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The Changing Faces of Terrorism

By Professor Adam Roberts
Defining terrorism

The UN General Assembly, 1999
The UN General Assembly, 1999 ©
Since there are common factors, it ought to be possible to define terrorism. In the 1960s the UN General Assembly embarked on an attempt to do this. Initially little progress was made, partly because many states were reluctant to go far along the road of outlawing terrorism unless at the same time the 'causes of terrorism' were addressed. Other states saw this approach as implying that terrorism was a response to real grievances, and thereby insinuating that it was justified.

Thus the main emphasis at the UN was on limited practical measures. In a series of 12 international conventions drawn up between 1963 and 1999, particular terrorist actions, such as aircraft hijacking and diplomatic hostage-taking, were prohibited. As the 1990s progressed, and concern about terrorism increased, the UN General Assembly embarked on discussions about defining and outlawing terrorism generally. Its Legal Committee issued a rough draft of a convention, which:

Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be used to justify them.

'Is it reliance on terror that truly distinguishes a movement from its political opponents?'

There are still disagreements between states about this draft convention. Even if it is eventually agreed, there is a difference between agreement on the general principle of outlawing terrorism and its application to particular facts. The labelling of individuals and movements as 'terrorist' will remain complicated and highly political. Two key questions arise: (1) Is it reliance on terror that truly distinguishes a movement from its political opponents? (2) Even if parts of a movement have employed terrorist methods, is 'terrorist' an accurate description of the movement as a whole, made up of many different wings, and employing many different modes of action?

Published: 2002-08-27



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