A June 21, 2012 panel discussion marked the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which upheld the government’s power to criminalize peacebuilding efforts aimed at encouraging terrorist groups to lay down their arms. Decided in 2010, the case focused on ‘material support’ prohibitions in U.S. law that make it a crime to provide “training,” “services,” “expert advice or assistance,” and “personnel,” to a listed terrorist group.
Melanie Greenberg, President and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding expressed concern with the outcome of the case, saying she “felt that peace was being trumped by a very narrow vision of what it means to be a secure nation.” Greenberg argued that Track II diplomacy—strategic talks that occur outside of official diplomatic channels—allows the U.S. government to benefit from the work of non-governmental organizations that engage in negotiations that would be politically difficult for the U.S. However, the current ‘material support’ prohibition makes those talks impossible.
Chic Dambach, the chief of staff for Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) added that “the most important part of conflict resolution is…[building relationships] with people who are causing the trouble.” But this is exactly the type of engagement that the Court maintains can be restricted. The majority opinion in the case found that the Humanitarian Law Project could not conduct “coordinated speech” with terrorist organizations, even for the purpose of ending violent conflict; however, the Court did not clarify what constitutes “coordinated speech.”
The material support prohibition is not the only counterterrorism measure that creates barriers to peacebuilding. Aaron Chassy, Senior Technical Advisor for Governance and Civil Society for Catholic Relief Services discussed the complications that arise for peacebuilders under the Partner Vetting System (PVS). The PVS, which requires USAID or State Department grantees to require personal information be collected on their staff and partners “undermines the trust which underpins [peacebuilders] long term relationships with local partners,” according to Chassy. The PVS also endangers aid workers by creating a perception that humanitarian and peacebuilding organizations are working for the government.
Panel moderator Kay Guinane of the Charity & Security Network pointed out that current law gives Secretary of State Clinton the power to make an exception for peacebuilding communications and humanitarian negotiations. A group of 45 foreign policy experts, former diplomats, peacebuilders and civil liberties advocates sent Clinton a letterrequesting such an exception in May 2011. As of July 2012 State has not taken any action on the request.
Watch the entire event below.