30 Aug 2006

Viewing Terrorists from the Right Legal Perspective

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Douglas R. Burgess Jr. makes the argument again that Islamic terrorists should be being viewed legally as a contemporary species of pirate.

More than 2,000 years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero defined pirates in Roman law as hostis humani generis, “enemies of the human race.” From that day until now, pirates have held a unique status in the law as international criminals subject to universal jurisdiction—meaning that they may be captured wherever they are found, by any person who finds them. The ongoing war against pirates is the only known example of state vs. nonstate conflict until the advent of the war on terror, and its history is long and notable. More important, there are enormous potential benefits of applying this legal definition to contemporary terrorism…

Until 1856, international law recognized only two legal entities: people and states. People were subject to the laws of their own governments; states were subject to the laws made amongst themselves. The Declaration of Paris created a third entity: people who lacked both the individual rights and protections of law for citizens and the legitimacy and sovereignty of states. This understanding of pirates as a legally distinct category of international criminals persists to the present day, and was echoed in the 1958 and 1982 U.N. Conventions on the Law of the Sea. The latter defines the crime of piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends.” This definition of piracy as private war for private ends may hold the crux of a new legal definition of international terrorists…

TO UNDERSTAND THE POTENTIAL OF DEFINING TERRORISM as a species of piracy, consider the words of the 16th-century jurist Alberico Gentili’s De jure belli: “Pirates are common enemies, and they are attacked with impunity by all, because they are without the pale of the law. They are scorners of the law of nations; hence they find no protection in that law.” Gentili, and many people who came after him, recognized piracy as a threat, not merely to the state but to the idea of statehood itself. All states were equally obligated to stamp out this menace, whether or not they had been a victim of piracy. This was codified explicitly in the 1856 Declaration of Paris, and it has been reiterated as a guiding principle of piracy law ever since. Ironically, it is the very effectiveness of this criminalization that has marginalized piracy and made it seem an arcane and almost romantic offense. Pirates no longer terrorize the seas because a concerted effort among the European states in the 19th century almost eradicated them. It is just such a concerted effort that all states must now undertake against terrorists, until the crime of terrorism becomes as remote and obsolete as piracy.

But we are still very far from such recognition for the present war on terror. President Bush and others persist in depicting this new form of state vs. nonstate warfare in traditional terms, as with the president’s declaration of June 2, 2004, that “like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless surprise attack on the United States.” He went on: “We will not forget that treachery and we will accept nothing less than victory over the enemy.” What constitutes ultimate victory against an enemy that lacks territorial boundaries and governmental structures, in a war without fields of battle or codes of conduct? We can’t capture the enemy’s capital and hoist our flag in triumph. The possibility of perpetual embattlement looms before us.

If the war on terror becomes akin to war against the pirates, however, the situation would change. First, the crime of terrorism would be defined and proscribed internationally, and terrorists would be properly understood as enemies of all states. This legal status carries significant advantages, chief among them the possibility of universal jurisdiction. Terrorists, as hostis humani generis, could be captured wherever they were found, by anyone who found them. Pirates are currently the only form of criminals subject to this special jurisdiction.

Second, this definition would deter states from harboring terrorists on the grounds that they are “freedom fighters” by providing an objective distinction in law between legitimate insurgency and outright terrorism. This same objective definition could, conversely, also deter states from cracking down on political dissidents as “terrorists,” as both Russia and China have done against their dissidents.

Recall the U.N. definition of piracy as acts of “depredation [committed] for private ends.” Just as international piracy is viewed as transcending domestic criminal law, so too must the crime of international terrorism be defined as distinct from domestic homicide or, alternately, revolutionary activities. If a group directs its attacks on military or civilian targets within its own state, it may still fall within domestic criminal law. Yet once it directs those attacks on property or civilians belonging to another state, it exceeds both domestic law and the traditional right of self-determination, and becomes akin to a pirate band.

We previously cited Mackubin Thomas Owens’ Detainees or POWs?, which identifies Sir Michael Howard as making the same point in 2001:

The real reason the detainees are not entitled to POW status is to be found in a distinction first made by the Romans and subsequently incorporated into international law by way of medieval European jurisprudence. As the eminent military historian, Sir Michael Howard, wrote in the October 2, 2001 edition of the Times of London, the Romans distinguished between bellum, war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy, and guerra, war against latrunculi — pirates, robbers, brigands, and outlaws — “the common enemies of mankind.”

The present governments of Britain and the United States have vast military resources and enormously large cabinet departments filled with trained attorneys. It speaks eloquently of the decay of our educational system internationally that this fundamentally important aperçu needs to be advanced in the remoter reaches of the blogosphere five years after 9/11.

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