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Is it time to establish an international terrorism court?


With a nine-fold increase in the number of deaths caused by terrorist acts around the world since 2000, the idea of establishing an international terrorism court is attracting increasing interest, new research by a Brunel University London senior lecturer explains.

Writing for the forthcoming Asian Yearbook of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Dr Ignacio de la Rasilla (Brunel Law School) highlights that since 9/11, it has become routine for the UN Security Council to qualify international terrorist acts as ‘a threat to international security’.

From the pirates – the ‘original terrorists’ – to the challenges that terrorist acts posed to national extradition laws from the nineteenth century onwards, the relationship between terrorism and international law has a long-standing pedigree, De la Rasilla explains.

He adds: “After Brexit and the arrival to the international stage of the Trump administration, we can expect international relations to enter a period of decreased cooperation in international law matters. But an international terrorism court, established through the short-cut of a Security Council Resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, may gather consensus among the great powers in the war against terror.” 

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and particularly since 9/11, a proliferation of international courts and tribunals has contributed to a major increase in the density of international legal traffic and international litigation.

There are now at least two dozen permanent international courts compared to just six in 1990. Of 37,000 legally binding judgements passed in these international courts, some 90% have occurred since 1990.

This age of international adjudication, combined with recent international volatility fuelled by a series of ISIS-inspired suicide terrorist attacks, means that conditions could increasingly be pointing toward the need for an international court specifically for transnational terrorism trials.

De la Rasilla describes this combination of conditions as potentially a ‘critical juncture’ for the establishment of new international adjudicative mechanisms for dealing with transnational terrorist offences.

The establishment of such a court - a possibility heralded at the UN by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation - would, however, attract significant political and technical difficulties. Strong arguments currently range from concerns over sovereignty to functional needs, legitimacy concerns and risks for the protection of human rights globally.

And, ultimately, before terrorism is brought within the jurisdictional scope of the International Criminal Court, there has to be one single globally accepted definition of terrorism under general international law. At the moment, this definition does not exist.

The establishment of an international court for dealing with transnational terrorist offences might contribute toward crystallising an international consensus regarding it, De la Rasilla concludes. 

An advance copy of An International Terrorism Court in nuce in the Age of International Adjudication is now available via the International Law Reporter blog.

Read more from Ignacio de la Rasilla on The Conversation - 'Why the time is right to set up an international terrorism court'