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Promoting nonviolence to terrorists ruled illegal

Last week, the US Supreme Court upheld a law that criminalizes giving any advice, including instruction on human rights law or nonviolent conflict resolution, to any group that the State Department classifies as a foreign terrorist organization.

The case was brought by the Humanitarian Law Project, a group that had advised the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka on peacemaking and advocacy before the UN.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said that even this type of peaceful activity lends legitimacy to terrorist groups and “frees up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends.”

“Hezbollah builds bombs. Hezbollah also builds homes,” then Solicitor General Elena Kagan told the court as she argued the government’s case in February. “What Congress decided was when you help Hezbollah build homes, you are also helping Hezbollah build bombs.”

Needless to say, the ruling is seen as a blow to freedom of speech and will further complicate the work of activists with groups like the Free Gaza Movement, who critics argue support Hamas by attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

“The ‘material support law’ – which is aimed at putting an end to terrorism – actually threatens our work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence,” said former President Jimmy Carter.

In a sharp critique of the decision on the Huffington Post, Kay Guinane writes:

For an obvious example of the fault in the findings, one need look no further than the Good Friday Accords that brought a lasting peace to Northern Ireland for the first time in more than eight centuries. For years, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had worked to bring violent factions of Catholics and Protestants to the bargaining table. Their work behind the scenes was instrumental in persuading those groups–“terrorists” in the eyes of most of their captive civilian populations, as well as the governments seeking to disarm them–to put down their weapons and negotiate a peaceful resolution to 850 years of violence.

If the “material support” law had been in place, as authorized by the Supreme Court today, those organizations would have been criminals. And the people of Northern Ireland would likely still be victims of sectarian violence that only a very few supported.

“Orwellian” doesn’t begin to describe a law that makes it a crime to promote peaceful conflict resolution. While nobody would argue that Congress and the executive shouldn’t take all necessary and justifiable steps to prevent terrorism and protect the nation from violent extremists, what rational person would argue that turning extremists away from violence runs contrary to that goal?