The meaning of "Terrorism": An analysis of developments from Cicero, St Augustine and the Pirate, to the United Nations draft convention

What is in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. These famous words uttered by Juliet Capulet in a Shakespearean play set in an Italian town have come to represent the notion that what matters most is what something is, not what it is called. Although that assumption may apply to roses and star-crossed lovers, its validity is more arguable when applied to subjects such as that which we are discussing during this session of the 2007 Cortona Colloquium. This paper addresses the meaning of terrorism. It is premised on the assumption that, as opposed to the abovementioned Shakespearean interpretation of the importance of a name, when it comes to defining terrorism the name is all important. The question of which actions deserve to be daubed with the pejorative term "terrorism" is currently a live issue in international law and debate continues as to how the term "terrorism" should be defined, especially in light of the efforts to achieve an international comprehensive convention against terrorism. In this sense, the question "what's in a name", must be answered with a response of, "everything is in the name". This paper is divided into three parts. Part I focuses on the use of force by non-state actors in antiquity and seeks to show that the use of force against civilians to instil fear in order to achieve political or ideological objectives is not the exclusive domain of the twenty-first century. A brief examination of some non-state actors of antiquity, namely pirates, will be undertaken in order to provide some historical perspective for the latter stages of this paper. Part II summarises the attempts that have been made within various domestic jurisdictions to define "terrorism" and, by analysing some of those definitions, it becomes clear that defining a "terrorist act" is an apparently more achievable legislative task than defining "terrorism" per se. Part III then addresses the question of whether it is possible to achieve an international comprehensive convention which includes a universally acceptable definition of terrorism. One of the conclusions that will be reached towards the end of the paper is that there is still a great deal of disagreement between states as to how "terrorism" should be defined and that despite the continuing efforts at achieving consensus on a definition, the outcome may well represent an unsatisfactory compromise at the expense of genuine consensus.
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Williamson, M. (2007). The meaning of "Terrorism": An analysis of developments from Cicero, St Augustine and the Pirate, to the United Nations draft convention. Jura Gentium: Journal of Philosophy of International Law and Global Politics, III(1), 1- 13.
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