This module is a resource for lecturers

The United Nations and terrorism

A recurring feature of discussions, debates and political sensitivities regarding terrorism during the post-1945 United Nations era have related to issues of terror-violence by so-called "liberation fighters" claiming to be utilizing "direct action" to pursue their right to the self-determination of peoples, as they argued is provided for in the United Nations Charter (Treaty Series, vol. 1, no. XVI), articles 1(2) and 55 (see also 1941 Atlantic Charter). The Charter contextualizes the Organization's obligation to "develop friendly relations" among nations (not "States") based on the principles of equal rights and the self-determination of "peoples". Difficulties with and controversies regarding the practical operation of equal rights and self-determination soon arose, including where national liberation agendas stretched far beyond the narrow confines of the League of Nations mandate system and the protection of minorities. As a consequence, conflicting interpretations of relevant Charter principles and provisions surrounding self-determination quickly arose and have remained ever since.

This Module, as well as the University Module Series as a whole, does not attempt to comment on the accuracy or otherwise of particular legal or political positions. Rather it seeks to provide an impartial commentary on legal and interdisciplinary approaches to terrorism and counter-terrorism, by identifying the existence of ongoing debates, where appropriate, in order to assist students in better comprehending current approaches to the phenomenon of terrorism and current responses to it by States and intergovernmental organizations, including the United Nations system. On issues such as self-determination, including the ongoing "freedom fighter versus terrorist" conundrum, what is important to understand is that these issues have been, continue and are likely to remain contentious and have implications for issues such as the continuing inability of the international community to agree on a universal definition of terrorism with law-making consequences.

In any event, many terrorist activities that have occurred during the post-1945 era have not been associated with self-determination debates at all. Identified causes of terrorism have instead ranged through the entire spectrum of human discontent, including the economic, political, social, psychological, ideological, etc., with short or long-term goals, both objective and subjective, becoming the object of violence (Whittaker, 2001, p. 33). In response, some in the international community, especially academics, have sought to label terrorist groups according to their motivational goals or ideologies rather than in terms of criminal acts, as is the approach within the United Nations system. Consequently, students may come across the categorization of such groups within scholarship as "revolutionary", "separatist", "ethnocentric", "nationalist" or "religious".

In terms of the use of violence and force by terrorists, this also ranges across a wide spectrum, from individuals with military training and experience, to what Whittaker has termed "throw away" operatives, who are effectively sent untrained on suicide missions. Their use of violence also illustrates the slow evolution of terrorist tactics and strategies, including traditional assassination, bombings, arson, hostage-taking, hijacking, kidnapping, sabotage, the perpetration of hoaxes and suicide bombings, to name but a few (see, for example, Global Terrorism Index 2017 ). More recent tactics can include unconventional forms of terrorism, including nuclear terrorism (for example, fabricating a dirty bomb, attacking a nuclear reactor, etc.), high-tech terrorism involving cyber attacks, ecological terrorism (for instance, the threat of destruction to the environment) and terrorist attacks aiming at destroying cultural heritage, as perpetrated by ISIL (see, for example, the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States, 1999, article 1).

Of particular interest is the fact that such issues and debates have shaped the approach of the international community to its universal anti-terrorism conventions so that they are framed around terrorist acts as serious international crimes regardless of any underlying motivation. Broadly speaking, anti-terrorism instruments were adopted roughly in three phases (see further Module 4). Beginning with legislation covering the safety of aviation and shipping, the early instruments were developed from the 1960s through to the early 1990s, and addressed specific types of terrorist offences. Notably, acts perpetrated during "liberation conflicts" were expressly made exceptions to terrorist crimes, for example, the 1979 Hostages Convention ( Treaty Series, vol. 1316, p. 205, adopted 17 December 1979, entered into force 3 June 1983), as such acts were to be dealt with under other areas of international law, such as international humanitarian law. The most recent phase reflects the broadening, post-categorization of terrorist groups and "causes", to include groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaida and ISIL, and thus reflect the contemporary terrorist threat to the international community. Within this latter phase, anti-terrorism instruments have been developed that deal with new crimes associated with terrorist bombings (1997, Treaty Series, vol. 2149, p. 256), the financing of terrorism (1999, Treaty Series, vol. 2178, p. 197) and nuclear terrorism (2005, Treaty Series, vol. 2445, p. 89).

In Modules 4 and 5, the evolution and substantive content of United Nations anti-terrorism instruments in the Charter era will be considered in more detail.

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