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Your Humanitarian Work Could Land You in Jail

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SCOTUS disappoints again.

On June 21, in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is not unconstitutional for the government to block speech and other forms of advocacy supporting a foreign organization that has been officially (and arbitrarily) labeled as terrorist, even if the aim is to support such a group's peaceful or humanitarian actions.

In other words, they're throwing out the baby with the bath water, because, even if you only intend to support the positive humanitarian efforts of such an organization, you could be seen as providing material support to terrorists.

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Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor dissented. (No surprise.)

In the case, the plaintiffs were seeking only to provide assistance and education on human rights advocacy and peacemaking to the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey. However, the KWP happens to be designated a terrorist organization.

So, according to this ruling, you can go to prison for promoting peace in a case such as this.

Attorney David Cole of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) had this to say about the decision: "We are deeply disappointed. The Supreme Court has ruled that human rights advocates, providing training and assistance in the nonviolent resolution of disputes, can be prosecuted as terrorists. In the name of fighting terrorism, the Court has said that the First Amendment permits Congress to make human rights advocacy and peacemaking a crime. That is wrong."

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And CCR Senior Attorney Shayana Kadidal offered these disturbing implications: "The Court's decision confirms the extraordinary scope of the material support statute's criminalization of speech. But it also notes that the scope of the prohibitions may not be clear in every application, and that remains the case for the many difficult questions raised at argument but dodged by today's opinion, including whether publishing an op-ed or submitting an amicus brief in court arguing that a group does not belong on the list is a criminal act."


Kadidal went on to challenge Congress and the White House to take on the issue: "The onus is now on Congress and the Obama administration to ensure that humanitarian groups may engage in human rights advocacy, training in non-violent conflict resolution, and humanitarian assistance in crisis zones without fearing criminal prosecution."

Amen. But I shall not hold my breath.

The ACLU, in a press release, made this good point: "The United States Supreme Court ... upheld the broad application of a federal law that hinders the ability of human rights and humanitarian aid organizations to do their work by making it a crime to provide 'material support' to designated 'foreign terrorist organizations' (FTOs). The ruling thwarts the efforts of human rights organizations to persuade violent actors to renounce violence or cease their human rights abuses and jeopardizes the provision of aid and disaster relief in conflict zones controlled by designated groups."

So, sadly, innocent people will likely suffer, in more ways than one, as a result of this ruling.

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This is what George W. Bush's fear-fueled "war on terror" has wrought. And I am not optimistic that Congress or the White House will bother to do anything about it.


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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)

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