Impunity for International Terrorists? Key Legal Questions and Practical Considerations

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, various world leaders, from US President Barack Obama to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, were quick to comment that ‘justice has been done’. However, one could question to what extent the killing of a terrorist has anything to do with ‘bringing someone to justice’ and fighting the impunity of perpetrators of political violence.

In this ICCT Research Paper, Research Fellow Dr. Christophe Paulussen discusses several of the key questions related to the subject of impunity of international terrorists, taking both a fundamental and a more practical approach within the context of international law. First, he reflects on a number of core definitional and theoretical questions which have been pushed into the background of day-to-day reality, by the actual fight against terrorism. For instance: what does the concept of impunity entail exactly and which kinds of standards could be used in measuring impunity? Is it clear what falls under the header of international terrorism and can it in fact be argued that international terrorists enjoy impunity? Secondly, in more practical terms, the paper explores a number of questions related to the actual prosecution of terrorism. What are the obstacles that national prosecutors face every day when prosecuting suspects of international terrorism? To what extent does a rule that prima facie seems ideal to fight terrorism (aut dedere aut judicare: either extradite or prosecute) apply to terrorist offences? And what is the role of international criminal law – and the international criminal tribunals – in fighting terrorism? The paper concludes with a series of recommendations.

Download the paper here.