or freedom fighters? Can we equal them to the Free Syrian Army fighting Bashar Assad in Syria? A worldwide definition of terrorism with these exclusions would only give legitimacy to the various militant organizations around the world.
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So, what suggestions could be made to achieve a consensus in this situation? While it is generally acknowledged that a clear and universal definition of terrorism is required, it might be a futile exercise to formulate one. An attempt to generalize numerous and complex situations revolving around terrorism in one short and crisp definition is doomed to fail. As controversial as it seems, the only way to avoid harm is not to accept a unified definition at all – suffering the current duplicity of the term is better than either justifying dictatorships in their attempts to quell legitimate uprisings or justifying the existence of actual terrorist organization by giving them a noble name of freedom fighters.
Azar, Khalil. U.S. Foreign Policy and Its’ Link to Terrorism in the Middle East. Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2011.
Dawn. “No Peace until Foreign Troops leave Afghanistan: Taliban Chief.” Web.
History Wiz. “The Reign of Terror.” Web.
Human Rights Voices. “There is no UN Definition on Terrorism.” Web.
Indian Government. “The Prevention of Terrorism Act.” Web.
Pakistan Government. “Pakistan Anti-terrorist (Amendment) Ordinance.” Web.
Saul, Ben. “Defining ‘Terrorism’ to Protect Human Rights.” Sydney Law School 125 (2008): 1–16.
UK Government. “Terrorism Act.” Web.