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Legislating from a Radical Hague: The United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon Invents an International Crime of Transnational Terrorism


In 2011, the Appeals Chamber of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon purported to identify a customary international crime of transnational terrorism and applied it in interpreting domestic terrorism offences under Lebanese law. This article argues that the Tribunal's decision was incorrect because all the sources of custom relied upon by the Appeals Chamber – national legislation, judicial decisions, regional and international treaties, and UN resolutions – were misinterpreted, exaggerated, or erroneously applied. The Tribunal's laissez-faire attitude towards custom formation jeopardizes the freedom from retrospective criminal punishment, subjugating the human rights of potential defendants to the Tribunal's own moralizing conception of what the law ought to be. The decision is not good for international law or public confidence in its institutions and processes.

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1 UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (Appeals Chamber), Interlocutory Decision on the Applicable Law: Terrorism, Conspiracy, Homicide, Perpetration, Cumulative Charging, STL-11-01/I, 16 February 2011 (hereafter, ‘Decision’).

2 See, e.g., A. Cassese, ‘Terrorism as an International Crime’, in A. Bianchi (ed.), Enforcing International Law Norms against Terrorism (2004), Chapter 10, at 218; A. Cassese, International Criminal Law (2003), 120–31; Cassese, A., ‘Terrorism Is Also Disrupting Some Crucial Legal Categories of International Law’, (2001) 12 EJIL 993, at 994.

3 M. Wood, ‘The International Law Commission and Its Recent Work’, Seminar at Sydney Law School, 25 March 2011.

4 Decision, para. 85.

5 Decision, para. 90.

6 Decision, para. 107; see generally paras. 107–109.

7 Decision, para. 123.

8 Decision, paras. 41, 44–46, 124, 144.

9 Decision, para. 41.

10 See, e.g., Nulyarimma v. Thompson [1999] Federal Court of Australia 1192 (concerning genocide); Jones and Milling, Olditch and Pritchard and Richards v. Gloucester Crown Prosecution Service [2004] EWCA 1981 (UK) (concerning aggression); Bouterse case, Netherlands Supreme Court, Criminal Chamber, Judgment of 18 September 2001, No. 00749/01 (CW 2323) (concerning non-retroactive criminal liability for torture in the absence of legislation in force at the time); Habibullah Jalalzoy case, LJN: AZ9366, Court of Appeal, The Hague, 09-751005-04, 29 January 2007; and Hesamuddin Hesam case, LJN: AZ9365, Court of Appeal, The Hague, 09-751004-04 and 09-750006-05, 29 January 2007 (both excluding customary international law on criminal jurisdiction in the absence of domestic legislation). Elsewhere, the Decision draws upon extended modes of criminal participation under international law to supplement the extended modes under Lebanese domestic law. Paradoxically, in that context, the Appeals Chamber found that, where the international-law modes imposed wider liability than Lebanese law, they could not be applied out of fairness to an accused.

11 Decision, para. 88.

12 Decision, para. 88.

13 Decision, para. 88.

14 Decision, para. 91.

15 Decision, para. 91; see paras. 91–98 on national laws.

16 Including the laws cited from Peru, Jordan, Germany, Finland, Argentina, the Philippines, New Zealand, Belgium, France, Panama, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Ecuador, Sweden, and the Seychelles.

17 Such as the laws cited for Brazil, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

18 Such as the laws cited for India, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, and Austria.

19 Such as anti-financing or asset-freezing measures, the confiscation of proceeds of crime, civil control orders, or preventive detention.

20 Such as military aid to civilian authorities or martial law.

21 Such as exclusion from refugee status or deportation on grounds of national security.

22 Such as greater police powers of investigation, search or seizure, or surveillance.

23 Such as which authorities, prosecutors, or courts may deal with certain matters.

24 Such as lower standards of proof, reversing the onus of proof, easing evidentiary admissibility requirements, reducing lawyer–client confidentiality, or protecting classified evidence from disclosure.

25 Decision, para. 97.

26 See generally B. Saul, ‘The Curious Element of Motive in Definitions of Terrorism: Essential Ingredient or Criminalizing Thought?’, in A. Lynch, E. MacDonald, and G. Williams (eds.), Law and Liberty in the War on Terror (2007), 28–38.

27 B. Saul, Defining Terrorism in International Law (2006), 264. That study was cited with apparent approval by Justice Michael Kirby in the Australian High Court case of Thomas v. Mowbray [2007] HCA 33, para. 279, but customary law was not at issue in that case.

28 Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 1979 (Sri Lanka), Section 2(1)(i).

29 Terrorism Suppression of Terrorist Offences Act 1992 (Bangladesh), Section 2(2)(d)–(e).

30 Terrorism National Security Act 1992 (Bhutan).

31 See, e.g., ‘Concluding Observations of the UN Human Rights Committee’: United States of America, UN Doc. CCPR/C/USA/CO/3 (2006), para. 11; Algeria, UN Doc. CCPR/C/79/Add.95 (1998), para. 11; Egypt, UN Doc. CCPR/C/79/Add.23 (1993), para. 8; Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, UN Doc. CCPR/CO/72/PRK (2001), para. 14; Portugal (Macao), UN Doc. CCPR/C/79/Add.115 (1999), para. 12; Peru, UN Doc. CCPR /C/79/Add.67 (1996), para. 12.

32 Report of the Special Rapporteur (Martin Scheinin) on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/98 (2005), paras. 27–28, 45–47, 56, 62.

33 UN Human Rights Council, ‘Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism’, UN Doc. A/HRC/8/13 (2008), paras. 20–23.

34 E.g., the cited laws of Egypt, Peru, Uzbekistan, and Iraq, to name just a few.

35 Decision, para. 92.

36 UNSC Resolution 1566 (8 October 2004), para. 3: ‘Recalls that criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism, are under no circumstances justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature, and calls upon all States to prevent such acts and, if not prevented, to ensure that such acts are punished by penalties consistent with their grave nature.’

37 UN Human Rights Council, Report of UN Special Rapporteur (Martin Scheinin) on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/98 (2005), para. 62.

38 Ibid., para. 42.

39 Decision, para. 88.

40 Decision, para. 100.

41 Decision, para. 86.

42 I. Brownlie, Principles of Public International Law (2003), 22.

43 Decision, para. 100.

44 See Decision, footnote 127, in which the Appeals Chamber simply asserted that ‘we cannot subscribe to this view’ that terrorism is not a customary crime in the light of the judicial decisions footnoted there.

45 The Appeals Chamber unfortunately misquoted the Supreme Court here; the accurate quote should read: ‘This definition catches the essence of what the world understands by “terrorism”’ (not ‘what we understand’) (emphasis added).

46 Decision, footnote 130, citing Suresh, [2002] 1 SCR 3, para. 96.

47 Suresh, [2002] 1 SCR 3, at 53, para. 94.

48 Decision, footnote 130.

49 Zrig v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) (CA), [2003] 3 FC 761, para. 180.

50 Bouyahia Maher Ben Abdelaziz et al., Judgment of 11 October 2006, Corte di Cassazione.

51 Ibid, para. 2.1.

52 Ibid, para. 2.1 (emphasis added).

53 Decision, para. 106.

54 As explained in Saul, supra note 26.

55 See legislation quoted in Abdelaziz, supra note 50, para. 2.2.

56 Namely the Terrorist Financing Convention 1999 and EU Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism 2002.

57 Quoted in Decision, para. 86.

58 For instance, the Court invokes an Organization of American States anti-terrorism convention to exclude terrorism from being regarded as a political or military offence for extradition purposes.

59 Quoted in Decision, footnote 133.

60 The decision itself was controversial as a whole; there were three dissenting opinions (compared to the majority of five) that challenged the majority's flawed assessment of customary law even as regards those other crimes.

61 Quoted in Decision, footnote 134.

62 Almog v. Arab Bank, 471 F. Supp. 2d 257 (EDNY 2007), available online at, at 37.

63 Ibid., at 37.

64 Ibid., at 21.

65 Ibid., at 38.

66 US v. Yunis, 924 F.2d 1086 (DC Cir. 1991).

67 Decision, footnote 134.

68 Yunis, supra note 66, para. 19.

69 Decision, footnote 193.

70 See Cass. 15 février 2006, RG P.05.1594.F, Pas. 2006, n° 96; RDP2006, 795, cited in Rapport annuel la Cour de cassation de Belgique 2009, available online at

71 Al-Sirri v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, [2009] EWCA Civ. 364, para. 31 (emphasis added).

72 Ibid., paras. 28–30.

73 Ibid., para. 29.

74 US v. Yousef et al., 327 F.3d 56 (US Crt App., 2nd Cir.), 4 April 2003, at 34, 44, 46, 53–60, affirming Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F.2d 774 (DC Cir. 1984), at 795 (Judge Edwards) and 806–7 (Judge Bork) (USA).

75 Yousef, ibid., at 34, 44.

76 Ibid., at 53, 55–7.

77 Ibid., at 57.

78 Ibid., at 44.

79 Ibid., at 59–60.

80 Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F.2d 774 (DC Cir. 1984) (separate concurring opinions of Judges Edwards, Bork, and Robb).

81 Ibid., at 795 (Judge Edwards), 806–7 (Judge Bork).

82 Ibid., at 795 (Judge Edwards).

83 Bulletin des arrêts de la Cour de Cassation, Chambre criminelle, mar 2001, no. 64, at 218–19.

84 Madan Singh v. State of Bihar, [2004] INSC 225 (2 April 2004).

85 R. Higgins, ‘The General International Law of Terrorism’, in R. Higgins and M. Flory (eds.), Terrorism and International Law (1997) 13, at 13–14; Military and Paramilitary Activities (Nicaragua v. United States), (1986) ICJ Rep. 14; Tehran Hostages Case, (1980) ICJ Rep. 3; Israel Wall Advisory Opinion, ICJ Case 131 (9 July 2004); Case Concerning Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (DR Congo v. Uganda), (2005) ICJ Rep. 168.

86 Decision, paras. 88–90.

87 See Saul, supra note 27, Chapters 3–4; Guillaume, G., ‘Terrorism and International Law’, (2004) 53 ICLQ 537; Higgins, supra note 85.

88 Report of the Special Rapporteur (Martin Scheinin) on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/98 (2005), para. 28.

89 US v. Yunis, 924 F.2d 1086 (DC Cir. 1991), at 1092; (1991) 30 ILM 403; Burnett et al. v. Al Baraka Investment and Development Corporation et al., Civil Action No 02-1616 (JR), US District Crt, District of Columbia, 25 July 2003, 274 F Supp 2d 86).

90 Prosecutor v. Galic (Appeals Chamber Judgment), Case No. IT-98-29-A, 30 November 2006, paras. 87–90. See also Saul, B., ‘Crimes and Prohibitions of “Terror” and “Terrorism” in Armed Conflict: 1919–2005’, (2005) 4 Journal of the International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict 264.

91 Considering the large number of parties (173 states), the impetus given to anti-financing norms by the obligations imposed on states by Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001), and the further normative push supplied by the soft-law standards of the Financial Action Taskforce. See UNSC Resolution 1373 (28 September 2001), para. 2(e); Financial Action Task Force, 9 Special Recommendations on Terrorist Financing (2001).

92 See Saul, supra note 27, Chapter 4.

93 Organisation of American States (‘OAS’) Convention to Prevent and Punish Acts of Terrorism Taking the Form of Crimes against Persons and Related Extortion that Are of International Significance; 2002 Inter-American Convention against Terrorism, 1971.

94 Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism, 1998; OIC Convention on Combating International Terrorism, 1999; OAU Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, 1999; European Union (‘EU’) Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism, 2002.

95 Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, 2005; South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (‘SAARC’) Additional Protocol to the 1987 Convention, 2004; African Union Protocol to the 1999 Convention, 2004.

96 Inter-American Convention against Terrorism, 2002; Council of Europe Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, 1977; SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism, 1987; Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Treaty on Cooperation in Combating Terrorism, 1999.

97 Arab Convention, Art. 1(2), 1998; OIC Convention, Art. 1(2), 1999; Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism, 2001.

98 OAU Convention, Art. 1(3).

99 OIC Convention, Art. 1(2).

100 Ibid.

101 SCO Convention, Art. 1.

102 Arab Convention, Art. 1(2); OIC Convention, Art. 1(2).

103 OAU Convention, Art. 1(3).

104 CIS Convention.

105 Arab League Convention.

106 OAU Convention.

107 EU Framework Decision, Art. 1(1).

108 Asylum Case (Columbia v. Peru), (1950) ICJ Rep. 266, at 277.

109 Anglo-Norwegian Fisheries Case (UK v. Norway), (1951) ICJ Rep. 116, at 131.

110 Decision, para. 82.

111 Ibid.

112 See, e.g., Amnesty International, ‘The Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism: A Serious Threat to Human Rights’, (2002) AI Index: IOR 51/001/2002, 18; see also text to notes 97, 102, and 105supra.

113 The 1994 Declaration states that ‘Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them’.

114 UNGA Resolutions 50/53 (11 December 1995), para. 2; 51/210 (17 December 1996), para. 2; 52/165 (15 December 1997), para. 2; 53/108 (8 December 1998), para. 2; 54/110 (9 December 1999), para. 2; 55/158 (12 December 2000), para. 2; 56/88 (12 December 2001), para. 2; 57/27 (19 November 2002), para. 2.

115 UNGA Resolution 49/60 (9 December 1994): Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism, para. 12.

116 E. Suy, ‘The Meaning of Consensus in Multilateral Diplomacy’, in R. Akkerman, P. Van Krieken, and C. Pannenborg (eds.), Declarations on Principles: A Quest for Universal Peace (1977), 259, at 272.

117 UNGAOR (49th Session) (6th Cttee), 13th meeting, 19 October 1994, para. 3 (Germany); 14th meeting, 20 October 1994, para. 5 (Sudan); para. 23 (Pakistan); paras. 74, 78 (Turkey); 15th meeting, 21 October 1994, paras. 44–45, 60 (Kuwait); para. 59 (Iraq); para. 25 (Libya); para. 26 (USA).

118 Ibid., 14th meeting, 20 October 1994, para. 5 (Sudan), 13 (India), 27 (Algeria), 71 (Nepal); 15th meeting, 21 October 1994, para. 4 (Sri Lanka), 9 (Iran), 18–19 (Libya).

119 Ibid., 14th meeting, 20 October 1994, para. 6 (Sudan), 20 (Syria), 24 (Pakistan); 15th meeting, 21 October 1994, paras. 9 (Iran), 18–19 (Libya).

120 Non-Aligned Movement (‘NAM’), XIV Ministerial Conf., Final Doc., Durban, 17–19 August 2004, paras. 98–99, 101–102, 104; NAM, XIII Conf. of Heads of State or Government, Final Doc., Kuala Lumpur, 25 February 2003, paras. 105–106, 108, 115; NAM, XIII Ministerial Conf., Final Doc., Cartagena, 8–9 April 2000, paras. 90–91; OIC Resolutions 6/31-LEG (2004), para. 5; 7/31-LEG (2004), preamble, paras. 1–2; 6/10-LEG(IS) (2003), para. 5; 7/10-LEG (IS) (2003), paras. 1–2; OIC, Islamic Summit Conf. (10th Session), Final Communiqué, Malaysia, 16–17 October 2003, para. 50; OIC (Extraordinary Session Foreign Ministers), Declaration on Intl Terrorism, Kuala Lumpur, 1–3 April 2002, paras. 8, 11, 16, and Plan of Action, paras. 2–3.

121 UNGAOR (49th Session) (6th Cttee), 14th meeting, 20 October 1994, paras. 18 (Sweden for Nordic States), 38 (Romania), 41 (Israel), 56 (Venezuela); 15th meeting, 21 October 1994, paras. 40 (Hungary), 57 (Germany for EU).

122 International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, Art. 2(1)(b), 1999.

123 Decision, paras. 107–109.

124 Decision, para. 106.

* BA (Hons) LL B (Hons) Sydney, DPhil Oxford; Barrister; author, Defining Terrorism in International Law (2006); editor, Terrorism: Documents in International Law (2011) []. Thanks to my research assistant, Naomi Hart, for compiling some primary analysis; to Dr Sarah Williams of UNSW for her comments; and to solicitor Liyan Leow for earlier assistance. This author's Amicus Brief, arguing that terrorism is not a customary crime, was not accepted by the Registry for being submitted one working day late. The Brief complied with the procedure for late filing but was submitted late because the author was working in rural Nepal with limited Internet access or notice of the Tribunal's (little-publicized) call for briefs.

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