On Nov. 29, 2012, a group of faith leaders wrote to the Secretary of State asking her to exempt peacebuilding activities from the prohibition on material support of terrorism, thus putting the good works of civil society groups “back in the peacebuilding toolbox.”  Provisions found in current U.S. law prohibit these efforts, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has the authority to waive the prohibition for activities that would permit specific types of peacebuilding activities that can only be done by civil society.   These faith leaders join a coalition of nearly fifty former diplomats, peacebuilders, foreign policy and other experts who wrote a similar letter to Clinton in May 2011.

“It is not in the U.S. interest for legal restrictions to negate civil society’s comparative advantages in mitigating extremism on the ground,” the letter says.

When Congress passed the material support law it gave the Secretary of State the power to grant exemptions for activity involving training, expert and advice and assistance and personnel (18 USC 2339(B)(j)) .  The proposed exemption would permit specific types of peacebuilding activities, that are “designed to reduce or eliminate the frequency and severity of violent conflict, or to reduce its impact on noncombatants…” Supporters of the exemption say it would clear the way for Track II diplomacy, strategic talks that occur outside of official diplomatic channels, which has been beneficial to the U.S. in the past.

Melanie Greenberg, President and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, said that, “We urge Secretary Clinton, as part of her legacy, to carve out an exemption from the “material support” laws for peacebuilding activity by professionals in the field. The kinds of processes that led to the Oslo Accords and the Good Friday Accords would be impossible in today’s legal climate, and diplomats’ hands are being tied by the lack of a “safety valve” for informal dialogue with armed groups.

One of the letter’s signatories, Paul Alexander, President-elect of Evangelicals for Social Action, supports the removal of these barriers, saying, “peace with justice comes through communication and negotiation, not violent coercion.” He added, “we won’t get peacemakers at the table if they are at risk of prosecution.”

Other signatories to the letter included Rev. Rick Love, President of Peace Catalyst; the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California; and the Mennonite Central Committee, U.S. Washington Office.