Supreme Court Ruling Threatens Work of Peace

The Bible says “seek peace and pursue it.” But in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, some international peace builders might want to reexamine where that pursuit takes them.

In June, the court voted 6 to 3 to uphold a federal law that makes it a crime knowingly to provide “material support” to organizations designated by the State Department as foreign terrorist groups. The term “material support” encompasses tangible items like money, materials and goods as well as less concrete forms of support like “service” or “expert advice or assistance.” The latter includes advising and training organizations in how to take nonviolent paths toward political goals.

In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the court concluded that the material support law was written broadly because any type of U.S. aid to terrorist groups could serve to “legitimate” these groups. Violating the material support law is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Humanitarian groups and peace-builders were left puzzled as to how the decision would affect their work

George A. Lopez, a professor with the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, said the ruling could put some international peace organizations “in a very odd situation.”

“We’re allowed to work with the Colombian bishops, but we’re not allowed to work with them in the same room when they are working” with groups on the terrorist list, Lopez said. “What happens to that relationship with the local bishops’ conference or a local Caritas organization that’s dealing with the rebels...is there guilt by association? This ruling leaves that very, very nebulous.”

One option is for groups involved in peace building to lobby Congress to revisit the material support law, which was originally passed in 1996.

“Whatever the strict interpretation of the law is, the policy behind it seems very foolish,” said the Rev. John Converset, director of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office for North America’s Comboni Missionaries. “Are we trying to force people to remain violent? Do we not want to give them the chance to move from violence? Humanitarian assistance undermines terrorism.”

Not all terrorist groups reach the point where they are receptive to adopting peaceful strategies. But some groups designated as terrorists have become mainstream political entities, said Page Fortna of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. She cited several examples, including South Africa’s African National Congress and El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

“Terrorist groups aren’t different from other violent political actors, other rebel groups,” Fortna said. “They are strategic actors, so they are trying to figure out the cost of continuing to fight and the cost of continuing to use terrorist tactics versus settling.”

The Supreme Court case stems from a lawsuit filed by the Humanitarian Law Project and other groups arguing that the material support law violated the First Amendment right to free speech, and that terms like “service” and “expert advice or assistance” were too vague. The Supreme Court decision overturned a previous ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Humanitarian Law Project also sought an injunction that would allow the group to provide support to two foreign terrorist organizations: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.

The original material support statute was enacted in 1996 as part of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The 2001 Patriot Act expanded the definition of material support to include expert advice or assistance.

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