international terrorism treaties

25th March 2018.

Since 1963 the international community has agreed to specific international treaties on terrorism. There are 19 of them called international legal instruments. This means these acts of terrorism are unlawful, regardless of the reason why it was done, the context of the terrorist act or whether a state likes the terrorist or not. Please note due to state sovereignty, not all states have ratified these conventions, although some are subject to universal jurisdiction.

I will discuss these and identify some problems with them.

There are seven conventions regarding civil aviation. It includes hijacking an aircraft, bombing an aircraft, a cyber attack on air navigation facilities, a credible threat to commit an offence on an aircraft, committing an act of violence onboard an aircraft or be an accomplice to such acts.

Problem: Attacks against trains and buses are not covered. If you do not use a bomb (because that is covered) but rather derail a train, that is not covered to be an act of terrorism. If someone attacks a bus with a machine gun, or throws a rock at the window (so long as a bomb is not involved) these acts cannot be considered as terrorism.

A cyber attack on air navigation facilities is considered as terrorism, but if there was a cyber attack on the roads, such as turning all the traffic lights green instead of red, that is not considered a terrorist act.

There is one convention regarding the protection of international staff. This essentially means, attacks on diplomats and his/her family constitutes as terrorism. Attacks include murder, kidnapping, an attack on their person or liberty, on their private accommodation or means of transport, or threat to commit such attack, or an act “constituting participation as an accomplice” it constitutes as terrorism.

Problem: So if a businessperson/student/teacher was attacked abroad, it is not terrorism, but if a diplomat is attacked, it is terrorism.

The taking of hostages has one international convention. This means, if someone detains or threatens to kill or injure a person for a political purpose, it is terrorism.

Problem: Drug cartels. They kidnap individuals and take them as hostages, they threaten to kill or injure a person, but not for a political purpose, but for financial gain, so this would not be covered.

There are two conventions on nuclear material, meaning unlawful possession of nuclear material and threats to use it to cause death or serious injury or property damage constitutes as terrorism.  

There are four conventions on maritime navigation, which includes hijacking a ship, placing destructive devices on a ship, transporting of persons convicted of terrorism, transporting materials to be used to cause or a threat to cause death or serious injury or damage.

There is one convention on explosive materials. This means parties must take necessary and effective measures to prohibit the manufacture of unmarked plastic explosives and prevent their movement in or out of its territory. It means ensuring that all explosives not held by the military or police are destroyed.

There is one convention on terrorist bombings, meaning there is universal jurisdiction over the unlawful and intentional use of lethal devices in various public places with intent to kill or cause serious bodily injury.

There is one convention on the financing of terrorism, meaning parties must take necessary measures to prevent the financing of terrorism, including the identification, freezing and seizure of funds allocated for terrorist activities.

And finally, the last convention is on nuclear terrorism. This means acts and threats to commit crimes on nuclear power plants and reactors constitute as terrorism. This convention encourages state co-operation and information sharing in preventing terrorist attacks.

If a person violates one or more of these treaties, they must be prosecuted under universal jurisdiction, or extradited and prosecuted.



Michael Sharf, Terrorism and Piracy, Case Western Reserve University