Civil society organizations (CSOs) based in the U.S. would like to work on projects similar to the agreement recently negotiated by Geneva Call, in which children under 18 years old will be prevented from joining Kurdish armed groups fighting in Iran. But they can’t. Unless, of course, they want to risk federal prosecution.
That’s because U.S. anti-terrorism laws prevent individuals and organizations from providing material support to groups listed as designated terrorist organizations (DTOs) by the U.S. Treasury, even when it is communications aimed at mitigating and ending armed conflicts. One of the parties to the Geneva Call agreement, the Free Life Party of Pakistan (PJAK), was placed on the DTO list in 2009, where it remains today.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (HLP) upheld the law defining prohibited “material support” of terrorism to include conflict prevention and resolution activities aimed at getting terrorist groups to lay down their arms. And with the material support statute’s extraterritorial jurisdiction provision, Geneva Call could be subject to prosecution, which is why the group’s president will not come to the U.S.
Peacebuilding activities, such as the ones resulting in this Deed of Commitment protecting children in armed conflict, offer the most hope for countering violent extremism (CVE) by addressing its root causes, teaching conflict resolution skills and building relationships. However, these efforts are stymied by overbroad, one-size-fits-all anti-terrorism laws and policies. At the same time, government approaches to CVE have focused on its symptoms (armed groups) rather than the drivers (perceived injustices, disenfranchisement and economic hardships, among other factors), inhibiting the work of CSOs along the way. A functioning civil society is essential to countering violent extremism, and the work CSOs must be unfettered by these policies.