The London Transportation System Bombings

Frederic L. Kirgis
July 12, 2005
The bombings of three trains in the London Underground (subway) system and of one London bus on July 7, 2005, have been denounced as terrorist attacks by world leaders and reported as terrorism by the media. Although there is still no all-encompassing definition of terrorism that is universally recognized in international law, it is apparent that these bombings would qualify legally as terrorism and that there are international ramifications.
The United Nations Security Council has already unanimously condemned these bombings as terrorist attacks, and has reiterated its previously-adopted position that any act of terrorism is a threat to peace and security. It has also urged all States (nations), in accordance with their obligations under a previous Security Council resolution, to cooperate actively in efforts to find and bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of the bombings.[1] The previous resolution -- Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001) -- decided that all States must ensure that anyone who participates in the financing, planning, preparation or perpetration of terrorist acts or in supporting terrorist acts is brought to justice, and that all States must afford one another "the greatest measure of assistance in connection with criminal investigations or criminal proceedings relating to the financing or support of terrorist acts." Since Resolution 1373 was adopted under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, the Council's decisions reflected in it are binding on all U.N. member States. Consequently, all U.N. member States are obligated to assist the British government in its attempts to find out who financed or "supported" these bombings; moreover, they are "urged" to cooperate actively in British efforts to find any others who could be regarded as perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of the bombings, and if any such persons are found, U.N. member States would have to ensure that they are actually brought to justice.
More generally, the Security Council has condemned all acts of terrorism, regardless of their motivation, as serious threats to peace and security.[2] The United Nations General Assembly, in which all U.N. member States are represented, has condemned all acts of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of motive.[3] General Assembly resolutions normally are not binding under international law, but they often reflect widely shared world views.
There are also two relevant multilateral treaties that could be invoked in this situation. One is the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings.[4] It provides that any person commits an offense within the meaning of the Convention if that person "unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in . . . a public transportation system" intending to cause death or serious bodily injury. It goes on to say that if a State party to the Convention receives information that a person who is alleged to have committed such an offense may be present in its territory, it must take such measures as may be necessary under its domestic law to investigate the facts. If the person is present in its territory, and if that State party is satisfied that the circumstances so warrant, it must take the appropriate measures to ensure that the person is either extradited or turned over to its authorities for purposes of prosecution. The United Kingdom and 138 other States are parties to this Convention.
The other multilateral treaty is the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.[5] It says that any person commits an offense within the meaning of the Convention if that person "by any means, directly or indirectly, unlawfully and wilfully, provides or collects funds with the intention that they should be used or in the knowledge that they are to be used, in full or in part, in order to carry out" any of several kinds of terrorist acts, including those covered by the Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings. It goes on to require the same sort of cooperation described above in connection with the Terrorist Bombings Convention. The United Kingdom and 137 other States are parties to the Terrorist Financing Convention.
Both of these Conventions contain an exception if the offense is committed within a single State, the alleged offender and the victims are nationals of that State, the alleged offender is found in the territory of that State and no other State has a recognized basis to exercise jurisdiction. It appears from news reports that not all of the victims of the July 7 bombings were British nationals. Consequently the exception apparently would not apply, even if the offenders are British nationals and are apprehended in the United Kingdom.
Because of the worldwide revulsion toward bombings such as those in London and elsewhere, and because that revulsion is consistently reflected in U.N. resolutions and multilateral treaties such as those discussed above, any State that gains custody of a perpetrator of the London bombings could prosecute that person, even if the State is not a party to the Conventions. In customary international law terms, this type of terrorist act would come within the universality principle, which permits any State to prohibit and prosecute certain abhorrent acts under its own law, no matter where the acts occur.[6]
Early indications are that the perpetrators of the London bombings may be somehow associated with Al Qaeda. Of course, military action has already been taken against Al Qaeda as a result of the terrorist events of September 11, 2001. The British government is not currently threatening further military action. If further military action is contemplated at some point, some of the legal issues surrounding the U.S. action against Al Qaeda after 9/11 would be relevant. For brief discussion of the legal implications of military action in response to 9/ll, see ASIL Insight, Terrorist Attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (Sept. 2001), and the Addenda and Comments to that Insight.
About the author
Frederic L. Kirgis, an ASIL member, is Law Alumni Association Professor of Law Emeritus at Washington and Lee University. He has written books and articles on international law, and is an honorary editor of the American Journal of International Law.
[1] UN Security Council Resolution 1611 (July 7, 2005).
[2] UN Security Council Resolution 1566 (Oct. 8, 2004).
[3] See UN General Assembly Resolution 59/46 (Dec. 16, 2004).
[4] UN General Assembly Resolution 52/164, Annex (1998).
[5] UN General Assembly Resolution 54/109 (2000).
[6] The Restatement Third of Foreign Relations Law of the United States, section 404 (1987), says that the universality principle "perhaps" includes certain acts of terrorism. It seems clear that customary international law regarding terrorist bombings of groups of civilians has developed sufficiently since 1987 to place such bombings squarely within the universality principle.