Research Handbooks in International Law series
Edited by Ben Saul
Chapter 18: Terrorism and self-determination
Lawful or legitimate self-determination violence can be distinguished from terrorism in terms of motivation and means at many levels. By way of rough analogy, states also employ ‘violence strategically for political ends on a regular basis – to maintain public order and national security’. As certain forms of state violence, including acts that are intended to spread terror, are ordinarily considered lawful, ‘the possibility must remain that some forms of political violence can be justifiable, and thereby escape condemnation as “terrorism”’. However, while violence may be justified in strategic, political and/ or legal terms, governments possess the monopoly on lawful force. This means that, depending on the status of the actor, the context of the act, the intended target and the result achieved, violence may or may not entail criminal responsibility. Therefore, once overly broad labels such as ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ are incorporated in legal prohibitions, difficulties can arise. Employing such labels extra-judicially to describe any enemy – including self-determination movements – can thus be made ‘a vital step in the struggle with that enemy – it is like winning a court victory that identifies your opponent as a criminal’. States have long been encouraged to condemn acts of violence perpetrated for political ends.
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