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Why an Agreed Definition of Terrorism Matters

Nicolò Scremin


The issue concerning a universally accepted definition of terrorism entered the academic and political discourse during the early 1970s and the 1980s. Since then, scholars, policymakers and even governments have made multiple attempts to reach an international agreement about what constitutes terrorism, but without any success. As a result, there is a wide-ranging consensus that a universal legal definition approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations is not only technically impossible due to the subjective and politicized nature of the term “terrorism”; a definition might also prove unnecessary since all terrorist actions are already covered by existing international law. Nevertheless, analysts reiterate the need for a definition, for this might “help in the struggle against terrorism at many and varied operative levels.” That asserted, the main purpose of the essay is not to examine whether the formulation of an agreed definition of terrorism is feasible. Nor does this paper attempt to identify which entity should be responsible for drafting it. Rather, this brief investigation assesses that a shared definition would be beneficial on multiple levels. The first section provides a concise overview of the definitional debate. The second section delves into the academic and political advantages of having a shared definition of terrorism. The third part discusses the concrete operational benefits. In sum, this essay explores and supports the statement that a shared definition of terrorism is a wishful objective, for it would herald virtuous academic, political, and operational implications.


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