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Mahira Gupta

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This paper critically examines a significant loophole in international law concerning the classification of international terrorists, with a specific focus on the legal consequences of designating combatants as "unlawful belligerents." While the term "terrorism" lacks a universally agreed-upon definition, it is broadly understood as a method of coercion that employs or threatens violence to spread fear, thereby pursuing political or ideological goals, as defined by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. The challenges associated with countering terrorism, both during peacetime and wartime, have a long history. Despite the United Nations' efforts to address international terrorism through specialized committees and Security Council resolutions, a persistent legal gap exists regarding the treatment of individuals engaged in terrorism during armed conflicts. The heart of this issue lies in the fact that existing international laws and conventions predominantly apply during peacetime, leaving a void when it comes to wartime scenarios. This gap has resulted in inconsistent categorization of individuals involved in acts of terrorism during armed conflicts. Specifically, the foundational principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) ensure that no one is left unprotected in times of war. However, the current categories protected under IHL—wounded, sick, and shipwrecked, prisoners of war, civilians, and combatants hors de combat—do not adequately encompass individuals engaged in terrorism whose actions intentionally harm civilians and fall outside the scope of legitimate duties or innocence. The paper highlights two compelling case studies to illustrate these legal ambiguities. In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, both parties have labelled each other as "terrorists," blurring the lines between combatants and terrorists and raising questions about the proper application of IHL. Furthermore, the Guantanamo Bay detainee case serves as a poignant example of the consequences of classifying individuals as "unlawful belligerents" in the context of the "War on Terror." On the one hand, Russia asserts that individuals designated as terrorists in the context of the Ukraine-Russia conflict are not entitled to protection. On the other hand, they are subjected to acts of torture while detained at Guantanamo Bay due to their classification as terrorist entities. Drawing from these recent examples, this paper underscores the pressing need for a distinct categorization of individuals perpetrating acts of terrorism during wartime. Such a categorization would prevent these individuals from being afforded the same protections as those covered by the Geneva Conventions and reduce the risk of mislabelling legally protected individuals as "terrorists."


Wartime Terrorism

Human Rights 

War Crimes

International Law

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