Terrorism poses important political and diplomatic challenges. It is designed to call attention, through the use of violence, to the causes espoused by terrorists, and to bring about changes in policy favorable to those causes. The United States and its allies—and all other affected nations—must deal with this threat to civilized order with all appropriate measures, ranging from diplomatic to military.

One potential means for dealing with terrorism is law. Americans are particularly attracted to the law as a means for repressing violence, and are committed domestically and internationally to using law to control criminal conduct and to resolve disputes. They invoke the law almost instinctively, and repeatedly, assuming that it regulates international conduct and, in particular, provides a system for bringing terrorists to justice.

Recent terrorist incidents have led to many efforts to use the law, virtually all of which have failed. The law has a poor record in dealing with international terrorism. Some terrorists are killed or captured during the course of their crimes, but few of those who evade these consequences are afterward found and arrested. The terrorist who is prosecuted is likely to be released far earlier than his sentence should require, often in exchange for hostages taken in a subsequent terrorist episode.

The time has come to ask, frankly and honestly, why international terrorism is so loudly condemned, and yet so prevalent. What good is the law in fighting international terrorism? Why has it failed?


One reason for the law’s ineffectiveness is that terrorism, in essence, is criminal activity. In applying law domestically, governments seek to punish and deter crime as effectively as possible. But they recognize that law cannot eliminate crime. They can expect even less of the law in dealing with international terrorism. The world has no international police force or judicial system.

The stock response to complaints about the law’s failure to deal effectively with terrorism is that more laws are needed. That is a misleading answer. Important gaps do exist in the legal structure that governs terrorist acts, and the Reagan Administration is working with Congress and with other nations to close them. For example, the U.S. government lacks a domestic legal basis to prosecute the terrorists who killed an American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, during the October 1985 Achille Lauro cruise ship hijacking, or the terrorists who killed four American civilians on a hijacked Trans-World Airlines flight earlier that year. The Senate has passed a statute establishing jurisdiction for terrorist murders of Americans, and its adoption by the House would be welcome. Americans must not deceive themselves, however, that new laws, closing gaps, will overcome the problems that render law ineffective. Recent events have demonstrated that, even when laws clearly govern particular conduct, they are often disregarded or otherwise fail to achieve their purpose.

The reasons for the law’s failure tolerably to control terrorism go much deeper than the absence of law enforcement authority or mechanisms. International law and cooperation in less controversial areas have often proved reasonably effective. In the area of terrorism, however, the law has failed to punish and deter those who use violence to advance their political goals.

Civilized nations have tried to control international terrorism by condemning it, by treating it as piracy, by prosecuting terrorists under the laws of affected states, by creating international norms establishing as criminal certain acts wherever committed, and by cooperating through extradition and other devices in aiding nations attacked by terrorists. An appraisal of these efforts leads to a painful conclusion: the law applicable to terrorism is not merely flawed, it is perverse. The rules and declarations seemingly designed to curb terrorism have regularly included provisions that demonstrate the absence of international agreement on the propriety of regulating terrorist activity. On some issues, the law leaves political violence unregulated. On other issues the law is ambivalent, providing a basis for conflicting arguments as to its purpose. At its worst the law has in important ways actually served to legitimize international terror, and to protect terrorists from punishment as criminals. These deficiencies are not the product of negligence or mistake. They are intentional.


Americans too readily assume that others agree that at least certain aspects of international terror are unacceptable. While many fanatics obviously approve of terror, less recognized and more significant is the fact that the acceptance of terror is far more widespread. Indeed, many nations regard terrorism as a legitimate means of warfare.

The United Nations General Assembly began devoting special attention to the subject of terrorism after two especially heinous actions. On May 30, 1972, Japanese terrorists, working with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, attacked civilian passengers at Lod Airport in Israel with automatic weapons, killing 28 and wounding 78. On September 5, 1972, terrorists from the Black September organization murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team in Munich.

On September 8, 1972, U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim asked for inclusion in the General Assembly agenda of an item entitled "Measures to prevent terrorism and other forms of violence which endanger or take innocent human lives or jeopardize fundamental freedoms." He urged "that all concerned turn away from senseless and destructive violence," and noted that the world community should continue "to exert its utmost influence in seeking peaceful ways" to find solutions "for the problems underlying such acts of terrorism."

The secretary-general’s statement evoked angry opposition, which took the immediate form of protests against considering terrorism without considering its causes. The secretary-general reiterated his request on September 20, but acceded to the pressures by adding that it was no good considering terrorism "without at the same time considering the underlying situations which give rise to terrorism and violence in many parts of the world." He assured the protesters that he did not intend "to affect principles enunciated by the General Assembly regarding colonial and dependent peoples seeking independence and liberation."

The two concessions made by Mr. Waldheim may at first glance seem innocuous. In the United Nations, however, they were significant. Attributing acts of terrorism to injustice and frustration obviously tends to excuse, if not justify, those acts. This is especially so when the causes are all assumed to be sympathetic. The language concerning efforts to seek "independence" and "liberation" also implied justification for terrorist acts. These concepts related to the principles adopted in previous U.N. resolutions supporting "self-determination" and wars of national liberation, in the pursuit of which oppressed people were authorized to resort to all available means, including armed struggle.

A General Committee debate on Waldheim’s proposal took up the question of the causes of terrorism, as well as the concepts of self-determination and wars of national liberation. Many nations opposed adding terrorism to the agenda and strongly suggested their support for certain terrorist actions. For example, the representative from Mauritania said that the expression "terrorist" can "hardly be held to apply to persons who were denied the most elementary human rights, dignity, freedom and independence, and whose countries objected to foreign occupation." Citing situations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he said "such peoples could not be blamed for committing desperate acts which in themselves were reprehensible; rather, the real culprits were those who were responsible for causing such desperation."

In the General Assembly the item was amended to include Waldheim’s language on the causes of terrorism and the matter was referred to the U.N. Sixth Committee, on legal affairs. There the representative from Guinea, among others, very clearly supported the right of national liberation movements "to undertake any type of action to ensure that their countries attained independence." The Cuban representative rejected any proposal of "rules for the purpose of assigning legal limits" to revolutionary armed struggle. "The methods of combat used by national liberation movements could not be declared illegal while the policy of terror unleashed against certain peoples was declared legitimate." The Madagascar representative could not have been clearer:

Acts of terrorism inspired by base motives of personal gain were to be condemned. Acts of political terrorism, on the other hand, undertaken to vindicate hallowed rights recognized by the United Nations, were praiseworthy. It was, of course, regrettable that certain acts in the latter category affected innocent persons.

And the Algerian representative presented the philosophical rationale used since time immemorial to justify terror:

His delegation did not agree with the statement in the Secretariat’s report that the legitimacy of a cause did not in itself justify recourse to certain forms of violence; those serving the cause in question should have a choice of the means to be used.

These assertions have been repeated in one form or another in the years since that first debate. During this period, the General Assembly passed seven resolutions on terrorism and its causes. The first, adopted on December 18, 1972, had little to say about the type of terrorism which had led to the subject’s being placed on the agenda. It expressed "deep concern" over increased acts of violence that took innocent lives or jeopardized fundamental freedoms, and invited states to consider joining relevant conventions. But the resolution was a victory for those who supported the right to use all available measures to advance the ends of self-determination and wars of national liberation. The resolution in fact condemned only one thing: "the continuation of repressive and terrorist acts by colonial, racist and alien regimes."

A resolution on terrorism adopted in 1977 added another important element. It invited the Ad Hoc Committee on International Terrorism to study first the underlying causes of terror, and then to recommend measures to deal with acts of terrorism. A 1979 resolution for the first time condemned acts of terror, but it referred to the 1977 Protocols to the Geneva Convention, which seek to give groups fighting wars of national liberation the protection of the laws of war. Finally, in December 1985, after a further series of terrorist acts, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that "unequivocally condemns, as criminal, all acts, methods and practices of terrorism." This resolution contains several provisions calling for international cooperation against terrorism. At the same time, however, it reaffirmed each people’s inalienable right to self-determination, and the legitimacy of struggles against colonial and racist regimes and other forms of alien domination. The debates preceding and following the adoption of this resolution make clear that many states continue to believe that "wars of national liberation" justify or excuse terrorist acts. For example, the Angolan representative, echoing the comments of the delegates from Algeria, Bulgaria, Kuwait and Sri Lanka, among others, made it clear that "acts of terrorism could not be equated, under any pretext, with the acts of those who were fighting colonial and racist oppression and for their freedom and independence."

The wide acceptance of the premise that terrorist acts can be lawful in the pursuit of proper goals is an uneasy first lesson. The United States of course also recognizes that oppressed people are sometimes justified in resorting to force, but only if properly exercised. For example, such uses of force must be consistent with the laws of war and should not be directed at innocent civilians, include hostage-taking, or involve torture. In contrast, the U.N. debates and resolutions relating to terrorism do not suggest principled limits on the use of force, or any reasoned, fair-minded basis for determining which peoples are entitled to wage wars of national liberation. The result is a clear signal to all that those groups deemed by the majority to be oppressed will be free legally to use force, and therefore cannot fairly be called terrorists. In other words, acts of terrorism by such groups are not wrong, and the law has no proper role in punishing or deterring such acts.


The legitimacy of political violence is a notion that has also worked its way deep into international law enforcement. Most countries have treaties that obligate them to extradite to other states persons accused of committing, in those states, the crimes associated with terrorism, such as murder, hijacking, bombing, armed assault and robbery. Yet extradition requests are frequently refused, often because the offense is characterized as "political" conduct which the law exempts from extradition.

Some relatively recent decisions, denying extradition on the ground that the charge is a "political offense," illustrate how detrimental the law can be in the battle against terrorism. In 1972 five individuals hijacked a plane in the United States, extorted $1 million and flew to Algeria, where they were received as political militants. In 1976 they made their way to France, which refused to extradite the five, although they had presented no evidence of political motivation beyond the claim that they were escaping racial segregation in America and were associated with the "black liberation movement." More recently, the United States failed to obtain the extradition of Abu Abbas, thought to have masterminded the Achille Lauro hijacking, from two countries through which he passed following the incident (Italy and Yugoslavia). Despite U.S. assertions of their treaty obligation to hold Abbas, these states released him, Yugoslavia claiming that he was entitled to diplomatic immunity because he carried an Iraqi diplomatic passport.

Some decisions by U.S. courts are equally disturbing. In 1959 a federal court refused to extradite Andrija Artukovic to Yugoslavia for the alleged malicious murders of 200,000 Croatians in concentration camps, after determining that these murders were "political." Some 27 years later the United States successfully deported Artukovic, and he is currently standing trial in Yugoslavia. In recent cases U.S. courts have refused to extradite four alleged Irish Republican Army gunmen on the ground that an uprising exists in Northern Ireland, which makes crimes in furtherance of the revolt "political."

How did the United States get to the point of giving sanctuary to terrorists who kill people in order to get their way in a democracy such as the United Kingdom? Or to an alleged mass murderer? The story is both interesting and instructive.

The "political offense" claim as a defense against extradition has noble roots. It developed in the period of the French and American Revolutions, and reflected the value the new democracies placed upon political freedom. Thomas Jefferson commented, for example, that "unsuccessful strugglers against tyranny have been the chief martyrs of treason laws in all countries." At that time political offenses were associated with acts against the security of a state, such as treason, espionage and sedition.

The concept was soon expanded, however, to so-called relative political offenses—ordinary crimes committed in a political context or with political motivation. An important early case on this point is In re Castioni, decided in 1891, in which the English courts denied extradition for a killing that occurred in the midst of a demonstration against the government of a Swiss canton that refused to submit its new constitution to a popular vote. The shooting served no purpose. But the court found it "political" because it was incidental to and a part of a political disturbance. Even if an act is "cruel and against all reason," the court held, its perpetrator is protected if he acted "for the purpose of furthering and in furtherance of a political rising." Castioni was quickly qualified in England, when in 1894 one of the many anarchists of the period, Théodule Meunier, was extradited to France for placing bombs in a Parisian café and an army barracks. But it took hold in the United States and elsewhere.

In 1894, the same year In re Meunier was decided, a U.S. court refused to extradite high officials of El Salvador accused of murders in their unsuccessful effort to retain power (In re Ezeta). Relying on Castioni, the court held that all acts associated with an uprising were political offenses. The court accepted without discussion the premise that the doctrine was politically neutral, and that protection should be given equally to democrats and dictators. It also explicitly rejected the notion that the offender’s conduct in killing noncombatants could disqualify him from the doctrine’s protection. During hostilities, said the court, "crimes may have been committed by the contending forces of the most atrocious and inhuman character, and still the perpetrators of such crimes escape punishment as fugitives beyond the reach of extradition."

The ruling in Ezeta had some support in U.S. and foreign practice during the nineteenth century. Granting asylum to revolutionaries and victims of revolutions was seen as enlightened. That was the period during which republican government first became a widespread reality. But the political-offense doctrine has another side. Several incidents, diplomatic decisions and rulings during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries indicate that the United States and other countries have taken their particular interests and political ideals into account in formulating the doctrine’s contours. This has led to certain limitations of the concept of a political offense.

A particularly dramatic instance followed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Despite the political nature of the crime, the United States sought and obtained assurances from Great Britain and Italy respectively for the apprehension abroad of John Wilkes Booth and John H. Surratt, one of Booth’s suspected conspirators. Surratt was actually captured in Egypt and sent back to the United States on an American navy vessel. The need to protect heads of state was recognized by other nations as well, and is now a widely accepted qualification to the political-offense doctrine.

During the American Civil War the United States seized in Morocco, with the acquiescence of the Moorish governor, two Confederate sailors who had gone ashore to obtain coal. An objection was raised that the sailors should have been allowed to assert the political-offense doctrine. Secretary of State William Henry Seward rejected the argument, reasoning that the men were "taken in the very act of war against this government." Similarly, in 1946 France and Belgium agreed to surrender to each other individuals convicted of war-related crimes committed during World War II. One offender sought to defeat a Belgian extradition request by claiming that the spying and assassination with which he was charged were political offenses. The French courts rejected the argument because France could not be deemed a neutral on the issue: "the offense was committed in time of war both against an ally and against France, whose interests were linked."

The more recent problem of aircraft hijacking demonstrates how the doctrine can still be applied in accordance with U.S. national interests. During the 1950s, despite America’s strong opposition to aircraft hijackings, the United States and its Western allies refused requests from Czechoslovakia, the U.S.S.R., Poland, Yugoslavia and other communist regimes for the return of persons who hijacked planes, trains and ships to escape. But when aircraft hijacking reached epidemic proportions in the late 1960s and early 1970s the United States determined that hijacking of aircraft carrying passengers was too serious a problem and too great a threat to the safety of innocent passengers to be tolerated. The United States reexamined its policy and "concluded that the hijacker of a commercial aircraft carrying passengers for hire should be returned regardless of any claim he was fleeing political persecution."

Thus, the United States suggested in 1969, during consideration of the Hague Convention on Hijacking, that the political-offense exception should be eliminated for that crime. The suggestion was rejected and the political-offense exception was retained, however, in both the Hague hijacking convention and the Montreal sabotage convention. Nations therefore remain authorized (though not required) to refuse, on political grounds, to extradite suspects in such universally recognized crimes as hijacking and sabotage.

For several years the United States has been prepared to revise its treaties with democratic allies to narrow the political-offense exception and make it inapplicable to crimes of violence and breaches of antiterrorist conventions. In 1983, for example, the United States signed a revised treaty with Italy that narrowed the political-offense exception to exclude, in certain circumstances, offenses covered by a multilateral agreement, such as the hostage-taking or aircraft hijacking conventions. The United States and its people are opposed to rebellions, revolutions and political assassination in democracies, since their political systems offer a peaceful means to seek change. Thus, revolutionaries should not be encouraged in a democracy by the treatment of their violent acts as acceptable political conduct. A doctrine born to reflect the United States’ belief in freedom should not be permitted to serve the interests of those seeking to impose undemocratic views through force.

To advance this objective, the Reagan Administration recently signed a Supplemental Extradition Treaty with the United Kingdom, which narrows the political-offense doctrine to exclude most violent crimes. Similar treaties with other nations are being negotiated. But the proposed treaty with Great Britain has run into fierce opposition in the Senate. Intense lobbying and strong, emotional concern about the Irish problem may lead the Senate to refuse to ratify this treaty. That would be a grave setback. It would make the United States no better than the other nations that have their favorite terrorists. If the United States fails to reject absolutely the use of force against a democracy that is its closest ally, it will lose credibility in urging other states to cooperate in its own efforts against terrorism.


The law against piracy provides another illustration of how international law has failed adequately to control politically motivated crimes. The Achille Lauro incident presented the question whether the acts of the hijackers of that vessel constituted piracy "under the law of nations," and were therefore felonies under U.S. law. The hijackers stole money and jewelry from the ship’s passengers, but their primary purposes were political. They were allegedly seeking to commit acts of violence in Israel, where the vessel was scheduled to dock, and after taking control they demanded that Israel release certain terrorists it had imprisoned. Is such an enterprise "piracy"?

The traditional law of piracy could have been one vehicle for obtaining jurisdiction over terrorists, with fewer loopholes for political crimes than recent conventions. Piracy law has long been inapplicable to state vessels and recognized belligerents when they engaged in lawful acts of war. Those who believed that belligerents should not be treated as pirates reasoned that they were the enemies only of a particular government, not of mankind. This recognized exclusion contained a crucial limitation: it applied only if the insurgents confined themselves to depredations against the country with which they were at war. Where individuals engaged in an insurgency attacked nonbelligerents, the exclusion did not apply and the rebels were treated as pirates.

The modern law of piracy purports to modify significantly these traditional rules. The 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas define piracy as any illegal act of violence, detention or depredation committed against a ship "for private ends." The private-ends requirement was used deliberately to exclude acts with public or political motives. The rapporteur for the International Law Commission, which drafted the Geneva high seas convention, explained that "he had defined as piracy acts of violence or depredation committed for private ends, thus leaving outside the scope of the definition all wrongful acts perpetrated for a political purpose."

The approach of these two conventions would substantially contract the reach of the law of piracy. The "private ends" requirement, at least as described by the rapporteur, would expand the traditional "insurgency" exclusion to cover all persons claiming to be politically motivated. Moreover, the exclusion’s traditional limitation to acts committed against a country with which the insurgents are at war appears to have been either overlooked or abandoned. As a result, the conventions arguably place all politically motivated acts outside the universal jurisdiction of sovereign states.

Conceivably, the conventions could be read to cover indiscriminate attacks on civilians, or attacks motivated by race or nationality, having no ordinary relationship to an insurgency, such as the murder of Mr. Klinghoffer. But the terrorists involved in the Achille Lauro affair would no doubt claim they were acting politically, even in killing Klinghoffer, and hence could not be called pirates under the conventions.

The "private-ends" requirement undermines some positive achievements contained in the two conventions. The piracy provisions in the conventions were intended to confirm the existence of universal jurisdiction for any nation to capture and punish all persons who committed wrongful acts on the high seas or in the air, or in any other place where no state has jurisdiction. In fact, the conventions go further than merely permitting countries to act. Both contain an article providing that "all States shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy" and the commentary to the Geneva Convention on the High Seas states that "any State having an opportunity of taking measures against piracy, and neglecting to do so, would be failing in a duty laid upon it by international law." But by narrowing the definition of piracy, these conventions exclude from the international duty to repress piracy "to the fullest possible extent" all politically motivated attacks on vessels and aircraft.


The exclusion of terrorist acts from the reach of legal prohibitions is not the only means by which law has been employed to legitimize terrorism. Another approach has been to secure for terrorism a legal status that obscures or denies its fundamentally criminal nature. The laws of war mark the line between what is criminal and what is an act of combat. A person who kills someone is normally guilty of homicide. If he does it during combat, however, he is a soldier and can only be held as a prisoner of war, and may be punished only if the killing violates the laws of war. Radical groups responsible for terrorist acts have long sought legitimacy by securing recognition as combatants under the laws of war.

The effort of radical groups to acquire legal legitimacy had a significant success in the Geneva Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflict, which met between 1974 and 1977. The conference, under the auspices of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), was called to improve the laws of war set forth in the Geneva conventions of 1949. It produced two additional protocols to the Geneva conventions: Protocol I dealing with international, and Protocol II with non-international, armed conflict. The United States participated in the Geneva conference and signed the protocols, but the President has decided not to seek Senate ratification of Protocol I, and has decided to seek several reservations and understandings as conditions to the ratification of Protocol II.

The ICRC and the conference developed many constructive ideas to help minimize the suffering of combatants and non-combatants in armed conflict. But from the beginning of the conference, an effort was made to extend the law of international armed conflicts to cover activities of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other radical groups, many of whom were accorded observer status.

The first substantive address, by then-President Moktar Ould Daddah of Mauritania, urged the conference to recognize "certain values and elementary rights which went beyond the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," because millions were "still under colonial oppression in the African continent, while international Zionism had placed the Palestinian population in an impossible situation." He asked the conference to consider, not only effects, but causes as well, and to recognize "there were such things as just wars." Daddah said, "It was quite obvious that it was the Zionists who wanted to throw the Arabs into the sea. . . . National liberation movements did not want to shed blood, only to secure recognition of their rights."

The Geneva diplomatic conference adopted in its first session what is now Article 1(4) of Protocol I, with 11 of 99 nations, including the United States, abstaining, and only Israel dissenting. This article would make the laws of international armed conflict applicable to "armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of the right of self-determination." Never before has the applicability of the laws of war been made to turn on the purported aims of a conflict. Moreover, this provision obliterated the traditional distinction between international and non-international armed conflict. Any group within a national boundary claiming to be fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation or a racist regime can now argue that it is protected by the laws of war, and that its members are entitled to prisoner-of-war status for their otherwise criminal acts. Members of radical groups in the United States have already tried to do so in federal courts.

The ICRC and most Western nations expressed no admiration for this article. Some contend, however, that as a result of the new rule humanitarian law now governs the actions of national liberation groups. While the PLO and other "freedom fighters" may now claim the benefits of the laws of war, they thereby became bound to obey these rules. This, in some eyes, is seen as an advance for humanitarian law.

In fact, radical groups rarely have the resources and facilities to provide the protections for prisoners of war required by the laws of war. Even if they had the resources, these groups have no inclination to provide such protections, or to abide by the law’s limitations on the actions they may take, particularly against noncombatants. In fact, the supporters of Article 1(4), no doubt recognizing that the PLO and some other "freedom fighters" have concentrated their guns, bombs and rockets on civilian noncombatants, obtained an additional protection for these groups. Article 44(1) provides that, once a group qualifies as a national liberation movement, protected by Article 1(4), no conduct by individual members of the group can lead to the loss of its status as a protected organization. The rationale for this rule is that individuals should be punished separately for their conduct. The effect is to preserve the right of such organizations to be treated as combatants, even if they routinely engage in acts of terror against civilians.

The Geneva diplomatic conference went even further in accommodating the needs of radical groups, at the expense of the civilian population that humanitarian law is intended to protect. A fundamental premise of the Geneva conventions is that, to earn the right to protection as military fighters, soldiers must distinguish themselves from civilians by wearing uniforms and carrying their weapons openly. Thus, under the 1949 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, irregular forces achieve combatant (and, if captured, prisoner-of-war) status when they (1) are commanded by a person responsible for subordinates, (2) bear a fixed, distinctive insignia recognizable from a distance, (3) carry weapons openly, and (4) conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Fighters who attempt to take advantage of civilians by hiding among them in civilian dress, with their weapons out of view, lose their claim to be treated as soldiers. The law thus attempts to encourage fighters to avoid placing civilians in unconscionable jeopardy.

The terrorist groups that attended the conference had no intention of modifying their conduct to satisfy these traditional rules of engagement. Terrorists are not soldiers. They don’t wear uniforms. They hide among civilians and, after striking, they try to escape once again into civilian groups. Instead of modifying their conduct, therefore, the terrorist groups succeeded in modifying the law.

Article 44(3) of Protocol I recognizes that "to promote the protection of the civilian population from the effects of hostilities, combatants are obliged to distinguish themselves from the civilian population while they are engaged in an attack or in a military operation preparatory to an attack." But the provision goes on to state "that there are situations in armed conflicts where, owing to the nature of the hostilities, an armed combatant cannot so distinguish himself." In such situations, "he shall retain his status as a combatant, provided . . . he carries his arms openly: (a) during each military engagement, and (b) during such time as he is visible to the adversary while he is engaged in a military deployment preceding the launching of an attack in which he is to participate." Furthermore, the section provides that "acts which comply with the requirements of this paragraph shall not be considered as perfidious"—for example, feigning protected status prior to a military engagement by using signs, emblems or uniforms of the United Nations, or nations that are not parties to the conflict.

These changes in traditional rules undermine the notion that the protocol has secured an advantage for humanitarian law by granting revolutionary groups protection as combatants. Under the Geneva conventions, a terrorist could not hide among civilians until just before an attack. Under Protocol I, he may do so; he need only carry his arms openly while he is visibly engaged in a deployment or while he is in an actual engagement.

These changes have more than merely symbolic significance. The radical groups represented at the conference lobbied hard for them and succeeded. After the vote on Protocol I, the PLO’s representative "expressed his deep satisfaction at the result of the vote, by which the international community had reconfirmed the legitimacy of the struggles of peoples exercising their right to self-determination." He then specifically cited Article 1(4) as authority for the PLO’s actions in Israel.


Protocol I’s recognition of wars of national liberation recently received rhetorical and symbolic reinforcement in what one would have thought was a most unlikely place: the U.N. Convention Against the Taking of Hostages. The convention, adopted by the General Assembly in 1979, makes criminal the taking of hostages, requires nations to enact implementing legislation, and imposes an extradite-or-prosecute obligation. Nearly 30 countries, including the United States, are currently parties to the convention. One extraordinary provision precludes extradition where the suspect is likely to be unfairly treated, thus providing a ready excuse for refusing to extradite. But the obligation to prosecute remains. On the whole, the convention establishes a useful scheme for combating hostage-taking by terrorists, a goal that the U.N. Security Council reaffirmed on December 18, 1985, by the adoption of a resolution condemning unequivocally all acts of hostage-taking and abduction.

A review of the negotiating history of the Convention Against the Taking of Hostages, however, reveals the deep division over the propriety of terrorist acts. The negotiations began in 1977 and were completed in 1979. At the outset, a number of countries sought to exclude from the convention hostage-taking by national liberation movements. Some states, including Libya, went further and sought not only to exempt such movements, but to define hostage-taking to include the act of subjecting persons to colonialism, racism or foreign domination. In other words, all the people living in a country determined to have a racist government would be deemed to be hostages, and the government to be a hostage-taker.

These radical proposals were eventually rejected during the 1979 session. Advocates of political violence did, however, win a significant victory. The nations that opposed excluding liberation movements from the coverage of the convention were required to accept a reference, in Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva conventions, to the treatment of national liberation fighters as combatants. This reaffirmation took the form of Article 12 of the hostage-taking convention, which provides that, to the extent the 1949 Geneva conventions and the 1977 additional protocols impose substantively identical obligations with regard to an instance of hostage-taking, the hostage-taking convention will not apply to the armed conflicts ("in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of the right of self-determination") specified in Article 1(4) of Protocol I.

Article 12 of the hostage-taking convention does not, in my view, create a legal gap in coverage. All instances of hostage-taking remain subject to an obligation by the state in which a hostage-taker is found either to extradite or to prosecute. Nevertheless, the states that sought this provision succeeded in using the hostage-taking convention to achieve a rhetorical and political victory. They can now argue that the structure and language of Article 12 represent some measure of acceptance that members of national liberation movements are combatants, not terrorists, since hostage-taking by such movements are covered by the laws of war and excluded from the convention. The delegate from Yugoslavia, for instance, expressed the view that the committee considering the convention had, by its action, "reaffirmed . . . that the struggle of the liberation movements was legal, that it was based on provisions of international law of war and that it could not be confused with the criminal activity of irresponsible persons and terrorist groups and organizations."

It is comically bizarre to suggest, as Article 12 requires in specified circumstances, that persons like Abu Abbas must be treated as wayward soldiers, rather than as international criminals. That the laws of war and the laws against hostage-taking have been structured to permit that result reflects the strength of influence terrorist organizations and their supporters now wield in international law.


Not all diplomatic efforts to quell terrorism have been as negative as the foregoing. For example, the 1973 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, Including Diplomatic Agents, is generally considered a successful negotiation by the West. It is interesting, however, to examine the manner in which certain countries, after failing to change the text of this convention, managed nonetheless to obtain concessions that serve their purpose of circumventing its clear and absolute obligations.

In 1973 the U.N. General Assembly adopted the protected persons convention, and over 60 nations are currently parties, including the United States. The convention defines a class of internationally protected persons, and requires governments to make criminal certain violent acts directed against such persons or their property, and to extradite or prosecute suspected offenders found in their territory. The convention text is non-polemical, and its coverage is relatively comprehensive—not surprising when one realizes that it was drafted, negotiated and adopted by its principal beneficiaries: diplomats.

What is surprising, however, is how close the negotiations came to being derailed, and the lack of underlying consensus that the discussions reflect.

The Sixth Committee of the United Nations began considering the draft version of the protected persons convention on October 4, 1973. On November 15, when agreement had been reached on the majority of the provisions, the delegate from Mali, on behalf of a group of 36 countries, introduced a proposed additional article that caught many other delegations by surprise. The article would have made the protected persons convention inapplicable to "peoples struggling against colonialism, alien domination, foreign occupation, racial discrimination and apartheid in the exercise of their legitimate rights to self-determination and independence." The Mali delegate, stating a theme repeated by others, claimed the article was needed to prevent the convention from "serving as a pretext for colonial and racist regimes to intensify the suppression of the national liberation movements recognized in various United Nations decisions and resolutions." The delegate from Morocco said his delegation could not favor a convention that would protect the governmental agents of certain states "against all risks." The brutal truth is that, by implication, the proposed article advocates that the right of self-determination include the right to commit violent acts against diplomats.

This position was unacceptable to the United States as well as others. It was eventually rejected after intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations between November 15 and December 6, but on a basis that cast a pall over the exercise. The United States acquiesced in a Sixth Committee recommendation to the General Assembly that it adopt, along with the draft convention, a resolution recognizing that nothing in the protected persons convention could "in any way prejudice the exercise of the legitimate right to self-determination and independence . . . by peoples struggling against colonization, alien domination, foreign occupation, racial discrimination and apartheid." In addition, Paragraph 6 of the resolution declared "that the present resolution, whose provisions are related to the amended Convention, shall always be published together with it." While these provisions cannot be considered law, they are a clear indication of what many governments believe, and of the muscle those states were able to bring to bear in getting the resolution adopted as part of a package deal.

This put the United States on notice that, in the future, other governments may rely on the resolution to circumvent the absolute obligations of the protected persons convention itself. In fact, Burundi’s accession to the convention reserved the right not to apply its terms to national liberation movements, and Iraq indicated when it acceded that it intended to accord protected status to the representatives of certain national liberation movements. In short, even so seemingly neutral an issue as the protection of diplomats failed to escape the political divisiveness that pervades the world community on questions of the appropriate use of violence.


The law’s support for political violence has been manifested most recently in the efforts of some nations to establish doctrinal bases for curtailing the use of force against terrorists and their supporting states.

International law regulates the use of force by a country in the territories of other states, whether to capture or attack terrorists or to rescue hostages located there, or against the states themselves for sponsoring terrorists or conspiring with them in specific terrorist activities. In general, a nation may not enter upon another’s territory without its consent. Similarly, a state may not stop, board, divert or otherwise interfere with another’s vessels or aircraft without some adequate basis. Finally, the use of force against another country’s territorial integrity or political independence is prohibited, except in self-defense, and any use of force must be both necessary and proportionate to the threat it addresses.

These principles have been respected by the United States. If they were applied, however, in such a manner as to preclude any use of force for any purpose, international law would serve to insulate the perpetrators of international violence from any control or punishment for their crimes. States could then continue using terrorism to accomplish their objectives with little cost or interference.

The principle of territorial sovereignty is not the only principle of law that must be weighed in considering objections against attacks on terrorists, attempts to rescue hostages and actions against countries that sponsor terrorism. States have duties to cooperate in preventing terrorists from using their territories in perpetrating criminal acts, and many governments have explicitly undertaken to extradite or prosecute terrorists guilty of hijacking, sabotage and hostage-taking. These obligations cannot be disregarded in evaluating the propriety of antiterrorist operations. Furthermore, under the U.N. Charter, just as under customary international law, victims of terrorism are not powerless to defend themselves. The charter reaffirms the inherent right to use force in individual or collective self-defense against armed attack.

Since the days of President James Madison, the United States has repeatedly acted against armed bands that attacked Americans and then fled, seeking sanctuary in neighboring countries unwilling or powerless to prevent or punish their acts. With the acquiescence of the harboring state, as in the case of U.S. operations in Mexico against Pancho Villa’s terrorist attacks in the early part of this century, or without such permission, as in the case of Andrew Jackson’s actions to stop attacks from Spanish Florida, the United States has used its forces to bring an end to terrorist attacks on American citizens and interests.

Other nations, when confronted with terrorist attacks, have defended themselves with force. In the celebrated case of the Caroline, the British pushed over Niagara Falls a ship carrying some members of an armed band of New Yorkers that was in the process of supporting an insurrection in Canada. While the American government thought the British had acted too harshly, both governments agreed on the law: the use of force in self-defense is appropriate so long as it is necessary and proportional. The International Court of Justice recognized this principle in the Corfu Channel case, where Britain had swept mines from the channel after suffering damage to its ships. In holding Albania liable for the damages, the court reaffirmed the "well-recognized" principle that every country has an obligation "not to allow knowingly its territory to be used for acts contrary to the rights of other States."

As Secretary of State George Shultz has said, in the fight against terrorism as in the struggle to deter aggression:

The law is a weapon on our side and it is up to us to use it to its maximum extent. . . . [A] state which supports terrorist or subversive attacks against another state, or which supports or encourages terrorist planning and other activities within its own territory, is responsible for such attacks. Such conduct can amount to an ongoing armed aggression against the other state under international law.

Some public officials and international law experts have questioned the premise that harboring and supporting terrorists who attack a nation is a form of aggression. Others suggest that force may not be used against a government that sponsors terrorist acts. The United States has never accepted such a paralyzing view of the right to act in self-defense. Strong legal support exists for the U.S. position on these issues, as reflected in universally recognized principles of conspiracy and agency law and in several U.N. resolutions, including the Friendly Relations Declaration and the U.N. Definition of Aggression. Here, as in other areas, states and individuals opposed to U.S. policies, or to the use of force in general, are invoking law as a mask for their political interests.

The U.S. bombing raid launched against Libya on April 14, 1986, illustrated the need nations sometimes have to use force against states that sponsor terrorism. After terrorists from the Abu Nidal group attacked passengers in Rome and Vienna on December 27, 1985, killing 19 civilians, including five Americans, President Reagan clearly signaled the United States’ intent to rely upon its right of self-defense. He said:

By providing material support to terrorist groups which attack U.S. citizens, Libya has engaged in armed aggression against the United States under established principles of international law, just as if he [Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi] had used its own armed forces.

Despite this clear warning, Libya deliberately arranged for at least two attacks aimed at American noncombatants and U.S. interests. One plan was to fire automatic rifles and hurl grenades at civilians lined up at the U.S. embassy in Paris. French cooperation enabled the United States to thwart this plan, and several Libyans involved were deported. The United States was not so fortunate in West Berlin. Libyans at their people’s bureau (embassy) in East Germany informed their home base that a planned attack would take place on April 5. A bomb exploded at a discothèque frequented by U.S. soldiers, killing Sergeant Kenneth T. Ford and a Turkish woman, and injuring over 200 persons, including 50 Americans. Shortly thereafter, on April 6, the same people’s bureau informed Tripoli of the successful attack, and assured Tripoli that the bombing could not be traced to Libya.

These communications, following Qaddafi’s long history of support for terrorism, and his threats against U.S. citizens, established overwhelmingly that Libya was responsible for the attack. In addition, the President was faced with strong evidence of some 30 possible impending Libyan attacks on U.S. facilities and personnel throughout the world. The April 14 strikes were to deter these and other planned attacks.

Some governments have condemned the action against Libya, claiming to disbelieve U.S. claims that Libya attacked American citizens and was planning further attacks. Others have ignored U.S. claims, and simply characterize Reagan Administration actions as "criminal" or "brutal." They oppose the use of force, even in self-defense. But no cogent argument has been made questioning the legal principles upon which the United States has relied. A resolution condemning the United States was vetoed by the United States, France and the United Kingdom in the Security Council on April 21. Its adoption would have given state-sponsored terrorism its ultimate legal defense, immunizing international aggression against noncombatants from the use of force in self-defense.

Law can make clear that state-supported terrorism is illicit, and may thus serve to deter it. But terrorist-supporting nations will not surrender seriously held ambitions to expand their power and influence simply because the law is against them. Legal argument alone will not protect law-abiding nations and peoples against Qaddafi or Iran’s Khomeini. Nor will the prospect for peaceful settlement of disputes with such regimes be enhanced by U.S. promises to abjure force or by unrealistic limits on its flexibility. If Americans overestimate the limits of their own tolerance, they may allow U.S. adversaries to do so as well, thereby inviting reckless activity. The policeman is apt protection against individual criminals; but national self-defense is the only protection against the criminal state.


The law, as presently formulated, cannot reasonably be expected effectively to repress international terrorism. International terrorism is still supported by many nations as a legitimate means of struggle against regimes deemed by them to be colonial, alien or racist. At the behest of these states, and by the acquiescence of others, international law has been systematically and intentionally fashioned to give special treatment to, or to leave unregulated, those activities that cause and are the source of most acts of international terror.

The failure of international law to control terrorism is a matter of great strategic concern. Ineffective methods for dealing with terrorists through the law will inevitably lead to antiterrorist actions more primitive and dangerous than cooperation among sovereign states, including conventional military actions in self-defense, will provide. These dangers are especially heightened with terrorism that is state-supported.

Civilized nations and peoples cannot give up on law, however frustrated they may feel by its shortcomings. In fact, the point of this essay is that law is not presently being used to counter terrorism; it has been placed very much at the service of those who embrace political violence. Our challenge is to create a broader understanding among peoples and governments to bring about a shift in the objects that international law is designed to serve.

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  • Abraham D. Sofaer is Legal Adviser to the Department of State. Previously, he was a federal district judge in New York. This article is based on the Sulzbacher Lecture delivered at the Columbia University School of Law, April 5, 1986. Legal citations have not been included to facilitate ease of reading; they are available from the Office of the Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C. 20520.
  • More By Abraham D. Sofaer