Supreme Court Stifles Humanitarian Groups

According to the Supreme Court, many of our world's most esteemed Nobel Peace Prize winners just might be criminals.

Or at least that's what it seems when one looks at the broad language in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. Decided a week ago today, the Supreme Court upheld a federal law that makes it a crime to provide "material support" to any foreign organization that the government designates a terrorist group. The decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project was a 6-3 split, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen G. Breyer in the minority.

Because the definition of material support includes everything from providing aid to distributing literature to political advocacy, the ruling is a major blow to human-rights and nonviolent communication organizations. It is also a step in the wrong direction for the post-September 11 world. The law essentially criminalizes promoting dialogue in conflict zones and undermines efforts to provide nonviolent solutions to previously violent groups, equating such actions with trafficking weapons. In a world that demands precise, strategic interventions to prevent and curb terrorism, this law is like a blunt object. We're not promoting peace; we're advocating the equivalent of the silent treatment.

The law, in effect, promotes isolationism. If American facilitators fear criminalization if they reach out to groups that have been labeled "terrorist," they are hampered in fulfilling their mission of promoting peaceful solutions abroad. In many cases, "terrorists" are adolescents who have been lured into these organizations with promises of money, status, and community -- exactly the demographic that human-rights advocates need to target if we are to prevent future attacks on the scale of 9-11.

Those who facilitate nonviolent trainings, especially in conflict zones, depend on sparking what John Paul Lederach calls the "moral imagination" of people to see another way out of desperate situations. Many of the people who get pulled into terrorist movements are hungry for a sense of purpose, hungry for a way to respond to the injustice they see all around them. Many are hungry, period. Americans who engage these populations in dialogue, in the spirit of some of our own most enlightened leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., have the potential to satiate rather than instigate.

Many of those considered foreign terrorists by our federal government have very little access to voices outside their own cultural and ideological demographic. Without access to foreign newspapers and books, they often fall into line with what others in their community are thinking and saying regarding the most noble way to respond to their oppressors -- or those who are labeled as such. This kind of isolation further diminishes the moral imagination, cutting off people from the possibility of seeing another way, of choosing education or economic opportunities or, simply, nonviolence. Many people in conflict zones without local facilitation depend on outsiders for an opportunity to try on nonviolent solutions or to humanize their supposed enemies.

The decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project sends a message from America to the world. It echoes the conversation about foreign-policy tactics that took place in the mainstream press around the 2008 election. Was Obama a wimp for favoring dialogue with political leaders from countries that might be harboring terrorists? Or was it better to cut off all communication and resort to economic deprivation or even preemptive war? Whatever you think about eye-for-an-eye violence, there's no arguing that our violent interventions against "terrorists" in the years since 9-11 have been ineffective at best and immoral and deadly at worst.

Further, this case is not just about dialogue; it's about any kind of service deemed "material support" by the federal government. Since 2001, the government says, it has charged about 150 defendants for violating the material-support provision and obtained about 75 convictions. Who's to say that the next defendant won't be Muhammad Yunus, who offers a loan to someone friendly with Hamas, or a faithful steward of Doctors Without Borders, who offers medical attention to the child of a Tamil Tiger? Is this really the kind of human-rights witch-hunting that we want to spend our precious national resources on when there are so many genuine security threats we need to address?

David D. Cole, a lawyer for the plaintiffs with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The New York Times: "This decision basically says the First Amendment allows making peacemaking and human rights advocacy a crime." Not only is that a constitutional problem, it's a security problem. In an economic climate that has already put great strains on international human-rights organizations just to keep their vital work going, this is a legal blow some might not survive, leaving all of us more vulnerable to the next attack.