State terrorism is protected by international law

State sponsored terrorism carried out by Western liberal democracies is protected by a universal legal system known as “international law”, writes A C Ahmed.  

In the wake of the massacre of 59 civilians in Las Vegas and the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, discussions are centring on the definition of “terrorism”, and the inconsistent usage of the term by certain States. In order to make sense of this issue, I will aim to address the fundamental basis from which ideas and justifications pertaining to “terrorism” and “targeting civilians” emanate.

Every society centres its legislative system on one fundamental question- how to regulate life. We see this in how societies address when (or if) it is permissible to take a life, and even how they order the interaction between the sexes based on the idea of procreation.

We see that ideas advocating the protection of life are termed “humanitarian”. Western liberal democratic states have developed “Human Rights” and “International Humanitarian Law” (IHL), and are therefore seen as the bastions of “humanitarianism”. In contrast, Muslims are seen antagonists to these ideas and are regarded as not caring about humanity- they are seen as “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathisers”.

In my humble opinion, the legal norms of IHL and the definition of “terrorism” actually act as a vehicle that legitimises “terrorism” committed by State actors today, namely Western liberal democracies.

International Humanitarian Law

IHL presents the idea of a law that exists to regulate and protect life through defining and regulating the methods and means of conducting warfare itself (e.g. the Hague Conventions).  However, following a further analysis into IHL, the United Nations and the idea of International Law generally, one begins to understand that these exist solely to facilitate Western liberal interests and conceptions of “justice”.

Muslim populations are no strangers to the results of International Law, IHL and the United Nations’ resolutions. For example, in occupied Kashmir, there is an ongoing outcry against the targeting of civilians by the Indian Army. The same goes for Palestine, Syria and Burma. However, we see no stopping to the targeting of innocents in these conflicts.

A tool of oppression

So if IHL is not “humanitarian” then what is it?

Firstly, IHL appears as a rhetorical tool used by states to provide the justification of having acted “within the bounds of the law”. As compliance with the law is seen as an inherent “good”, the difference between acceptable and reviled conduct is its “legality” as determined by men themselves. Theorists on IHL, Chris Joachnik and Roger Normand wrote:

There is a critical unspoken assumption that gives rhetorical power to the idea of a legal war- specifically, that a legal war is more humane than an illegal war.  A legal war connotes a war that is proper and just, rather than a war that merely complies with a set of technical guidelines”.

British special forces in Baghdad

Secondly, whilst presenting “humanity as something universal, IHL makes that idea subject to that of the State-interest. “Military necessity” is elevated over “humanity” and therefore the loss of civilians and their deliberate targeting become justified as “collateral damage”.

Lastly, IHL serves to further entrench the status quo of the geopolitical order of today, and affirms the view that Western secular-liberal states are the only actors that can legitimately wield the use of force. Everyone else must comply with the law as laid down by those who stand as bastions of IHL. This form of control affirms the legitimacy of the current global order, and people’s (including many Muslims) acceptance of the ideas of “Universal Human Rights” and IHL is pushed as evidence in favour of conserving the status quo. Professor of international law at McGill University, Frederic Megret, wrote:

…the role of the laws of war is above all to reinforce the state’s unshakeable stranglehold and express the dominant consensus about the state’s incontrovertible legitimacy. The contemporary laws of war, therefore, are an integral part of the crystallisation of the world into a world of states, part and parcel of the very constitution of that world”.

To present two actual examples of this reality:

  • Targeting “civilians” or “morale”: This idea centres on the legitimacy of targeting civilians in areas so as to hurt the “morale” of the enemy and/or increase political pressure on particular enemy entities to fall in line with what you want. Therefore, although the indiscriminate targeting of civilians is not allowed under IHL, the law is structured so that a State that targets “enough civilians” with the hope that it would put pressure upon the civilian or military leadership to surrender, would be covered by “military necessity”.
  • Definition of “terrorism”: There is a well-documented problem concerning the definition of “terrorism” under International Law, IHL, and even under domestic laws. The difficulty in defining “terrorism” is in agreeing on a basis for determining when the use of violence (directed at whom, by whom, for what ends) is deemed “legitimate”. The current definitions in use have been written by agencies directly associated with governments, and are systematically biased to exclude states from the definition. The most broadly discussed definition is that found in the US Army Manual, and this is carried across in usage in IHL, where “terrorism” is defined as:

“…use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear. It is intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies … [to attain] political, religious, or ideological goals.”

Ironically, the actions of Western states declaring war and sending their armies abroad to impose democracy upon those in the Muslim majority world is not classed as “terrorism”.

Ironically, Israel, who for many years has perpetrated textbook examples of “terrorism” against the Palestinians since 1967 is not seen as a “terrorist” state.

Ironically, the United States backing not only the Israeli occupation but other repressive regimes across the world that terrorise their own citizens to maintain power is not considered as “terrorism” or the aiding of it.


Ironically, it appears to be perfectly acceptable for the state machinery and media to label Muslims who are not charged of any crimes and entire civilian populations of Muslim countries as “terrorists” whilst applying a completely different standard to non-Muslim crimes and civilian populations.

It is abundantly clear for those with an objective mind and an honest conscious that “terrorism” committed by Western states is legitimised through IHL, and therefore, we should not remain continually surprised when the beseeching of these institutions and laws falls on deaf ears and results in vetoes of any action being taken to actually solve the problems of the Muslim world.

IHL serves as a tool used by States in order to hit two birds with one stone- the ability to wage war at will whilst appearing to conduct themselves within the bounds of a “legal regime”. It is a tool, which has been “retro-fitted” to legitimise the “terrorism” of the States who act as the bastions of “humanitarianism” today.

A C Ahmed is a practising Commercial Lawyer. His writings are focused around the areas of Islamic Law, Politics, Commerce and Finance. You can follow A C Ahmed on Facebook:

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