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Read the rest: Legal AffairsThe Dread Pirate Bin Laden
How thinking of terrorists as pirates can help win the war on terror.
By Douglas R. Burgess Jr.
INTERNATIONAL LAW LACKS A DEFINITION FOR TERRORISM as a crime. According to Secretary General Kofi Annan, this lack has hampered "the moral authority of the United Nations and its strength in condemning" the scourge.
But attempts to provide a definition have failed because of terrorists' strangely hybrid status in the law. They are neither ordinary criminals nor recognized state actors, so there is almost no international or domestic law dealing with them. This gives an out to countries that harbor terrorists and declare them "freedom fighters." It also lets the United States flout its own constitutional safeguards by holding suspects captive indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay. The overall situation is, in a word, anarchic.
This chaotic state is reflected in, and caused by, the tortuous machinations of the U.N. in defining terrorism. Over 40 years of debate have produced a plethora of conventions proscribing acts ranging from hijacking to financing terrorist organizations. But the U.N. remains deadlocked on what a terrorist is. As a result, terrorists and countries like the United States pursue one another across the globe with virtually no rules governing their actions.
What is needed now is a framework for an international crime of terrorism. The framework should be incorporated into the U.N. Convention on Terrorism and should call for including the crime in domestic criminal law and perhaps the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. This framework must recognize the unique threat that terrorists pose to nation-states, yet not grant them the legitimacy accorded to belligerent states. It must provide the foundation for a law that criminalizes not only terrorist acts but membership in a terrorist organization. It must define methods of punishment.