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Official Gazette

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Expanding definitions of terrorism

Updated: 10:29’ - 27/07/2009

Phan Quang Vinh
National Assembly Office Defense and Security Department 

One issue which has attracted a great deal of attention from the international community in this decade is the war on terror. This war started long ago but escalated especially after the September 11, 2001 incident which had severe consequences and caused a serious threat to US national security. Since, various countries, territories, international organizations and researchers have given special attention to terrorism. The result was a change in perception, attitude and actions. Many events around the world (including bloodshed in countries with political and religious conflicts or territorial fights for autonomy) were seen as acts of terror. Some states were even considered terrorists or as harboring terrorists. There arose new theories on terrorism, terrorist crimes, terrorist criminals and terrorist-sponsoring crimes.

The United Nations has adopted 13 international conventions against terrorism. Those conventions have been more or less interpreted into countries’ national laws. However, there are still no official, complete definitions of terrorist crimes, terrorism and acts of terror in international law. Countries with different polities, legal standpoints, international reputations and possibilities of terrorist actions have different viewpoints on terrorism. Such viewpoints aim, first of all, to protect national interests, especially security interests. International and national laws distinguish terrorism based on political and non-political purposes. But in a war against terrorism, political terrorism is always the primary concern as it poses a threat to national stability and might and exerts impacts regionally or globally. Furthermore, many terrorist cases have been labeled as political terrorism in order to serve political aim.

The war on terror has been spreading all over the globe and tends to be mandatory to all countries, otherwise countries can be viewed as going counter to common interests, or even as sponsoring, harboring or acting in complicity with terrorists. The war on terror has had some impacts on Vietnam and its decision to join the war is based on a clear standpoint for a world of peace and progress. In reality, there are no incidents found to be cases of terrorism in Vietnam, but there are some people arrested by Vietnamese police for suspect of terrorist conspiracies.

Vietnam has a tradition of harmonious, humanistic foreign relations and a spirit of peace which has been forged over thousands of years. The Government of Vietnam vehemently condemns and opposes all acts of a terrorist nature and using terrorism as a means to handle social and political differences. Vietnam considers terrorism a potential threat to peace, security and stability in the world today and has proactively joined the struggle against all acts of terror. Vietnam has also strictly observed its duties as committed in anti-terrorism international conventions to which it is a signatory.

Vietnam has reaffirmed its standpoint against using terrorism as a means to intervene into internal affairs of countries. Counter-terrorism must respect the UN Charter and fundamental principles of international law, national sovereignty and the desire for peace, stability and development of the humanity. Vietnam opposes the use of terrorism to pose threats to and attacks on other countries’ internal affairs, while condemning the use or threat of use of weapons of mass destruction and mass killing, and nuclear weapons above all.

In response to terrorist incidents around the world and some terrorist attempts in Vietnam, Vietnam has shown a clear and resolute attitude that it strongly opposes all terrorist activities and activities sabotaging national security, and attempts to violate national sovereignty. Vietnam considers terrorism a crime, and its position on this crime is consistently expressed in the common viewpoint against all kinds of crimes, reflected in resolutions and documents of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the national laws of Vietnam, which is safeguarding national security and political stability, promptly suppressing all attempts and acts of infringing upon its independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security, preventing and repelling all types of crimes and social evils and maintaining social safety and order.

Terrorism is as a complex concept which is still being debated at the international level. It appears hard to reach any globally accepted definition. Although most countries take an anti-terrorist position, “they have not been able to agree on what terrorism is, or all understand what terrorism means but they just cannot speak it out - therefore, there are people who said they are against terrorism, but act just like terrorists.” [1]

Crimes of terrorism

Legal provisions on crimes of terrorism have long been introduced in Vietnam and continue to be revised, serving a legal basis for investigation, prosecution and trial of terrorists, and for international cooperation on anti-terrorism.

The Penal Code of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which was approved in 1999, is the highest legal document which regulates crimes of terrorism. Article 84 of the Code defines terrorism as follows:

“1. Those who intend to oppose the people’s administration by infringing upon the life of cadres, state employees or citizens shall be sentenced to between 12 and 20 years imprisonment, life imprisonment or capital punishment.

2. In case of committing the crime by infringing upon bodily freedom and health, the offender shall be sentenced to between 5 and 15 years imprisonment.

3. In case of committing the crime by threatening to infringe upon human life or other acts of moral intimidation, the offender shall be sentenced to between 2 and 7 years imprisonment

4. Those who terrorize foreigners in order to cause difficulties to international relations of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam shall also be punished under this Article.”

According to the conventional viewpoint of Vietnamese lawmakers, terrorism is a violent act infringing upon or threatening to infringe upon the life and health of people, aiming to oppose the people’s administration. To be regarded as terrorism are those acts which also aim to jeopardize foreign relations of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Though other violent acts which infringe upon the life, health, freedom and property of individuals and organizations for the purpose of moral intimidation and forcing organizations and individuals to do or not to do something as required by individual terrorists or a terrorist organization, are not mentioned in detail in the criminal law, they shall also be criminally punished, and in some specific articles, can be treated as aggravating circumstances.

On November 13, 2007, the Prime Minister issued Directive No. 25/2007/CT-TTg on anti-terrorism in the new context. Under the Directive, terrorism is seen as organized actions taken by individuals and organizations inside and outside the country using weapons, explosives, toxic substances and/or information technology to attack government offices, foreign offices and public places in Vietnam, to conduct assassinations, take hostages, control people or vehicles, destroy public facilities and works of national security, infringe upon or threaten to infringe upon social safety and order, human lives and assets, intimidate  cadres, employees and citizens or infringe upon foreign interests in Vietnam, aiming to oppose the people’s administration, harm national security and obstruct foreign relations of the State of Vietnam.

Recently, the National Assembly has adopted several amendments to the 1999 Criminal Code. Accordingly, the title of Article 84 has been changed from “Terrorism” into “Terrorism to oppose the people’s administration.” The content of this article is kept unchanged. Two new articles related to terrorism are added to the chapter on crimes of infringement upon public safety and order, including:

“Article 230a.  Terrorism

1. Those who intend to cause public panic by infringing upon the lives of others or destroying assets of agencies, organizations or individuals shall be sentenced to between 15 and 20 years imprisonment, life imprisonment or capital punishment.

2. In case of committing the crime by infringing upon bodily freedom and health or appropriating or damaging assets of agencies, organizations or individuals, the offender shall be sentenced to between 5 and 15 years.

3. In case of committing the crime by threatening to commit one of the acts specified in Clause 1 of this Article or other acts of moral intimidation, the offender shall be sentenced to between 2 and 7 years of imprisonment.

4. The offender may also be subject to probation, residence ban for between 1 and 5 years and confiscation of all or part of his/her property.”

Article 230b. Sponsoring terrorism

1. Those who mobilize and provide money and property as support in whatever form to individual terrorists or terrorist organizations shall be sentenced to between 5 and 10 years imprisonment.

2. The offender may also be subject to probation, residence ban for between 1 and 5 years and confiscation of all or part of his/her property.”

These amendments have broadened the scope of the terrorist crime in objects (national security, public safety and public safety), purposes (opposing the people’s administration or causing public panic) and acts (infringing upon lives, health, or bodily freedom, threatening to infringe upon lives or using moral intimidation). The new article on sponsoring terrorism creates a legal corridor for functional agencies to handle acts of raising and sponsoring providing money and assets as support in any form for terrorists even when terrorist acts have not yet occurred. These provisions facilitate international cooperation against terrorism and conform to the international conventions on terrorism to which Vietnam is a signatory. 

Compared to the traditional viewpoint expressed in the old Article 84, understanding about terrorism under the current context has been broadened. Apart from state terrorism and international terrorism, there are other terrorist acts not against the state. However, these provisions are just initial steps on the way to incorporating into national law terrorist acts in accordance with Vietnam’s practical conditions and international law.

The National Assembly has agreed to put into the legislative agenda of its current tenure a Law Against Terrorism, which is expected to address:

+ Definition of terrorism;

+ Acts of terrorism;

+ Terrorism prevention measures:

+ Terrorism-fighting measures;

+ Resource mobilization for terrorism prevention and fighting;

+ Duties of state agencies, organizations and individuals in the fight against terrorism;

+ International cooperation on anti-terrorism.

Before the adoption of the amendments to the 1999 Penal Code, there were opinions that Vietnam had not fully provided for the purposes and acts of terrorism and that there was a need to broaden the scope of terrorism-related regulations. Such opinions were justified in that it was necessary to bring Vietnamese criminal laws into conformance with international law, providing favorable conditions for Vietnam in international cooperation against terrorism. How the scope of purpose and details of such regulation can be broadened must be based on the viewpoints of the Party and State of Vietnam on terrorism as well as the practical conditions and the legal system of Vietnam.

Vietnam has ratified eight out of 13 international conventions relating to preventing and combating terrorism. Those international conventions focus on five groups of terrorist acts. The question is how these groups are dealt with in Vietnamese law.

(i) Terrorist acts related to aircraft and aviation safety. Under Vietnam’s Penal Code, these acts can be prosecuted as the following crimes: violation of aviation navigation regulations (Article 216); appropriation of aircraft and ships (Article 221); and aircraft control in violation of aviation regulations of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Article 222).

(ii) Terrorist acts related to the safety of maritime routes and fixed works on the continental shelf. Under the Penal Code, these acts can be prosecuted under the following articles: appropriation of aircraft and ships (Article 221); control of marine craft in violation of maritime regulations (Article 223); destruction of material and technical infrastructure of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Article 85); destruction or intended damage of property (Article 143).

(iii) Terrorist acts related to human lives, health and freedom of people. According to the Penal Code, these acts can be prosecuted as: murder (Article 93); intentionally causing injury or destruction of another’s health (Article 104).

(iv) Terrorist acts related to the illegal use of weapons of mass destruction. Under the Penal Code, these acts can be prosecuted as: illegal production, transport, stockpiling and trade or appropriation of military weapons and technical equipment (Article 230); illegal production, stockpiling, transport, use, trade or appropriation of explosive materials (Article 232); illegal production, stockpiling, transport, illegal use, trade or appropriation of radioactive substances (Article 233); and illegal production, stockpiling, transport, use or trade of flammable and toxic substances (Article 238).

(v) Sponsorship of terrorism. Under the Penal Code, these acts can be prosecuted as acts of terrorism (Article 84) as they can be treated as complicity (Article 20). Once recent amendments to the Penal Code take effect, these acts can be also prosecuted under Article 84 (terrorism against the people’s administration), Article 230a (terrorism) or Article 230b (sponsoring terrorism).

The question now is when joining the international conventions, will Vietnam regard as criminal all terrorist acts described in these international conventions and whether it is to ‘localize’ international regulations into its criminal law?

According to reports of Vietnamese judicial agencies, all acts of terrorism or of a terrorist nature defined by international conventions to which Vietnam has signed or acceded, when occurring in Vietnam, can be handled under the current Penal Code.-

[1] Nam Hong, Quang Loi, Le Duy Hoa, Terrorism and Counterterrorism (reference book) Volume 3 - An Infinite War, Labor Publisher, I Hanoi, 2003. p. 130.


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