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International conventions on terrorism

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There are eleven major multilateral international conventions related to states' responsibilities for combating terrorism.

In addition to these conventions, other instruments may be relevant to particular circumstances, such as bilateral extradition treaties, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Moreover, there are now a number of important United Nations Security Council and General Assembly Resolutions on international terrorism, including UN Security Council Resolution 1373 and three important Security Council resolutions dealing with Libya's conduct in connection with the sabotage of Pan Am Flight 103 on December 21, 1988, which includes UN Security Council Resolutions 731 (January 21, 1992); 748 (March 31, 1992) and 883 (November 11, 1993).

The following list identifies the major terrorism conventions and provides a brief summary of some of the major terms of each instrument. In addition to the provisions summarized below, most of these conventions provide that parties must establish criminal jurisdiction over offenders (e.g., the state(s) where the offense takes place, or in some cases the state of nationality of the perpetrator or victim).

  1. Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed On Board Aircraft (Tokyo Convention, agreed 9/63—safety of aviation):
    • applies to acts affecting in-flight safety;
    • authorizes aircraft commanders to impose reasonable measures, including restraint, on any person they have reason to believe has committed or is about to commit such an act, when necessary to protect the safety of the aircraft and for related reasons; #* requires contracting states to take custody of offenders and to return control of the aircraft to the lawful commander.
  2. Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft (Hague Convention, agreed 12/70—aircraft hijackings):
    • makes it an offense for any person on board an aircraft in flight [to] "unlawfully, by force or threat thereof, or any other form of intimidation, [to] seize or exercise control of that aircraft" or to attempt to do so;
    • requires parties to the convention to make hijackings punishable by "severe penalties;"
    • requires parties that have custody of offenders to either extradite the offender or submit the case for prosecution;
    • requires parties to assist each other in connection with criminal proceedings brought under the convention.
  3. Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation (Montreal Convention, agreed 9/71—applies to acts of aviation sabotage such as bombings aboard aircraft in flight):
    • makes it an offense for any person unlawfully and intentionally to perform an act of violence against a person on board an aircraft in flight, if that act is likely to endanger the safety of that aircraft; to place an explosive device on an aircraft; and to attempt such acts or be an accomplice of a person who performs or attempts to perform such acts;
    • requires parties to the convention to make offenses punishable by "severe penalties;"
    • requires parties that have custody of offenders to either extradite the offender or submit the case for prosecution;
    • requires parties to assist each other in connection with criminal proceedings brought under the convention.
  4. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons (agreed 12/73—protects senior government officials and diplomats):
    • defines internationally protected person as a Head of State, a Minister for Foreign Affairs, a representative or official of a state or of an international organization who is entitled to special protection from attack under international law;
    • requires each party to criminalize and make punishable "by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature," the intentional murder, kidnapping, or other attack upon the person or liberty of an internationally protected person, a violent attack upon the official premises, the private accommodations, or the means of transport of such person; a threat or attempt to commit such an attack; and an act "constituting participation as an accomplice;"
    • requires parties that have custody of offenders to either extradite the offender or submit the case for prosecution;
    • requires parties to assist each other in connection with criminal proceedings brought under the convention.
  5. Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (Nuclear Materials Convention, agreed 10/79—combats unlawful taking and use of nuclear material):
    • criminalizes the unlawful possession, use, transfer, etc., of nuclear material, the theft of nuclear material, and threats to use nuclear material to cause death or serious injury to any person or substantial property damage;
    • requires parties that have custody of offenders to either extradite the offender or submit the case for prosecution;
    • requires parties to assist each other in connection with criminal proceedings brought under the convention.
  6. International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages (Hostages Convention, agreed 12/79):
    • provides that "any person who seizes or detains and threatens to kill, to injure, or to continue to detain another person in order to compel a third party, namely, a State, an international intergovernmental organization, a natural or juridical person, or a group of persons, to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the hostage commits the offense of taking of hostages within the meaning of this Convention;"
    • requires parties that have custody of offenders to either extradite the offender or submit the case for prosecution;
    • requires parties to assist each other in connection with criminal proceedings brought under the convention.
  7. Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation (agreed 2/88—extends and supplements Montreal Convention):
    • extends the provisions of the Montreal Convention (see No. 3 above) to encompass terrorist acts at airports serving international civil aviation.
  8. Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, (agreed 3/88—applies to terrorist activities on ships):
    • establishes a legal regime applicable to acts against international maritime navigation that is similar to the regimes established against international aviation;
    • makes it an offense for a person unlawfully and intentionally to seize or exercise control over a ship by force, threat, or intimidation; to perform an act of violence against a person on board a ship if that act is likely to endanger the safe navigation of the ship; to place a destructive device or substance aboard a ship; and other acts against the safety of ships;
    • requires parties that have custody of offenders to either extradite the offender or submit the case for prosecution;
    • requires parties to assist each other in connection with criminal proceedings brought under the convention.
    • Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf (agreed 3/88—applies to terrorist activities on fixed offshore platforms):
    • establishes a legal regime applicable to acts against fixed platforms on the continental shelf that is similar to the regimes established against international aviation;
    • requires parties that have custody of offenders to either extradite the offender or submit the case for prosecution;
    • requires parties to assist each other in connection with criminal proceedings brought under the protocol.
  9. Convention on the Marking of Plastic Explosives for the Purpose of Identification (agreed 3/91—provides for chemical marking to facilitate detection of plastic explosives, e.g., to combat aircraft sabotage). Consists of two parts: the Convention itself, and a Technical Annex which is an integral part of the Convention.
    • designed to control and limit the used of unmarked and undetectable plastic explosives (negotiated in the aftermath of the Pan Am 103 bombing);
    • parties are obligated in their respective territories to ensure effective control over "unmarked" plastic explosive, i.e., those that do not contain one of the detection agents described in the Technical Annex;
    • generally speaking, each party must, among other things: take necessary and effective measures to prohibit and prevent the manufacture of unmarked plastic explosives; take necessary and effective measures to prevent the movement of unmarked plastic explosives into or out of its territory; take necessary measures to exercise strict and effective control over possession and transfer of unmarked explosives made or imported prior to the entry-into-force of the convention; take necessary measures to ensure that all stocks of such unmarked explosives not held by the military or police are destroyed or consumed, marked, or rendered permanently ineffective within three years; take necessary measures to ensure that unmarked plastic explosives held by the military or police, are destroyed or consumed, marked, or rendered permanently ineffective within fifteen years; and, take necessary measures to ensure the destruction, as soon as possible, of any unmarked explosives manufactured after the date-of-entry into force of the convention for that state.
    • does not itself create new offenses that would be subject to a prosecution or extradition regime, although all states are required to ensure that provisions are complied within their territories.
  10. International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombing (agreed 12/97—expands the legal framework for international cooperation in the investigation, prosecution, and extradition of persons who engage in terrorist bombings):
    • creates a regime of universal jurisdiction over the unlawful and intentional use of explosives and other lethal devices in, into, or against various defined public places with intent to kill or cause serious bodily injury, or with intent to cause extensive destruction of the public place;
    • like earlier conventions on protected persons and hostage taking, requires parties to criminalize, under their domestic laws, certain types of criminal offenses, and also requires parties to extradite or submit for prosecution persons accused of committing or aiding in the commission of such offenses.

During the negotiations on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, many states supported adding terrorism to the list of crimes over which the court would have jurisdiction. This proposal was not adopted. However, the Statute provides for a review conference to be held seven years after the entry into force of the Statute. This review will consider (among other things) an extension of the court's jurisdiction to include terrorism.

Terrorists are generally not protected under the laws of war, although they are protected by the laws of the state in which they operate. For example, under the Third Geneva Convention, a person is eligible for prisoner of war status only if they "carry arms openly" and "respect the laws and customs of war". It also requires that members of militias and other irregular groups have "a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance." See unlawful combatant for further discussion.

However the 1979 Optional Additional Protocol 1 (Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts) applies in "armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination"(Article 1:3) and furthermore the following clause appears to give guerrilla fighters in such conflicts lawful combatant and POW status, even if not wearing uniform, as long as they carry weapons openly during attacks:

"In order 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. Recognizing, however, that there are situations in armed conflicts where, owing to the nature of the hostilities an armed combatant cannot so distinguish himself, he shall retain his status as a combatant, provided that, in such situations, 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."(Article 44:3)

Optional Additional Protocol 2 (Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts) may also apply in many "insurgencies", "terrorist campaigns" or "civil wars". However this convention does not give non-government militants lawful combatant status or POW status, although Article 6(5) does recommend "broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in the armed conflict" after the end of hostilities. It does specify minimum standards for those detained or interned ("persons whose liberty has been restricted"). The covention prohibits war crimes, "acts of terrorism" and extra-judicial execution and sets standards for fair trials--although it does not prohibit internment.

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