This is an important debate, with the Police for the first time considering charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act against several New Zealanders.
This has ‘brought the debate home’. No longer are we talking about Al Qaeda or the like.
The fundamental problem with domestic anti-terrorism laws is that all serious violent offending is covered by our Crimes Act. We don’t need a parallel set of laws, called anti-terrorism laws, where higher penalties are imposed, simply because the offender has a political motive.
That political motive might be shared by many ordinary peaceful New Zealanders. It might be protecting Tuhoe land rights, or saving a block of native forest.
Why should it be penalised with a higher penalty? Why should someone trying to save dolphins or native snails, if they ever happen to turn violent, be subject to more years in jail than a violent gang member with no social conscience? Those with a social conscience are designated as ‘terrorists’.
Most environmentalists or supporters of Maori rights would never in a million years think of resorting to violence, and would be in favour of any violent people being brought to justice — but using the criminal law, not anti-terrorist laws that only smear their own political cause.
This Terrorism Suppression Amendment Bill sets up a new offence of a “terrorist act”, with a maximum sentence of life. If this is passed you can potentially get a life sentence for even engaging in a peaceful civil disobedience where you don’t intend to harm anyone.
A ‘terrorist act’ can be one where undue pressure is put on a government by “serious interference with, or serious disruption to, an infrastructure facility, if likely to endanger human life”. Greenpeace tried to get the Select Committee to narrow that definition, so it would only catch people, in Greenpeace’s words, “with the intention of endangering human life.” But only the Greens supported their proposal in the Select Committee.
As things stand, if this Bill passes, those organising a hospital strike, or a disruptive protest on the scale of the 1981 Springbok tour demonstrations, could be up for a life sentence for ‘serious disruption” of an infrastructure facility in a way ‘likely to endanger human life’ — even if they in no way intend to endanger human life.
Many submitters to the select committee were also worried about the removal of the ‘avoidance of doubt’ clause, whereby one would not be in trouble if one’s donation to an organisation was “for the purpose of advocating democratic government or the protection of human rights” — even if that organisation had engaged in some ‘terrorist activity’ — as broadly defined in the Terrorism Suppression Act.
That is, if one donated to an anti-apartheid cause yesterday, or for a democratic Palestinian state today, you would not necessarily fall foul of the Act, even if some ANC or Hamas members had been engaged in violent acts.
The avoidance of doubt clause also recognised that we are in politically fraught territory, and that one person’s terrorist can be another person’s freedom fighter.
It all depends on where you stand politically. For example, earlier this year a self-confessed state terrorist visited New Zealand, and an Auckland judge ordered him to be arrested for war crimes under the Geneva Conventions Act. His name was Moshe Ya’alon, a former Israeli defence chief who admitted ordering the bombing of a civilian neighbourhood in Gaza, killing many people. The Police point blank refused to obey the judge and arrest him. Instead they declared they would wait for the Solicitor General and Attorney General to consider whether a prosecution should be proceeded with. That consideration was either a model of bureaucratic efficiency or a travesty of justice. At 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon the Solicitor General received from Auckland a big box of legal submissions and detailed evidence. In a few hours he had speed-read and assessed them all, recommended that the prosecution not proceed, and forwarded them to the Attorney general, who signed them off by 5pm.
State terrorists, particularly if they are aligned to the American superpower, are off our Police and government radar. Tuhoe and local environmentalists are seen as easier targets, which is not to prejudge the current cases in the courts before we have seen the evidence.
Anti-terrorism laws seem to bring out the worst in Police forces, here and overseas. There is no way that the Police had the justification, or even the legal right, to stop and search every vehicle going in and out of Tuhoe country, and photograph everyone into the bargain.
All sense of proportion, and a respect for people’s rights, seems to have been lost in a rush to join the ‘war on terror’.
There is a better way. Don’t politicise the issue with anti-terrorism laws. If people have committed arms or other offences under our Crimes Act, then charge them on those offences.
If any offenders had a political motive, then I am sure that there are many, many New Zealanders who will be setting them straight.
We, who are active on environmental and social issues, can use what is happening today to rededicate ourselves, and all our organisations, to peaceful campaigning — to inoculate ourselves against temptation to use violence.
We have a wonderful tradition of non-violence protest in New Zealand. Sometimes it stretches into the realm of civil disobedience, as when a peace flotilla confronted US nuclear warships in Auckland harbour — and I think some people in this House were on board those boats.
We probably wouldn’t be nuclear free today without the mass non-violent protests, some of them against the law, which took place in the 1970s and 1980s.
The big protests against the impending Iraq war, in late 2002 and early 2003, helped ensure we didn’t join George Bush’s disastrous invasion of that country.
Although we didn’t join that war, our government has been an all too willing recruit to Mr Bush’s so-called ‘war on terror’ that has undermined human rights across the world.
This bill is another expression of that. It puts more power into the hands of the state, operating in secret, and reduces due process and the role of the courts.
If this Bill is passed, not only will the Prime Minister be in charge of designating terrorist groups, but she will review them three years later — when previously the High Court had that review role.
The designation process will not be transparent, because a lot of classified information will be involved, and under the Act the affected person or group will not be able to see it. The select committee did make one concession in relation to the designation process and said that after the Prime Minister makes a designation he or she must report it to the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament. The problem is that this committee — and I asked a written question about it recently — has only met for 2 hours and 38 minutes, since 2005.
Due process is even more undermined by a provision in the Bill to automatically put UN terrorist designations on the New Zealand list, even when our government has clear evidence that the people or groups concerned are not terrorists. It is just silly to take out of the existing Act a provision that evidence “contrary” to the UN evidence can be taken into account. Following UN Security Council recommendations, does not mean we abandon our adherence to all the other international human rights standards and stop giving people a chance to prove their innocence.
The Green Party will be voting against this Bill as a serious attack on our human rights, reinforcing and extending what is already bad in the Terrorism Suppression Amendment Act.
However, we do support one part of the Bill – that is the provisions implementing our adherence to the Nuclear Terrorism Convention and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.
I am most disappointed that the Government did not listen to the overwhelming majority of submitters who were opposed to the Bill, including expert submitters from Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the New Zealand Law Society — the latter group arguing that it was stupid to set up a parallel set of terrorist offences, which would only make it confusing for judges in our courts to decide whether to prosecute on terrorism charges or charges under the Crime Act. It will be very confusing, and, as I said earlier, prejudicial to may people to have this set of terrorism laws.