Antonio Coco is a PhD Candidate at the University of Geneva and a Teaching Assistant at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
On 25 October 2013, in its judgment in the R v Mohammed Gul case, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom tackled two important issues: the definition of terrorism in times of armed conflict and the relationship between domestic legislation and international rules criminalizing certain behaviours. On both issues, the judgment is rather unsatisfying and may be considered a step back from the stand previously taken by the Court of Appeal in the same case (upon which I commented in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, vol. 11(2), 2013, pp. 425-440, some time ago; see also the excellent post by Kimberley Trapp here on EJIL:Talk!). In particular, the Supreme Court found the terrorism definition in UK law to be both unwise and undesirable but then relied on it to confirm the defendant’s conviction.
The defendant, a law student of British nationality, was accused of having disseminated terrorist publications, an offence under Section 2(3) of the UK Terrorism Act 2006. Actually, his conduct consisted in uploading onto the Internet, and particularly on Youtube, videos of attacks against military targets in Chechnya, Iran and Afghanistan. The videos were accompanied by prayers and praises for the attackers. One legal element of the offence is that the publication – in this case the videos – concerns actual terrorist attacks. The bone of contention here, then, is whether attacks against military targets in the context of non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) can be labelled as terrorist attacks.
The definition of terrorism in UK legislation is contained in Section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000. It basically foresees three requirements: (1) an act or threat which involves serious violence or danger to the life of persons, serious damage to property, or serious interference with or disruption of electronic systems; (2) the “purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”; and (3) the fact that the act or threat is “designed to influence the government or an international governmental organization, or to intimidate the public or a section of the public”. The act or threat need not to be designed to influence a government or an international organization or to intimidate the public when it involves the use of firearms or explosives. This means that any threat or use of firearms or explosives motivated by a political or ideological cause is an act of terrorism, as long as it involves serious danger to persons or serious damage to property and regardless of its purpose.
The definition is practically very broad (as recently noted by K.J. Heller). It seems to label as terrorist most acts of warfare in a NIAC, regardless of whether they are lawful or unlawful under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and whether they are carried out by the armed forces of a State or by a non-State armed group. Indeed, most hostile acts in an armed conflict are likely to cause serious violence to persons or serious damage to property, and all of them are motivated by a political or ideological cause. Arguably, any hostile act in an armed conflict is designed to influence a government or involves the use of firearms or explosives. According to this definition, every person embracing weapons in a NIAC is considered a terrorist. The Prosecution in the Gul case argued that such a wide definition is counterbalanced by the requirement that prosecutions for terrorism are authorized by the Director of Public Prosecution if the activity occurred in the UK, or by the Attorney General if it occurred abroad, thus ensuring that criminal charges are formulated only in the appropriate cases (§ 30). This contention, far from solving the problem, seems to raise even more concerns, as I shall explain below. Read the rest of this entry…