Terrorism and human rights

Terrorism, especially in the current international context, is generally viewed from a highly ideological and political, even emotional and manipulative, perspective.

This is poignantly illustrated in the expression, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. As Jean-Marie Domenach points out: “the word [terrorism] has been established by the vocabulary of propaganda [2]“. This being said, the problem of terrorism remains a very real, albeit ill-defined and constantly shifting issue.

The reactions to the events of 11 September 2001 in New York and the forces that have since taken shape in the fight against terrorism are deeply preoccupying. The anti-terrorist measures adopted in several countries, the draft domestic legislation put forward, the renewal of momentum for a Comprehensive Convention against International Terrorism, the plan to introduce a European arrest warrant, etc., are all sources of concern, for in several cases they are at variance with and in some cases they transgress human rights and the principles of international law.

Although certain countries face a very real terrorist threat, the measures they adopt often infringe human rights and undermine principles of international law. In other cases there is no real threat, but the anti-terrorist fight is used as a pretext to adopt measures aimed at restricting liberties and muz-zling political and social opposition. International law and the case-law of human rights treaty bodies and courts contain valuable indications on the type of measures that may be adopted to counteract terrorist acts within the framework of the rule of law, the circumstances in which they may adopted and the conditions in which they are to be implemented.

Under international law, States have an undeniable right and duty to fight and repress criminal acts, including those which by their nature, objectives or means used are said to be terrorist acts. They must do so, however, within the framework of the rule of law and in compliance with international law, in particular international human rights law and international humanitarian law. They may not derogate from certain basic principles, in particular of criminal law and international law. The odious and particularly serious nature of certain terrorist acts cannot be used as a pretext by States to fail to fulfil their international human rights obligations, especially when non-derogable rights are at stake. In the words of the Council of Europe Secretary General, “The anti-terrorism fight is aimed to protect basic human rights and democracy, not to undermine them [3]“.

The aim of this paper is to provide information legal issues relating to the definition of terrorism and measures taken to combat it. It is intended for governments, magistrates and other members of the judicial system, inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations, legal practitioners and human rights defenders. It discusses the following points: international terrorism (Section A), the draft Comprehensive Convention against International Terrorism (Section B), and the national fight against terrorism from the human rights perspective (Section C). Section A presents a historical overview of attempts to achieve a definition of “international terrorism”, the purpose being to show the legal difficulties and obstacles encountered by the international community in this endeavour. Section B highlights several aspects of the draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that are at variance with existing international law, so as to alert the international community. Section C reviews international case-law dealing with the compatibility, or lack thereof, of national anti-terrorist measures with the provisions of human rights treaties on the administration of justice.

The International Commission of Jurists trusts that this paper will be given due consideration by States, with a view to ensuring that the anti-terrorist measures they adopt, nationally and internationally, are in conformity with international human rights law and the rule of law.

[[1]] The original version of this paper is in French. This English translation contains some modifications for reasons of style and some analyses in the original of criminal law concepts peculiar to civil law systems have been omitted.[[1]]


Terrorismo y derechos humanos

Las reacciones frente a los hechos del 11 de septiembre del 2001 en Nueva York, así como las dinámicas emprendidas en nombre de la lucha antiterrorista, son más que preocupantes. La adopción, en varios países, de medidas en nombre de la lucha antiterrorista, los desarrollos y proyectos de las legislaciones nacionales, la reactivación de la iniciativa por una Convención internacional general sobre el terrorismo internacional, el proyecto de un mandato europeo de detención, etc… son fuentes de preocupación toda vez que varios de ellos ponen en tensión, y en ciertos casos transgreden, los derechos humanos y principios del derecho internacional.

El libro “Terrorismo y derechos humanos, no 1” está disponible, más abajo, en formato PDF.





1. El Tratado de Ginebra de 1937
2. La Comisión de Derecho Internacional
3. El Estatuto de Roma de la Corte Penal Internacional y los Tribunales Ad hoc
4. Los Comités Especiales de las Naciones Unidas sobre el terrorismo
5. El Centro de Prevención del Crimen Internacional de las Naciones Unidas
6. La Asamblea General de las Naciones Unidas
7. Actos de terrorismo específicos
8. El Derecho Internacional Humanitario
9. El Derecho Internacional Consuetudinario


1. La Definición del crimen de terrorismo internacional
2. El proyecto de Convención y el Derecho Internacional Humanitario
3. El principio de non refoulement
4. Salvaguarda contra la impunidad


I. Algunos problemas relacionados con la represión del terrorismo

  1. Las definiciones del delito de “terrorismo”
  2. El Estado de excepción
  3. Las medidas de privación de la libertad
  4. Habéas Corpus
  5. El derecho a un tribunal independiente e imparcial
  6. Las garantías judiciales
  7. Devolución, extradición y expulsión

II. Criterios fundamentales que se deben respetar en la lucha contra el terrorismo

terrorism and human rights-occasional paper 2-2002-eng (full text in English, PDF)

terrorism and human rights-occasional paper 2-2002-spa (full text in Spanish, PDF)

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1.  Cited in Michel Veuthey, Guérilla et droit humanitaire ICRC, Geneva, 1983, p. 148.
  2.  Press release, “Council of Europe Secretary General calls for prudence in adoption of anti-terror laws”, 14 November 2001.
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