An international court to try terrorism? That’s what Romania and Spain want

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 22, 2015

solidarity with parisBogdan Aurescu, Romania’s foreign minister, and José García-Margallo y Marfil, his Spanish equivalent, have been arguing for a “global legal body to lead the fight against terrorism”.

What do they mean?

Basically, it seems, they want that terrorism should be considered a universal crime with universally punishable consequences.

In their Project Syndicate piece, the two ministers remind us that Romania was the first country to introduce the crime of terrorism into its criminal code and asked the League of Nations in 1926 to “consider drafting a convention to render terrorism universally punishable.”

In February this year, Romania proposed the establishment of an International Court Against Terrorism and Spain has joined with it to launch a joint consultation process.

The ministers say that if such a court came into being, it “would be empowered to prosecute any act of terrorism perpetrated after its creation, offering desperately needed assistance to countries with weak legal systems and providing a strong deterrent to would-be terrorists.”

It sounds sensible enough except that no one can ever agree about how to define terrorism. It was ever thus.

The issue remains beached high above the roiling debate about how to define terrorists versus freedom fighters. That has been the case for most of the last century. Can acts by a country’s armed forces be regarded as terrorist? Who is to judge anything and by what standards?

Both ministers seem to agree. “Most recently,” they write, “an effort to place terrorism under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court was dropped due to the lack of a universally accepted definition and the additional workload that such cases would mean.”

So it sounds pretty unlikely that we’ll have a global legal anti-terrorism body any time soon. And yet, it’s possible that something may be stirring in the thicket of argument and counter-argument.

Here’s why.

In 1934, after the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and French foreign minister Louis Barthou prompted the League of Nations to make the first attempt to create international judicial mechanisms to confront terrorism. Two-dozen governments signed the resulting conventions; one ratified them and ratified by one, but WWII’s outbreak called time on this.

So far, 19 “sectorial” conventions on terrorism have been signed. They cover bomb attacks, nuclear terrorism, terrorism financing etc.

If it sounds like gradualism taken to its nth degree, that’s because it is.