Sunday 16th April 2006
Unions could be casualties of new legislation
Most Australians are opposed to the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition, according to opinion polls. The invasion was illegal, according to the secretary general of the United Nations and a host of experts on international law.
Do Iraqis therefore have the right to resist the occupation of their country by coalition forces, including Australian troops?
If you answer yes, you now risk a charge of sedition with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
If your union makes a similar statement it could be banned and face charges of supporting terrorism.
These are just two of many potential consequences of the Howard government’s anti-terrorism laws rushed through Parliament late last year.
The government was widely criticised for its willingness to sacrifice human rights in the name of defending Australians from terrorism.
Dr Ben Saul of the University of NSW is one lawyer who thinks some of the new laws threaten the very democratic values they aim to protect.
Dr Saul previously taught international law at Oxford University. He has served as a legal expert for various United Nations committees and performed volunteer work defending victims of human rights abuses in different parts of the world.
In an interview with The Lamp, Dr Saul said the anti-terrorism laws cast a very wide net and could have a number of unintended negative consequences for unions and union members.
‘These laws are more extensive and invasive than similar laws adopted in the US and Britain,’ he said.
‘And unlike most other democratic nations including Britain, Australia does not have the safeguards of a Human Rights Act.
‘This Act allows British courts to independently supervise the impact of terrorism laws on people’s rights.’
According to Dr Saul, key aspects of the new laws include:
‘Let’s say a union expresses support for resistance against Indonesian rule in West Papua or Russian rule in Chechnya or Chinese rule in Tibet. This kind of statement could be taken as praising terrorism or advocating terrorism and the Attorney General now has the power to ban that organisation. All assets of the organisation can be confiscated and members can be prosecuted criminally. Conceivably, a single member’s statement could be used to ban the whole organisation. This introduces the concept of collective punishment – closing down a whole organisation just because of the statements of one or a few in the organisation.’
‘A person can be imprisoned for life if the person indirectly makes funds available to another person, and the person is reckless as to whether the other person will use the funds for terrorism. Reckless means there’s a “substantial likelihood” that money may be used for terrorism. A person can be guilty even if they didn’t intend the money to be used for terrorism. And the offence is committed even if a terrorist act does not occur or the funds are not used for a specific terrorist act. This requires all Australians to think about where their money might go. Some unions have humanitarian overseas aid programs where partner organisations are involved in resistance against oppressive governments or foreign occupation. Union aid could be caught up in this broad definition of terrorism financing.’
‘Federal Police can now issue a written notice to hand over information about an organisation and its members. This could cover bank records or membership lists, potentially breaching privacy of union members. The new law bypasses the regular search warrant procedures where a judge must approve a warrant.’
‘Australians may be prosecuted for condemning illegal violence by their government, or for seeking to uphold the United Nations charter. If, for example, you speak up and say war in Iraq is illegal and people in Iraq have the right to fight in self-defence against invaders, technically that encourages violence against Australian forces. Worse, the person doesn’t have to explicitly urge violence or even intend that there be a violent outcome. You could be committing an offence by encouraging someone to donate blankets to Iraqi groups supporting the resistance.’
US nurse accused of sedition
The big stick of sedition is being waved to silence dissenters in the United States, too.
Veterans Affairs nurse Laura Berg of Albuquerque, New Mexico, became a target of US sedition laws after she wrote to a newspaper condemning President Bush’s war against Iraq and his handling of Hurricane Katrina.
Laura said she was moved to write the letter after seeing how the Iraq war affected the mental health of war veterans.
‘As a VA nurse working with returning vets, I know the public has no sense of the additional devastating human and financial costs of post-traumatic stress disorder,’ she wrote.
The government’s response to her letter was harsh. Her office computer was seized, and the Veterans Affairs department reported her to the FBI.
Laura received a memo from the department’s chief of human resources stating: ‘The agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition.’
Laura described it as ‘a chilling experience’ but said she had received calls and emails of support from government employees across the United States.
Lawyer Larry Kronen from the American Civil Liberties Union said sedition meant ‘advocating the forceful, violent overthrow of government’ and should not be used to intimidate people who exercised their right to free speech.