More terrorism (laws) on the way

Some thoughts on the proposed Aviation Security Bill and the Terrorism Suppression Act Amendment Bill currently in select committee.
On 13 March, Minister of Transport Harry Dunyhoven introduced the Labour government’s Aviation Security Bill stating “in today’s aviation security environment we are faced with new and evolving threats to personal and national security.” On Thursday 29 March 2007, the Labour government introduced the Terrorism Suppression Act Amendment Bill again suggesting that new international developments needed to be incorporated into law.

These two proposed laws signal that once again the government is set to assault and sacrifice freedom in the name of an ever-elusive ‘security’. These two new pieces of legislation add to a long list of counter-terrorism legislation passed since September 11th, 2001 including the Terrorism Suppression Act, Border Security Act, Maritime Security Act, Telecommunications (Interception Capability) Act, the Identity (Citizenship and Travel Documents) Bill as well as significant amendments to six other acts in order to incorporate the provisions of the Counter-terrorism Bill (including the Crimes Amendment Act and the Security Intelligence Act).

Some of the details of the Aviation Security Bill:
•Enable the screening and searching of airport workers;
•Require that airlines deny carriage to passengers who refuse to be searched;
•Enable foreign in-flight security officers to enter and depart New Zealand and enable New Zealand to deploy in-flight security officers, should the Government decide to do so in the future;
•Provide a general regulation-making power to ensure that the law is able to respond to new aviation matters in a timely fashion.

Each of these provisions is an egregious violation of basic freedoms. The possibility of workers being harassed by overzealous security agents, the denial of a flight to someone because they simply do not want to be searched — even after passing through metal detectors and X-ray machines — and armed police on pressurised aircraft are all real.

Most disturbing, however, is the final clause which in effect, grants carte blanche to the government to make whatever regulations suit at the time without any public input or even knowledge. As an example, this could include requiring any person in New Zealand with a criminal conviction to register their flight plans with the police who could then share that information with any security-related agency internationally.

The Aviation Security Bill is just the latest chapter of the so-called ‘war on terrorism.’ This 'war' is certainly not about stopping terrorism - as the situation in Iraq or Palestine easily demonstrates - rather, it about providing the legal mechanisms to conduct widespread surveillance of the population, thereby eroding fundamental freedoms and extending state power into every facet of life.

The Terrorism Suppression Act Amendment Bill gives further power to the New Zealand state, as well as to the US-dominated United Nations Security Council. There are a number of frightening changes to this already draconian piece of legislation.

First, a bit of background about the original Act is necessary. The Act started out as the Terrorism Suppression (Bombings and Financing) Act which was intended simply to allow for the implementation of two United Nations conventions on terrorism. The Act was in the final stages of the select committee process immediately before September 11th, 2001. Immediately after 9/11, the United Nations dictated a range of counter-terrorism measures to be taken by all states (read: the US dictated a range of counter-terrorism measures to be taken by all states who wanted to stay in George W. Bush’s good books). The Act had already reached its second reading and submissions received. Nonetheless, the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence select committee bypassed any pretence of democratic process and tacked-on significant and substantive changes in the law without the required public notice. Fortunately for us, this did not happen, although the Act as it was finally ratified in 2002 remained a serious violation of fundamental freedoms.

The further amendments to the Act should be cause for concern for all who are interested in human freedom. Several examples of changes:

Clause 6 of the ‘new act’ criminalises a ‘terrorist act’ with the potential for life imprisonment upon conviction. Originally, the Act defined a number of activities that are terrorist acts and provides a very strict definition and penalties for such crimes. The addition of a vague ‘terrorist act’ with this amendment has the potential to create an entire new body of law based strictly on someone’s motivation for a crime. As Professor Matthew Palmer, dean of the Victoria University School of Law, argued, terrorism is no different from other criminal behaviour except in its motivation. He noted that while motivation was an element to consider when sentencing a person, it should not be the basis for a new area of law. Indeed, it is possible that this clause creates a double-jeopardy of sorts insofar as one can be tried for a particular crime as well as being tried for that same crime under another ‘generalised’ section, with far more serious penalties.

The Government is also repealing the section of the Terrorism Suppression Act which provided the benefit of the doubt to people giving money to political organisations. At present, section 8(2) reads: “To avoid doubt, nothing in subsection (1) makes it an offence to provide or collect funds intending that they be used, or knowing that they are to be used, for the purpose of advocating democratic government or the protection of human rights.” Clause 7 of the ‘new act’ will repeal that, criminalising anyone who might inadvertently give money to a group which is on the UN’s currently unfavoured list.

Let us briefly examine the United Nations Security Council terrorist designations around which so much of this legislation is based. The UN is a political body, the Security Council is even more so. It is the place where deals are cut and agendas are served – most particularly to the five permanent members: the US, France, China, the UK and Russia. You can imagine a scenario wherein the US concedes designation of Chechen rebels as terrorists in exchange for Russia allowing the designation of Islamic Jihad similarly.

In practice, the UN is viewed as a neutral arbiter of world affairs and their designations imply that a particular terrorist group poses the same threats to all nation-states. At best, the New Zealand government is relying on a highly biased and politically motivated organisation to say who is or isn’t a security threat to New Zealand; at worst, they are equating New Zealand’s security with that of war-mongering nation-states like the US.

Further extension of state power is subtly included in minor clauses of the bill, such as Clause 26 which amends section 47A. With the passage of this Bill, any customs officer can seize and detain any of your property, without a warrant, if he suspects that it is owned or controlled by a terrorist entity. Along with the new Aviation Security Act, the powers extended to both the Aviation Security Service and the Customs Service will be tantamount to a secret police force with the power to search, detain and interrogate at will.

Details of both proposed acts are available on the parliamentary webpage: the aviation security bill is listed under the transport select committee, the terrorism suppression act amendment bill is listed under the foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee. To be properly understood, the latter needs to be read in conjunction with the principle (original) act in order to see what is being changed. The original act can be read on the legislation.govt.nz webpage, just follow the links under ‘T’ to the act.

More counter-terrorism legislation will have little or no effect in stopping terrorism. It will certainly have the effect of frustrating, enraging, harassing and inconveniencing lots of people. It will also be one more way in which the state can stick its proverbial nose, along with its surveillance cameras and scanners into your life.

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