Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Terrorism Suppression Amendment Bill

There's a conspiracy theory going round in the wake of this week's raids on Maori, greens, and peace activists that the whole thing is a stunt designed to ensure the safe passage of the government's latest piece of anti-terrorism legislation, the Terrorism Suppression Amendment Bill. I don't think so. To point out the obvious, the bill passed its first reading 109 to 12, with only ACT, the Maori Party and the Greens voting against. With that sort of support, there's no need to burn the Reichstag to get more. As Don Christie and Colin Espiner have pointed out, its likely that the raids have suddenly focused public scrutiny on the bill. Which is a good thing, because it needs it.

New Zealand's primary anti-terrorism law (other than the Crimes Act, of course) is the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. This defines a "terrorist act", creates a number of offences relating to terrorist bombings and the financting of, recruiting for, or participation in terrorist groups, and establishes a system allowing the government to "designate" terorist groups, thus effectively outlawing them. Unlike the UK and US, the bill grants no special powers of search and detention - that is all handled under ordinary criminal law.

The amendment bill tweaks this in various ways, the most significant of which are changes to the designation system. Rather than having to be specifically designated by the Prime Minister, groups designated by the UN will be automatically designated in New Zealand, which again raises concerns about political designations (the US, for example, likes to designate the standing military forces of countries it doesn't like as "terrorists" for PR purposes and to stoke tension). Appeal and review rights are significantly curtailed - there is no review for groups designated by the UN, and where previously other designations had to be renewed by the High Court, they will now be done at the whim of the Prime Minister, and while her decision may be subject to (expensive, time-consuming) judicial review, this has much narrower grounds than previous appeal rights (essentially being a procedural check), and the government is allowed to use secret evidence which may be hidden from the appellant - exactly as in the Zaoui case. This is simply an affront to justice, a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister, and a dangerous removal of review by the courts.

The bill creates a general offence of "committing a terrorist act". Given the broad definition of terrorism (it includes, for example, "serious interference with, or serious disruption to, an infrastructure facility, if likely to endanger human life" if done to compel a government to do or not do anything), this raises concerns about the criminalisation of protest. To give one example, protesters in New Zealand have climbed power-station chimneys and chained themselves to railway tracks in an effort to change government policy, in the process causing serious disruption to those facilities and endangering lives (chiefly their own). At the moment, they are at most looking at prosecution for trespass. If this bill passes, they could theoretically be looking at terrorism charges and life imprisonment. While it is argued that this change is needed to cover all eventualities, this is a distraction. The core of terrorism is the use of violence to achieve a political objective (something covered very well by the rest of the definition). Under the current law, every act of terrorism is by definition also an act of murder, manslaughter, assault, or criminal damage. And that I think is perfectly sufficient.

Finally - and this one will actually matter to New Zealanders - the bill makes an important change to the offence of terrorist financing, removing the defence that it is not a crime to collect funds "for the purpose of advocating democratic government or the protection of human rights". As many people have pointed out, this would have made those who supported the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in the 70's and 80's terrorist supporters, and could have a chilling effect on New Zealanders' long and honourable tradition of support for democracy and human rights overseas. This clause at the least needs to be removed.

Fortunately, it seems the bill has - for no apparent reason - been delayed. It is unlikely to be debated today, and was not mentioned in the business statement as being a priority next week. So rather than advancing the bill, the police's raids seem to have done precisely the opposite.