Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An unlawful violation of freedom of movement

Yesterday we learned that John Key had responded to the "threat" of people travelling to Syria to participate in its civil war by cancelling their passports. This was done without any sort of due process or review, let alone threat of criminal charges; Key has said explicitly that those travelling "may not have broken the law" and that all the government can do if they return is watch them. But while it may have been effective at preventing these people from travelling, there's a problem: its illegal.

Why? First look at the clause in question: the Minister can cancel someone's passport if they "reasonably believe" that the person intends to engage in or facilitate:

(i) a terrorist act within the meaning of section 5 of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002; or
(ii) the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; or
(iii) any unlawful activity designed or likely to cause devastating or serious economic damage to New Zealand, carried out for purposes of commercial or economic gain

Only the first is really applicable here (otherwise the government would be talking about charges under the Chemical Weapons (Prohibition) Act 1996 and boasting about how it had disrupted a major international proliferation plot). So what's a terrorist act? Killing people or blowing stuff up for a "ideological, political, or religious cause", basically. But there's an important caveat:
However, an act does not fall within subsection (2) if it occurs in a situation of armed conflict and is, at the time and in the place that it occurs, in accordance with rules of international law applicable to the conflict.
A state or armed conflict currently exists in Syria. In and of itself, participation in that conflict cannot therefore be assumed to be an act of terror. Unless the government has more specific information that these people were specifically travelling to Syria for the purpose of blowing up hospitals etc, then it has exceeded its powers (and in that case, needless to say, it should be prosecuting). Those whose passports have been cancelled under this arbitrary, feudal law should be challenging it in court.