Homeland Security

Assessing the “Extent” of State Sponsored Terrorism: Impotent International Law?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 24 Aug , 2017


Nations in the history of international relations have been engaged in conflicts, using “conventional” tactics, or through “non-traditional” means. Although, the global community is prepared to counter such “acts” of war with strong and appropriate legal means in an effort to resolve the disputes between countries, the actors of terrorism continue to pose a grave threat to the states involved in disputes, fearing a much “uglier” twist. Nations have been evading the “dire repercussions” of a war using “varied tactics”. Most common and frequently used device is the nation’s apprehension in using its national armed forces but continue to retain aggressive tactics without directly involving the state in the conflict–a proxy war.

This gives the state, an opportunity to openly deny its involvement in the conflict, preventing in angering members in the international community and rescuing itself from harsh measures such as embargo or international sanction. Hence it is imperative for policy makers, legal experts of international community, to deliberate on the acts of the state, covert or not, qualify for an aggression of war against a sovereign country, inviting international sanctions. Through this article, policy makers and academicians, must examine the international legal norms suitability to identify the state as an instigator of “state-backed” violence towards a sovereign country under the United Nations General Assembly adopted 1974definition of Aggression.

Understanding the concept

Terrorism can be defined (not limited to) as acts of violence, criminally directed by forces of the state against another sovereign state, in an effort to intentionally create “de-stability and insecurity” while installing fear in the hearts of the masses. A terror attack is instigated on masses to destabilise “socio-economic” factors and rupture the pillars governance. Any state engaging is propagating and intentionally directing acts of terror/forces of terror on another “sovereign” state, in an effort to force the state to submit or dominate its domestic politics, exploit or further expand its hegemony, would be seen as a supporter of “terrorism”. When a government uses terror factions and sponsors them, either through financial means, or “harbouring” them and supplying necessary training and weapons, the state becomes a “sponsor” of terrorism.

In the concept of international relations theory and the current shift of international politics that have become an “open grounds” for non-conventional warfare and covert operations, the “state sponsored terrorism”, has become a new battlefield today. Today, it has become one of the most “aggressive” tactics used not only by super powers but also by developing economies, an aggressive tactics which immediately comes with a “plausible deniability” of that when accused of State sponsored terrorism. The principle factor that immediately replaces the “terror tactics” of militias or militant factions is “internal clashes” which is accompanied by heavy intense firefight, which might even escalate to a civil war. This forces the international community to put an embargo on the state, in an effort to prevent further escalation, however, which also becomes the principle reason of “socio-economic deterioration” of the state. Since, there is strong legal measures against nations engaged in a war, there are no legal norms to decide the role of a state in instigating proxies against another country, thus, making state sponsored terrorism the single largest threat to peace and security of the world.

The impotent international legal mechanism

The basic principle of the international law is to prohibit an “aggressive attack” by a state and counter the state with a substantial force against such attack. The issue that arises with respect to any case of “state sponsored terrorism” is that of identifying the elements used in this aggression and determining its link with the state. This then rules out the possibility of a state’s involvement in the “aggression” forcing the international legal mechanism to “portray” its impotency. This is basically because of the threat posed by the terror factions, is beyond the realms of “conventional warfare”, is “clandestine” in nature. Many regimes use guerrilla tactics which is against the principles stated in the Charter and publicly deny the state’s role in the conflict, protecting the state from any legal harsh measures deployed by international community against them. Thus, their tactics prevents them from any legal measure deployed by international community making their right to “self-defence” legal in all perspective.

It is important for policy makers to understand the need for a more aggressive legal mechanism against tactics such as these in an effort to effectively control the menace of “state sponsored terrorism” which poses a grave threat to international peace and security, which continues to be widely used by states on a massive scale.

In an effort to increase the effectiveness of international community in countering such menace, it is important for policy makers to identify the extent of international legal mechanisms in countering such aggressions before gathering evidences against a state for sponsoring terrorism. 

International law has been traditionally “emphasising” on the need to protect state’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and freedom from aggression by “external” states. In an effort to concrete the foundations of international law, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Draft Definition on Aggression in 1974. The draft defines “aggression” not limiting to armed response and defines the aggressor as the “state which attacks first”. The phenomenal development came in the form of “Article 3 of the Draft Definition” where the legal definition and interpretations of a formal declaration of war have been changed while recognising the “indirect” acts of terror. Furthermore, the state which would then allow its grounds to be used to train and prepare militant/terror factions against a state would now be termed as an “aggressor” as it would be “indirectly” sending the factions into a sovereign state. This will cover all “trained and prepared” factions such as that is used by Pakistan in an effort to destabilise security in Kashmir, and continue support domestic terror factions breeding in India. There is also an added clause which recommends the state to use appropriate measure against the “state sponsoring terror”.

However, there is “not everything” right with the Draft Definition of Aggression. It has not yet ratified into a law which limits the draft to “customary” used only for reference purposes. Furthermore, many states have refused to ratify to this draft, limiting the Draft Definition to a meagre recommendation, leaving the decision to the UN Security Council on the future of the Draft. Whereas, other nations argue on the “authority” of the UN Security Council in relation to this Draft seeking clarification from the UN Security Council since it is both mandatory and obligatory for the UN Security Council to accept the definition of aggression. Majority of the states have agreed to the definition; however, it is now up to the UN Security Council to decides whether the definition seems fit for aggression. This gives the “receding” states ample time to influence the UN Security Council. There is an absolute need to ratify the definition of aggression and accepting the definition as a bench markin an effort to prevent any further acts of state sponsored terrorism while punishing the state responsible.


It is perfectly clear now, while the international community deal with “tactics of non-conventional warfare” in roughly every conflict states are involved today, the concepts involving “state sponsored terrorism” and state’s designated tactics of proxy wars, the legal mechanism to counter such tactics remains impotent. It is imperative for policy makers to designate dedicated legal measures in an effort to effectively and efficiently counter it.

The global legal communities took a perfect step in drafting the 1974 Draft Definition of Aggression, but failed to convert it into a full-fledged law, failing to give “teeth” to a Draft Definition and converting it into a Treaty. Today, the Draft Definition of Aggression is the sole “solid” piece of legal framework “bold” enough to counter state’s tactics of waging proxy wars and should be used by international communities as a “founding” legal mechanism for drafting a definition of state’s “covert tactics” in war. Thus, there is already an existing “parameter” the form of a Draft Definition that calls “state sponsored terrorism” as aggression. If the Draft Definition is read in interpretation with the Draft Codes of Crimes the International Legal Institutions could easily counter the threat of state sponsored terrorism by making the “state” responsible for participating in acts of terrorism. Charging the state with crimes against humanity, disruption of peace and security and intentionally collaborating with terror organizations, the perpetrators responsible can be apprehended, putting an end to this tactics once and for all.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anant Mishra

is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

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