The Proliferation of Definitions of Terrorism in International Law
A Story of Failed Symbolism and Premature Universal Jurisdiction
This paper analyses the proliferation of definitions of terrorism in international law and across national jurisdictions. On the one hand, this paper argues that terrorism legislation mainly pursues a symbolic function in international and criminal law by constructing the common enemy to the community of states. However, the fundamental disagreement on the nature of terrorism undermines this core function of terrorism legislation because violence becomes relativized by competing definitions of terrorism. On the other hand, this paper highlights how, in the presence of competing legal definitions of terrorism across states, the duty to prosecute or extradite (aut dedere aut iudicare) threatens the fundamental principle of foreseeability of criminal accountability (nullum crimen sine lege certa). As individuals are held accountable to multiple overlapping jurisdictions, self-determination struggles and legitimate acts in armed conflicts become increasingly criminalised. Therefore, the proliferation of definitions of terrorism in international law and across domestic jurisdictions has the effect of weakening collective action in international law and at the same time strengthening unilateral prosecution of terrorism.