Criminalized Association and Counterterrorism
As this is my first post as a guest blogger for Opinio Juris, I’d like to begin by saying thanks to Peggy, Chris, Julian, and Roger for their generosity in inviting me to participate. I really appreciate it, and hope that I can make some useful contributions. Now, on to the topic at hand….
In the course of studying the legal aspects of the U.S. response to terrorism both before and after 9/11, I’ve often been struck by the fact that federal criminal law – notwithstanding its considerable scope in this area – does not go so far as to overtly criminalize the mere act of being a member of certain terrorist organizations. To be sure, certain statutes (particularly, 18 U.S.C. 2339B, prohibiting material support to terrorist organizations) come rather close to outlawing membership in foreign terrorist organizations so designated by the Secretary of State. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that during the prosecution of the “Lackawanna Six,” federal prosecutors employed an interpretation of the material support statute that was tantamount to a membership prohibition. The fact remains, however, that we have no post-9/11, terrorism-oriented parallel to the Cold War-era Smith Act membership prohibition that was upheld (albeit with a very important narrowing construction) by the Supreme Court in Scales v. United States.
Some European states, in contrast, have taken precisely this approach. In Brussels today, proceedings began in the trial of a group of 13 men on charges including the act/status of membership in the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, an outlawed terrorist organization. According to a statement from the Beglian Federal Prosecutor’s Office reported by the AP, the membership ban makes it “easier for police and investigators to shut down suspected terror cells and detain those believed to be aiding and abetting terrorists . . . . Prosecutors do not have to prove that the defendants themselves were involved in carrying out an attack, only that they belong to terrorist groups.” (Note that the statement may be paraphrasing by the AP reporter).
That the U.S. Justice Department has not sought similar authority in the U.S. says something, I think, about the distinctive role that First Amendment freedoms play in our society. That, in turns, leads me to wonder about the status of the Belgian membership ban under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 25 of the ICCPR. According to both, freedom of association may be restricted “in the interests of national security.” I can certainly see that argument’s theoretical applicability here, but am not certain whether this issue has been litigated previously under either convention (might this have come up in connection with UK law relating to the IRA, or Turkish law relating to the PKK?). I suspect that if this has been litigated such provisions have been upheld, particularly given the “margin of appreciation” often said to be owed to the state’s determination of its own national security interests.
That’s all for now. I hope some of you have some thoughts or insights to share!