The Supreme Court and material support for terrorist organizations
While the ordinary U.S. Supreme Court case doesn’t grab the attention of foreign policy specialists, Holder v. The Humanitarian Law Project, argued Feb. 23, 2010, is one of those rare exceptions.
Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, it could be making a decision with major ramifications (even personal ones) for foreign policy specialists. At issue is the constitutionality of the United States government’s interpretation of a 1996 law criminalizing, with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, the provision of “material support” to foreign terrorist organizations.
This provision is the government’s most used law in prosecuting those suspected of terrorism, largely because of the law’s breadth, and because it does not require the government to prove that the defendant intended to further the violent aims of the terrorist group.
Especially troubling from the perspective of the foreign policy community is that it also prohibits providing “training,” “personnel,” “expert advice or assistance,” or “service” to such a group, even when such services are completely unrelated to terrorist violence.
In this case the petitioners, the Humanitarian Law Project, a nonprofit legal organization that specializes in working in conflict areas with the goal of promoting human rights, wanted to train members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party – a group that had been designated as a terrorist organization under the law and involved in an armed insurgency inside Turkey – to instead use the tools of human rights law to achieve their goals.
Surprisingly, the U.S. government, at least in its position before the courts, has taken the view that such an activity would violate the statute. As one government attorney put it, the goal of the statute is to make designated terrorist groups “radioactive.”
Assisting them to advocate their views in political forums such as the U.N., or to file a brief with a court, or to publish an article in a newspaper or make a presentation to a television station would effectively render such groups less “radioactive,” and thus run afoul of the law’s purpose.
Mohammad Fadel is the Canada Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.
Tags: Supreme Court
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