Humanitarian Aid VS. ‘Material Support’

While there are practical reasons for the law, namely preventing the support of violent activities of such organizations, the current wording of the law is so broad that it also prevents humanitarian work which might go towards alleviating conditions which encourage people to join terrorist organizations in the first place. Furthermore, under the law “material support” also includes aid such as conflict resolution training, legal advise on how to hold peace negotiations, and address human rights violation complaints to the United Nations.
On Monday the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to uphold a federal law that bans “material support” of foreign terrorist organizations. The law prohibits all forms of aid (expect for religious and medical material) to organizations on the State Department list of terrorist organizations.

While many blogs and writers have been focusing on this story in relation to the First Amendment, there remains a larger question of how can we hope to effectively “fight” terrorism if we’re not even allowed to talk with people involved in such groups to find out why they are committing terrorist acts or offer assistance and training to address their concerns in non-violent ways.

Reuters | Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented with Breyer saying the court majority ultimately “deprives the individuals before us of the protection that the First Amendment demands.”

He said the court failed to examine the government’s justifications for the law with sufficient care.

Main Justice | Several humanitarian groups had challenged the law — which prohibits groups from providing “material support” to terrorist organizations — on the grounds that it violated their First Amendment right to free speech and association.

In the ruling, the Supreme Court held that the government can ban groups from providing support such as training or advice to terrorist organizations, even if the support is intended for peaceful, legal activities such as disaster relief.

”Such support frees up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

NPR | The Obama administration said the “material support” law is one of its most important terror-fighting tools. It has been used about 150 times since Sept. 11, resulting in 75 convictions. Most of those cases involved money and other substantial support for terror groups.

Only a handful dealt with the kind of speech involved in the case decided Monday.

The aid groups involved had trained a group in Turkey on how to bring human rights complaints to the United Nations and assisted them in peace negotiations, but suspended the activities when the U.S. designated the Turkish outfit a terrorist organization in 1997. They also wanted give similar help to a group in Sri Lanka, but it, too, was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 1997.

Nearly four dozen organizations are on the State Department list, including al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Basque separatists in Spain and Maoist rebels in Peru.

The humanitarian groups, including the Humanitarian Law Project; Ralph Fertig, a civil rights lawyer; and Dr. Nagalingam Jeyalingam, a physician, want to offer assistance to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.

Foreign Policy | Presumably, however, it is the goal of U.S. policy to induce terrorist organizations to abandon terrorism as a method to advance their political grievances. Direct communication with such groups would seem to be a reasonable, even necessary, means to achieve that result. One of the ways to convince terrorist organizations to abandon terrorism is to convince them that they can achieve their legitimate political goals without resorting to terrorism. Yet, the government’s refusal to limit the reach of the “material support” statute to lethal support threatens to criminalize the ordinary work of many civil society groups that work to convince terrorist groups of precisely that. It also threatens to freeze in place certain policies by preventing those who are best positioned to change views – foreign policy specialists who are free from restrictions of government service – from acting as practical intermediaries between the U.S. government and terrorist organizations during any kind of interim period when a terrorist organization might evolve into a legitimate political interlocutor. As former U.S. President Jimmy Carter put it, “Our work to end violence sometimes requires interacting directly with groups that have engaged in it.”

Center for Constitutional Rights | Said CCR Senior Attorney Shayana Kadidal, “The Court’s decision confirms the extraordinary scope of the material support statute’s criminalization of speech. But it also notes that the scope of the prohibitions may not be clear in every application, and that remains the case for the many difficult questions raised at argument but dodged by today’s opinion, including whether publishing an op-ed or submitting an amicus brief in court arguing that a group does not belong on the list is a criminal act. The onus is now on Congress and the Obama administration to ensure that humanitarian groups may engage in human rights advocacy, training in non-violent conflict resolution, and humanitarian assistance in crisis zones without fearing criminal prosecution.”

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