Terrorism can never be accepted.
We must fight it together, with methods that do not compromise our respect for the rule of law and human rights, or are used as an excuse for others to do so.

Anna Lindh


Using case studies, participants discuss what makes something a terrorist act, and formulate a definition of terrorism.    

Related rights

• Right to life, liberty and security of person
• Freedom from torture and degrading treatment
• Right to peace


• To deepen understanding of the causes of terrorism and how to
  combat it
• To develop skills to analyse information and think critically
• To encourage a reflective attitude and independent thinking


• Case cards
• "Points to consider" handout
• A sheet of A4 paper and pencil for each small group
• Flipchart and markers


• Photocopy and cut out the case cards. You will need one set for each group.
• Make a copy of the "points to consider" sheet, one per each group.

Key Date
  • 21 MayWorld Anti-Terrrorism Day


Ask the group what they understand by the word "terrorism". Brainstorm a few ideas and see if anyone can come up with a working definition. Write any suggestions up on the flipchart.
2. Tell participants that although there are a number of international treaties against terrorism, none of them actually defines the term "terrorism"! One of the reasons for this may be that member states of the United Nations often have different interpretations of ongoing conflicts and different interests in classifying certain acts either as "terrorist" or not.
3. Suggest that what may be needed to create a definition is a group of non-member states such as your group of participants! Explain that the activity should help them to arrive at their own definition of terrorism by the end of the session.
4. Divide participants into groups of 4-5 and hand each small group a set of case cards and a sheet of paper. Ask them to discuss each statement in turn and decide whether or not it should count as an instance of terrorism, giving their reasons.
5. Bring the groups back together after about 20 minutes and collect the results. Try to note the main reasons given for not including some of the cases as instances of terrorism.
6. Discuss briefly any differences between the groups, giving each side an opportunity to explain its decision. Ask participants which of the cases they found most difficult to judge.
7. Ask participants to go back into groups to formulate their own definition of terrorism, according to the decisions they made earlier or any considerations introduced by the discussions.
8. After 10–15 minutes, ask the groups to present their proposals. Then move on to the debriefing and evaluation.

Debriefing and evaluationGoto top

  • Was it harder or easier than you had imagined to define "terrorism"? Why?
  • Did you feel that the cases were realistic: did anyone "recognise" any of the cases as relating to real events? Which events? Did that make a difference to your judgement?
  • Why do you think that it is so difficult for United Nations member states to reach agreement on a definition?
  • In what ways – if any – are acts of terrorism different from acts of war? Do you think that one is any more justifiable than the other?
  • Do you think that there should be certain basic rules which apply to all sides (including states) in the "war against terrorism"? Are there things that neither side should be allowed to do? What?
  • Did you think that the acts in any of the cases could ever be justified? Why, or why not?
  • Which human rights do you think are relevant to the cases you discussed?
  • Could any of the cases be justified from a "human rights point of view"? 
  • Why do people become terrorists? Why do people commit crimes where the aim is to cause pain or fear in others?
  • Is it possible to say what sort of people become terrorists? Can you imagine ever feeling strongly enough about something to consider taking someone else's life?
  • Could it ever be justified to take the lives of civilians? Of a terrorist? Or the life of anyone?

Tips for facilitatorsGoto top

This issue is obviously very sensitive and controversial, and how you decide to approach it may depend to a large extent on the particular characteristics of your region or your group. You should feel free to leave out any of the cards that may be inappropriate, and the same obviously holds for the questions in the debriefing. You may also want to include other cases which are more relevant to your group's everyday reality.

If the activity is to be fruitful, participants will need to feel that they can express their genuine opinion without being censured, either by you or by other members of the group. You may need to say this at the beginning and get everyone's agreement about confidentiality. Tell them that the purpose of the activity is to work through difficult questions where our emotions may conflict with what people feel the "right" answer ought to be.

If you want a few facts and figures to stimulate participants' interest at the start of the activity, you can find interesting statistics on terrorism at www.nationmaster.com.

At point 6, where the groups attempt to draw up their own definitions of terrorism, it may be useful to provide some pointers relating to the previous cases, in order to clarify some of the general conclusions. Participants could be given the "points to consider" handout before working on their definitions, or you could use the questions at the end to test out the various definitions.

When discussing the human rights dimensions of terrorism, make sure that participants are aware of the following issues:
a) The right to life is possessed by everyone, as guaranteed in Article 3 of the UDHR,
Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and in other international
b) Even in times of war – when the rules of engagement are guided by international
humanitarian law (IHL) – deliberate attacks on civilian targets are not permitted. IHL
sets out certain basic rules which must be observed by any side in an armed conflict.
(See the Further Information below)

Suggestions for follow-upGoto top

Encourage the group to find out more about the cases in the examples, or to think about other historical instances of terrorism, and how these campaigns have ended.
If the group would like to take a look at the reasons why people engage in violent acts, then look at the activity "Throwing Stones". If you would like to explore other issues of violence, you may like to use the activity "Violence in my life".

Further informationGoto top

Relevant articles in international human rights and international humanitarian law:

Human Rights Law: the Right to Life
Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
  "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person". (Article 3)
European Convention on Human Rights:
  "Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law (...)" (Article 2)

International Humanitarian Law: the Principle of Distinction
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is the body of international law which applies in periods of armed conflict. IHL applies to all sides in an armed conflict, whether or not one side is acting in self-defence. It also applies to international conflicts and to non-international conflicts, and applies in equal measure to armed groups fighting against a state and to states themselves.
One of the most important principles of IHL is the "Principle of Distinction", which says that warring sides must distinguish between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives.
Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions:
"The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population, are prohibited." (Article 51.2)

International Humanitarian Law: Prohibition of acts of Terrorism
Fourth Geneva Convention:
"Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited." (Article 33)
Protocols 1 and 2 to the Geneva Conventions:
The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence, the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population, are prohibited. (Article 51.2, Protocol 1; and Article 13.2, Protocol 2)

Other articles of IHL prohibit taking hostages, and attacks on places of worship.

For information about the Council of Europe's work on terrorism, including its guidelines on fighting terrorism and respecting human rights, see the background information in theme "War and terrorism".

HandoutsGoto top

PDFDownload as PDF

Case cards

Case 1: A group runs an armed campaign to get rid of a totalitarian government. They put a bomb in the Ministry of Defence, which explodes, killing 12 people. Case 2: An individual targets single mothers with letters threatening their babies. No cases of violence have been reported, but the women are too scared to take their children out of doors.
Case 3: In a war between two countries, one drops a nuclear bomb on another, killing about 100,000 civilians. Case 4: A letter bomb is sent to the director of a large cosmetics company, severely injuring him. The anonymous bomber accuses the company of exploiting animals.
Case 5: A group runs a lengthy campaign against military installations, including regular use of explosives. A number of members of the armed forces have been killed. Case 6: In a campaign to win independence, members of an ethnic minority regularly bomb public areas. They provide warnings beforehand, so that people can evacuate the buildings, but civilians have been killed.
Case 7: A country has chemical weapons and says it is ready to use them if it feels threatened by any other country. Case 8: A group of criminals holds up a bank, takes
members of staff hostage, and later shoots the hostages to cover their tracks.
Case 9: Nationalist groups patrol and control major cities and regularly beat up or intimidate people from other ethnic groups. Case 10: A totalitarian state rules its population through fear: anyone who speaks out against it is arrested; people are regularly arrested, tortured and even executed.
Case 11: A group of organised criminals extorts money from local businessmen. Those who refuse to comply see their property burned and sometimes they are murdered. Case 12: In the course of a war against rebels, an occupying army attacks villages with drone (unmanned) planes. Several civilian casualties have been reported, some killing entire families.
Case 13: Workers from country A have to cross into country B every day. B’s border guards always harass A’s citizens, thoroughly checking ID papers, often making body searches. They frequently arbitrarily detain people from A. Case 14: During a decade-long civil war, a 19-year-old woman crossed paths with a group of 10 rebels. First the leader raped her and then he commanded his men to do so.
Case 15: There is an International Conference in the city. Police get powers to arrest anyone and hold them for 12 hours without any charge. They warn people not to demonstrate. Case 16: “You have to work harder, the graves are not full,” urged the voice on Rwandan radio.


Points to consider

Points to consider during your discussions:
• Does an act of terrorism always aim to provoke fear (terror) among the population?
• Is any act that causes people to be fearful an act of terrorism?
• Can a state (government) engage in terrorism, or is terrorism always an act against a country’s formal institutions?
• Does terrorism always aim to inflict civilian casualties, or can it be targeted against military targets, or against property?
• Can an act of terrorism ever be justified?