Terrorism amendment bill a threat to our civil liberties

Here we go again. Our democratic freedoms, civil liberties and human rights are under threat once more under the guise of the war on terror. The most recent assault comes under cover of the Suppression of Terrorism Amendment Bill 2007, which is before Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee, with submissions due by the end of this week.

The Government says it is just doing its part supporting international moves to isolate and control terrorism. In reality, it is part of the United States leadership’s drive to have its foreign-policy objectives adopted by governments around the world.

New Zealand has been a willing follower. Since 2001, our Government has passed three pieces of legislation to “suppress terrorism”, with the fourth now before Parliament. This latest bill contains provisions already rejected or watered down in the previous legislation. So having failed to get the harshest aspects passed into law earlier on, the Government is bringing them back and having another go.

This wearing away of civil liberties and freedoms has been a dominant feature of anti-terrorism legislation around the world, and has the potential to severely curtail legitimate political activity.

So what are the latest proposals and why are they dangerous? Under the proposed law, as Green Party MP Keith Locke has pointed out, even people with no intention to harm anyone or destroy property can qualify as terrorists.

A terrorist would be someone who, for political reasons, causes “serious disruption to an infrastructure facility, if likely to endanger human life”.

There are many examples of protest activity and civil disobedience from events in the past, such as the 1981 Springbok Tour, which could now be classified as terrorist.

Why not use the more sensible definition of terrorism as worded by the United Nations? This talks about “criminal acts, including those against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the public”.

Instead, New Zealanders working to support liberation struggles, democracy and human rights overseas would now face the prospect of being charged with supporting terrorist organisations.

Previous legislation allowed support and assistance to organisations, provided that it was “for the purpose of advocating democratic government or the protection of human rights”. Unbelievably, the Government now proposes this protection be removed because “it gives scope for a donor to argue that funds provided to a designated terrorist entity were provided for legitimate reasons associated with democracy or human rights”.

Under the new proposal, it would have been illegal to provide support for the African National Congress in the fight against apartheid or for campaigns to have Nelson Mandela released from jail. It could easily also be used against New Zealanders supporting Palestinian groups such as Hamas, despite it being democratically elected to power in Palestine.

So why remove this protection for New Zealanders? It becomes clear when one sees that under this legislation New Zealand would automatically adopt the UN’s list of terrorists and terrorist organisations. In this process, identifying terrorists involves countries putting forward names on a good-faith basis. Given the powers at play here, it is the US which will dominate the compilation of these lists.

Previously, New Zealand would adopt UN designations “in the absence of evidence to the contrary”. However, the Government proposes that New Zealand should give up its right to make its own assessments. We are proposing to remove our own checks and balances.

We would also be sidelining our courts. At present, if the Prime Minister designates a terrorist organisation, this is reviewable by the High Court after three years. The court’s intervention would be removed and the Prime Minister alone would have this power. Why should the Prime Minister be judge and jury? The reason is that if this power remains with the Prime Minister, the Government will easily accede to international pressure, to the detriment of all concerned. At least with the courts, there is a semblance of independent scrutiny.

This assumption of power by politicians over court processes is shown most clearly by the US with its treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees and the CIA’s “rendition” programme whereby suspected terrorists have been clandestinely transferred around the world to face torture. In both cases, the courts have been sidelined. It would be a disgrace for New Zealand to follow.

Why should we give up our rights to curry favour with those whose polices and actions in recent years have in themselves been inherently terrorist? The bill should be scrapped.

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