After London 7/7 there is an understandable desire to modify UK law to try and reduce the risk of future attacks. However, in the somewhat fevered debate that is taking place it is essential to keep connected to the bedrock of previous legal precedent. This is especially true in the consideration of suicide attacks.
Attacks willingly undertaken and involving the inevitable death of the attacker are common place throughout the history of conflict. From the refusal to surrender in the face of impossible odds, through to heroic charges into the face of machine guns, ramming your ship or plane into an enemy target. All may be condidered heroic by the side undertaking the action and particularly unsettling and terrifying by the side on the receiving end.
But are these actions necessarily illegal under international law. Absolutely not as an interesting discussion of suicide attacks in the invasion of Iraq makes clear!
What makes attacks illegal and/or defines them as an act as a war crime or act of terrorism is firstly, the intended target, secondly, exactly how the attack is caried out, and thirdly, whether a state of war actually exists. If we follow the rather contorted and localized logic of the US governments "war-on-terror" then the events witnessed over the last few weeks may well be considered as acts of war but illegal, nonetheless, due to the deliberate targeting of civilians. Luckily the British government has not bought into the distortion on international law in such a whole hearted way as the US and was careful to describe the London attacks as crimes and not as acts of war. This is not to say that a state of war does not exist in Iraq or in other parts of the world, but at the moment at least, the organisational link between the fragmented Iraqi resistence and the attacks in London is not clear enough to allow direct attribution.
The definition of terrorism is a confused and politically charged area which has yet to achieve resolution. Terrorism can take place during war or peacetime, be committed by state or non-state actors, by members of official armed forces or adhoc groups or inviduals. It is described with a limited definition in Geneva convention 4, but for a more encompassing definition we need to turn to the recommendations of the UN Secretary General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.
"any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004), that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to door to abstain from doing any act."
This makes it very clear, it is the intended target that defines whether an action is terrorist or not in nature. Terrorism is something that, theoretically, all 'civilized' governments and people are opposed to. However, history says the reality is sadly otherwise. It is all too easy to remember attacks, made by the allies in the second world war, which fall very easily into the definition of terrorism. The concept of 'total war' has been used as an attempted justification but has no legal justification whatsoever. The point of international law is of course to prevent wars becoming total, thereby limiting their impact on people who have no control over their conduct.
At the moment there is a tendency in the press to equate suicide attacks with terrorism and to call for the outlawing of suicide actions. Whilst understandable, such calls are misplaced and fail to understand the history of conflict, the legal basis, or the definition of terrorism. We desperately need the governments of the US and UK to return to a legally acceptable approach to foreign policy and action. The making of UK law in response to the recent attacks must not be allowed to exacerbate the underlying problem.