'Anti-terror' laws attack solidarity

May 15, 2002


The "war on terrorism" is the big lie of the 21st century. It has nothing to do with a civil defence against people who fly planes into buildings. Before September 11, there were already laws against that in almost every country on Earth. And there are laws against collecting arms to attack civilian populations and governments.

The wave of "anti-terror" legislation recently introduced in countries throughout the world, including the Australian legislation, has not just been thought of in recent months. It is part of a state-agency shopping list that has been around for a very long time. It copies the pattern of repressive internal security laws in Malaysia and Burma, countries which regularly jail political opponents.

The legislation currently before the Australian Senate will increase powers to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, including the right to hold people incommunicado without charge or trial. It will create a dangerous new and vaguely defined "terrorist act" offence, which would make a great deal of protest and some union activity punishable by life in prison. It would also give the federal attorney-general the power to "ban" organisations by decree, if they were thought to have terrorist connections.

These laws have nothing to do with combatting armed political groups. There is no greater risk from such groups in Australia now than there was ten or twenty years ago.

If the "war against terrorism" was designed to combat politically motivated violence, the US government would have condemned the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Jenin, and the bulldozing of their buildings on top of whole families. If this were a "war" against politically motivated violence, US President George Bush would not have said that the person who orchestrated such attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was a "man of peace"; Australian Prime Minister John Howard would not have called Sharon's attack "understandable".

Nor is this a war for democracy. If the war on terrorism were defending democracy, the British and US governments would not have supported the April 30 plebiscite in Pakistan — where military coup leader General Pervez Musharraf got a 98% vote for a five-year term, in elections where the opposition was banned, the media was controlled and there was no voter registration. If the US government was crusading for democracy why did it, last month, back the attempted military coup in Venezuela?

The war on terrorism, it seems to me, is something else. It is an attack on citizens' capacity to engage in solidarity activities. It affects us all.

My Malaysian friend Tian Chua — currently in a Malaysian jail for over a year without charge or trial, under Malaysia's "anti-terrorist" laws — is an activist who, while in Australia, supported the East Timorese solidarity campaign, solidarity campaigns with Palestine, campaigns demanding an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody and the campaign opposing fees at universities. He has since become one of the most effective opposition politicians in Malaysia. He is not a man with a gun, but he is precisely the sort of person we can expect to see (and do see) jailed under "anti-terrorist" laws.

The new powers in Australia will not be exercised systematically any more than zero-tolerance policing is exercised systematically. They will be exercised in a discriminatory way — and their targets will not be bomb throwers or assassins.

Anti-terrorist powers in Australia will not be exercised in the same way as they are used in Malaysia and Burma. Arbitrary power held by Australian state agencies will be used selectively against activist targets, isolated groups and racial minorities, and it may also come to threaten an effective political opposition.

But we can have an influence on the way in which these powers are used. Because it is likely they will be passed, in some form. While the ALP, in the early part of the Senate hearings, raised serious civil-rights problems with the legislation, days later Labor members were saying "Oh, it's not really going to be as bad as that, they wouldn't do things like that". It is clear that the Labor Party is inclined to accept these dangerous new laws, in some form. But Labor may yet be shamed into mounting some public opposition.

Most of the rights that are due to be trampled on by this legislation have been fought for in the past. In the 1960s, we didn't have the right to demonstrate. We had to occupy the streets for that. There was not even a right to hand out leaflets publicly. Some of the things we fought for, and gained, are under threat and we need to fight for them again.

Progressive activists are the targets of this legislation. Government members have confirmed that the people who pushed over the fence at Woomera would be "terrorists" if this law was passed. The globalisation demonstrators are also in the firing line. These are the real targets in Australia, not al Qaeda. But police and the courts will only proceed against marginalised or demonised groups and individuals.

If these appalling laws are passed, magistrates and judges will have to decide whether to enforce them. It is possible for judicial officers to resign, rather than take part in the enforcement of offensive laws. We should fuel the sense of shame public servants feel, if they get caught up in attempting to implement such laws.

We should make it clear that we will not tolerate here the things that have happened to Tian Chua, and his fellow political prisoners in Malaysia. We don't want them happening in Malaysia either. Standing in solidarity with people in other countries, such as political prisoners and the Palestinian people, is our only effective option, as human beings. If not, our world threatens to become thoroughly controlled, just as prisoners in our prisons are controlled, as Aboriginal people on the mission stations were controlled, and as the Palestinians in the occupied territories are controlled.

We will be subject to this control if we do not resist, but I feel confident that we can resist successfully.

[Tim Anderson is a political economy lecturer at the University of Sydney.]

From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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