State powers and the 'war on terror'



SYDNEY — In the wake of the September 11 World Trade Center bombings, the federal Coalition government announced that it would introduce a spate of new "security measures" to deal with the threat of terrorism in Australia and abroad. In late March, the government hurriedly introduced this legislation in eight separate parts. Despite community concerns that the proposed laws present a further attack on our civil liberties, there has only been two weeks of community consultation allowed.

Among other things, the new legislation will:

  • Give the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) the power to detain and interrogate a person, without charge for 48 hours, even if they are not suspected of involvement in any offence;

  • Abolish the right to silence and legal representation in that period for that person — the person must fully co-operate or face a prison term of up to five years; and

  • Create a new, broadly defined offence, "terrorism".

The predominance of "racial profiling" in Australian law enforcement will ensure that non-white Australians are even more likely to be treated as "terrorists" under the new laws. As George Monbiot wrote in the British Guardian on March 14, describing similar laws in the US: "The racial profiling which has become the unacknowledged focus of America's new security policy is in danger of provoking the very clash of cultures its authors appear to perceive."

Civil rights groups have expressed concerns that giving ASIO powers of arrest would make it, in effect, a secret police force.

Similar laws in other countries have resulted in human rights violations. "When the Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced in Britain, it's been well established that where people could be detained without access to legal advice, and without knowing where they were, the police physically and psychologically tortured people, and people did make false confessions and many people spent extended periods of time in prison", lecturer Jude McCulloch argues.

Protesters targeted?

The new laws will define terrorism as "action or threat of action done to advance a political, religious or ideological cause". Damien Lawson, from the Federation of Community Legal Centres of Australia, believes the offence is completely unnecessary because "things like hostage-taking, planting bombs and assassination, are covered by charges of murder and criminal assault".

But a range of political activity that activists or unionists take part in, could be described as "terrorism" and hence prosecuted as such.

On September 22, days after the World Trade Center was attacked, Reginald Dale, a right-wing ideologue for the International Herald Tribune, tried to draw a link between anti-globalisation protesters and religious fundamentalists. "Even if their tactics are different in scale and in nature, there is a not entirely coincidental synergy between the actions of the terrorists and the aims of the anti-globalisation forces." Dale's comments were quoted, and supported, by Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine on November 15.

Attorney General Daryl Williams has repeatedly argued that clauses excluding industrial action or "lawful" protest from the definition of terrorism will exclude persecution of protesters. But during the September 2000 protests outside the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, media and politicians were quick to label protesters "unlawful", "violent" and "destructive".


The institutionalised racism in Australia means that increases in police powers impact harshly on migrants and indigenous communities. For example, the police "move-on" powers introduced during the Sydney 2000 Olympics were almost always used to disperse "gangs" of Middle-Eastern youth. Under "racial profiling", a person's ethnicity becomes a reason to suspect them of having committed a crime.

Hence, the state can justify targeting people of Middle Eastern appearance as cracking down on "terrorists". This persecution mirrors the situation in Britain and the United States since September 11. In the US, dozens of migrant self-help centres were shut down in the witch-hunt that followed the World Trade Center bombings. There have also been several documented cases of people's civil liberties being grossly violated on the basis that they appeared to be "Middle Eastern" or "south-Asian".

Ethnic communities are already heavily policed, face an increasing amount of surveillance and are subject to negative representations by the corporate media. Understandably, there is already acrimony between ethnic communities and police.

Smash Racism and the NSW state branch of the National Union of Students ares organising a public meeting titled "State powers and the war on terrorism" on April 10. It will be held at 7.30 pm at the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, opposite Newtown train station. The speakers at the event will include Greens Senator-elect Kerry Nettle, civil rights activist and academic Tim Anderson, Damien Lawson, the Indigenous Social Justice Network's Ray Jackson and activist, film-maker and critic Paula Abood.

For more information phone Manoj on 0410 561 474.

From Green Left Weekly, April 10, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

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