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True definition of terrorism

Feb 24,2018 - Last updated at Feb 24,2018

The conflict, or much rather conflicts, in Syria have exploded a flurry of definitions for terrorism with practically all fighting factions in the wider armed conflict in the war-torn country calling their "enemies" terrorists to justify their carpet bombings, barrel bombings, rocket shelling and even the indiscriminate deployment of chemical weapons against the "other side". 

Under this loose and flexible use of the word “terrorism,” all sides engaged in the wars in Syria have fallen within this wider definition of terrorism with no end in sight. 

On a closer look though, there is no international consensus, as yet, on the definition of terrorism till now for obvious reasons; a terrorist in the eyes of some is a freedom fighter in the eyes of others. 

One thing though is sure, all the fighting groups in Syria have committed acts of terrorism in one way or another since, at the end of the day, they all killed or maimed innocent civilians in the hundreds of thousands. They all destroyed hospitals, homes, factories and other civilian targets either intentionally, as is usually the case, or by wanton neglect bordering on criminal responsibility.

I cannot name one act of war or side of war that does not qualify as an act of terrorism under the normative definition of the word.

Unfortunately, till this day, the adoption of the draft comprehensive convention on international terrorism remains elusive for obvious reasons; nations and non-state parties want to engage in wars with little or no inhibitions or restraints. And that is exactly what has been going on Syria for years.

International jurists have, therefore, counted no less than 109 definitions for terrorism floating around the world. The NATO, for example, defines terrorism as “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence, instilling fear and terror, against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, or to gain control over a population, to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives”. 

By and large, nations across the globe have adopted their own definition of terrorism to suit their respective purposes. International jurists insist, however, that the term remains imprecise, ambiguous and above all, serves no operative legal purpose.

They, therefore, conclude that the concept does give rise to normative obligation. But as the former UK ambassador to the UN Sir Jeremy Greenstock once said, “what looks, smells and kills like terrorism is terrorism"!

The world-renowned British international judge and former president of the International Court of Justice Gilbert Guillaume stated in his book "Terrorism and International Law", that terrorism remains without legal significance. It is merely a convenient way of alluding to activities, whether of states or of individuals, in which either the methods used are unlawful, or the targets protected, or both.

The International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombing (1997) and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999) have come close to a definition that the international community can live with and apply as a normative obligation.

Maybe the international community does not really need a legal definition of terrorism since they all know what it means but pretend they do not. For the time being though, what looks, smells and kills like terrorism is terrorism will have to do!

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