January 17, 2002

January 17, 2002 | Backgrounder on International Organizations

U.N. Treaties and Conferences Will Not Stop Terrorism

At the conclusion of the United Nations' October 2001 Plenary Meetings on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism, the President of the U.N. General Assembly stated that the "primary task facing the international community at present is to ensure that an effective legal framework for the prevention and elimination of international terrorism is in place."1 These sentiments were echoed by Estonia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who declared at a subsequent meeting of the General Assembly that

The destruction and elimination of terrorist networks is a time-consuming task, for which there are no instant solutions. The United Nations does, however, have effective measures at its disposal to fight terrorism--international conventions and sanctions that can be applied to hamper terrorist activities.2

Yet experience indicates clearly that this faith in the potency of legal treaties and conferences is misplaced. Currently, there are 12 international treaties and conventions addressing terrorism and related activities. That these accords have had no substantial impact is underscored by the striking fact that all seven of the state sponsors of terrorism identified by the United States Department of State are signatories or state parties to one or more of these 12 treaties or conventions. In fact, even as new anti-terrorist treaties have multiplied throughout the past 40 years, the incidence of terrorism has escalated.

The Weaknesses of U.N. Anti-Terrorism Efforts

In spite of its efforts to take a stand against terrorism through treaties and agreements, the United Nations is hampered by political sensitivities that have stifled even seemingly uncontestable actions. For example, on November 21, 2001, the Legal Committee of the General Assembly approved a draft resolution "strongly condemning all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomsoever committed."3 Yet the member states cannot agree on what, exactly, constitutes terrorism.4

In November, the chairman of the Working Group on Measures to Eliminate Terrorism, Rohan Perera of Sri Lanka, claimed that the group was close to coming to an agreement on a comprehensive convention on terrorism that would close the gaps left by existing anti-terrorism treaties, but he also had to admit that the document has been hobbled by "politically sensitive" issues that would require compromise.5 The bottom line is that in the war on terrorism, international treaties and conventions have value only as a complement to a clearly defined policy that is backed by a firm willingness to fight terrorism with armed force.

A Host of Treaties and Conventions

The United Nations has included terrorism as an agenda item for each session of the General Assembly since the 27th session in 1972. Between 1979 and 1999, the General Assembly adopted 13 resolutions and one decision addressing international terrorism.6 In addition, the General Assembly voted to create the Ad Hoc Committee on International Terrorism, which met and reported its findings to the General Assembly in 1973, 1977, and 1979. In 1996, the General Assembly re-established the Ad Hoc Committee on Terrorism to

elaborate a comprehensive convention on international terrorism...developing a comprehensive legal framework of conventions dealing with international terrorism, and...convening a high-level conference under the auspices of the United Nations to formulate a joint organized response of the international community to terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.7

Unfortunately, such efforts have produced more paperwork than tangible results in the fight against terrorism.

The Plenary Meetings of the General Assembly on "Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism," held from October 1 to October 5, 2001, provide a case in point. Conducting its deliberations just blocks away from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, which serves as vivid evidence of the need for decisive action to combat terrorism, the General Assembly produced recommendations stated in tepid terms of conventions, meetings, and agreements. The President of the General Assembly closed the five-day discussion with the following recommendations:

  • Urge member states to become parties to international conventions relating to terrorism;
  • Conclude negotiations in the General Assembly on pending conventions on international terrorism and expedite a report on terrorism from the Sixth Committee (Legal) of the General Assembly; and
  • Launch a "dialogue among civilizations" on the fight against terrorism that is "separate from any religion or ethnic group." This dialogue should involve a high-level conference on international terrorism that would attempt to clarify the "definition of terrorism."8

Once again, rather than developing innovative policies to combat terrorism aggressively, the General Assembly recommended additional meetings, debates, and dialogues and conventions--despite the fact that 12 international treaties and conventions dealing with terrorism and related activities9 have already been deposited with the United Nations or other relevant international organizations.10

  • The Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft (1963) seeks to protect aircraft and passengers by granting authority to the aircraft commander, members of the crew, and passengers in specific circumstances to disembark or deliver an offender him to the authorities when the aircraft lands.
  • The Convention on the Prevention of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft (1970) defines the act of unlawful seizure of aircraft and obligates States who are Parties (1) to punish unlawful seizure of aircraft that enter their jurisdiction or extradite the offender to another State for prosecution, (2) facilitate the travel of passengers and crew to their original destinations, and (3) return the aircraft and cargo to their rightful owners.
  • The Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation (1971) defines a series of unlawful actions, not covered by the Tokyo and The Hague Conventions, that threaten the safety of civil aviation; obliges States who are Parties to outlaw these crimes; and clarifies issues of jurisdiction, custody, prosecution, and extradition.
  • The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons (1973) obligates States who are Parties to make illegal specified crimes and to take action to capture, extradite or try, punish, and exchange information regarding individuals who are involved or complicit in the murder, kidnapping, or attack (actual, attempted, or threatened) on the person, official premises, private accommodation, or means of transport of "Internationally Protected Persons," including diplomatic agents, heads of state, ministers, representatives of international organizations, and their families.
  • The International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages (1979) obligates States who are Parties to take action to capture, try or extradite, and punish individuals involved or complicit in seizing or detaining and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to hold a hostage with the purpose of compelling action or inaction of a state, international organization, person, or group as a condition for the release of the hostage, and to outlaw all of these actions. States who are Parties are also obligated to do whatever is required to secure the release of the hostages and return them to their home country.
  • The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (1980) requires States who are Parties to establish minimum levels of protection for nuclear material when transported internationally and to take measures against criminal acts involving nuclear material in use, store, and transport. Specifically, States who are Parties are obliged to make illegal the intentional commission of acts without lawful authority dealing with nuclear material causing, or likely to cause, death or serious injury or damage to any person or property; theft or robbery of nuclear material; embezzlement or fraudulent obtaining of nuclear material; demands for nuclear material by any form of intimidation; threats to use nuclear material to cause death or serious injury or damage to any person or property; or threats to steal nuclear material to compel a person, international organization, or State to do or refrain from doing any act.11
  • The Protocol on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation (1988) extends offenses identified in the 1971 Montreal Convention to intentional violent acts against persons at an international airport that cause, or could cause, serious injury or death; destroy or seriously damage airport facilities or aircraft; or disrupt airport operations.
  • The Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (1988) requires States who are Parties to outlaw, arrest, and punish or extradite offenders who threaten, attempt, or plan to seize a ship navigating or scheduled to navigate international waters; do violence against an individual on such a ship; destroy or damage such a ship or its cargo; destroy, damage, or interfere with maritime navigation; or knowingly communicate false information.
  • The Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf (1988) extends the offences listed in the Maritime Navigation Convention to cover fixed platforms for exploration or exploitation of resources that are permanently attached to the sea bed.
  • The Convention on the Marking of Plastic Explosives for the Purpose of Detection (1991) specifies that States who are Parties must require manufacturers of plastic explosives to mark them for identification; prevent transport of unmarked explosives within or through their territory; and control possession of, or destroy, existing unmarked explosives. The Convention also established an International Explosives Technical Commission to evaluate technical developments in the manufacture, marking, and detection of plastic explosives and to submit a report on its findings to the States who are Parties.
  • The International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997) requires States who are Parties to make illegal the delivery, placement, and/or detonation of a lethal device in a public area, a government facility, a system of public transportation, or a public utility with intent to cause death, injury, or major economic loss and to arrest, punish, or extradite offenders and accomplices.
  • The International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999) requires States who are Parties to adopt measures to detect, freeze, seize, and confiscate funds intentionally provided or collected for an act designed to kill or injure non-combatants with the intent to intimidate a population or to compel action or inaction of a government or an international organization.

As evidenced by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, these conventions and protocols are not sufficient in and of themselves to prevent terrorism and have value only as one component of a larger, comprehensive, and coordinated strategy to combat terrorism. In fact, terrorist attacks have increased over the years as new anti-terrorism treaties have entered into force. (See Chart 1.)

International treaties alone cannot solve the problem of terrorism. To be effective, they depend on governments to honor, abide by, and enforce them. Tragically, however, not all signatories can be relied upon to do so. In fact, each of the seven state sponsors of terrorism as identified by the U.S. Department of State (Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan) and Afghanistan are State Parties to one or more of the 12 anti-terrorism treaties. (See Table 1.)

To make matters worse, the treaties are often imprecise and limited in scope. The President of the General Assembly stated at the end of the October 1-5, 2001, Plenary Meetings on eliminating terrorism that one of the obstacles faced was the need for a "clearer definition of terrorism." 12 The inability to agree on such a fundamental issue as the definition of terrorism fatally cripples efforts of a consensus-based organization such as the United Nations to take decisive action.


While international treaties are a necessary component of the war on terrorism, they cannot substitute for clear policy objectives--such as the recent collaborative international efforts to police and seize financial resources of terrorist groups--backed by a willingness to use military force to support those policy objectives. 13

If the war on terrorism is to be won, America and its allies must coordinate their anti-terrorism policies and present a united front in their willingness to fight terrorism on every level. Even though there is a role for international conventions and treaties in such a comprehensive campaign, they are far from being the most important or effective means of combating terrorism.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics (CITE) at The Heritage Foundation.

1. " Statement by the President of the General Assembly at the Conclusion of the Plenary Meetings on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism," October 5, 2001.

4. This ambiguity is most commonly expressed as "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." The U.N. General Assembly stated that the "definition of terrorism must distinguish between acts of terrorism and acts in the exercise of the legitimate right to self-determination and defence against foreign occupation." See "Terrorism Must Be Addressed in Parallel with Poverty, Underdevelopment, Inequality, General Assembly Told," November 16, 2001.

5. "Draft Resolution on Anti-Terrorism Approved by UN Assembly's Legal Committee," November 21, 2001.

6. These resolutions are 34/145, 36/109, 40/61, 42/159, 44/29, 46/51, 49/60, 50/53, 51/210, 52/164, 52/165, 53/108, and 54/110; the decision is 48/411.

7. "Ad Hoc Committee Established by General Assembly Resolution 51/210 of 17 December 1996," United Nations General Assembly, Ad Hoc Committee on Terrorism.

8. "Statement by the President of the General Assembly at the Conclusion of the Plenary Meetings on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism," October 5, 2001.

9. There are also seven Regional Conventions on Terrorism: the Arab Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, 1998, deposited with the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States; Convention of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on Combating International Terrorism, 1999, deposited with the Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference; European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, 1977, deposited with the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe; OAS Convention to Prevent and Punish Acts of Terrorism Taking the Form of Crimes Against Persons and Related Extortion that Are of International Significance, 1971, deposited with the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States; OAU Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, 1999, deposited with the General Secretariat of the Organization of African Unity; SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism, 1987, deposited with the Secretary-General of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation; and Treaty on Cooperation Among States Members of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Combating Terrorism, 1999, deposited with the Secretariat of the Commonwealth of Independent States. See "United Nations Treaty Collection: Conventions on Terrorism," at http://untreaty.un.org/English/Terrorism.asp.

10. The following information is based on material provided in "Summaries of the Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General," United Nations Treaty Collection, Treaty Event--Multilateral Treaties on Terrorism.

11. Ibid.

12. "Statement by the President of the General Assembly at the Conclusion of the Plenary Meetings on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism," October 5, 2001.

13. See Gerald P. O'Driscoll, Jr., Brett D. Schaefer, and John C. Hulsman, "Stopping Terrorism: Follow the Money," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1479, September 25, 2001.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations