(CNSNews.com) – Former President Jimmy Carter has voiced concern that Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on “material support” to terrorist groups may criminalize his “work to promote peace and freedom.”
Carter, whose advocacy has entailed contact with groups designated by the U.S. government as “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTOs) – notably Hamas and Hezbollah – said he was disappointed by the court decision.
The high court, in a 6-3 decision, upheld a federal law that forbids providing “material support” to an FTO, ruling that it can be applied to U.S. organizations whose engagement with terrorists involves promoting non-violent solutions to conflicts.
The law, part of the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, forbids the provision of any aid, defined as including “service,” “training” or “expert advice or assistance,” to a designated FTO.
Although the free speech challenge derived from organizations wanting to work with terrorist groups in and around Turkey and in Sri Lanka – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Tamil Tigers (LTTE) – the ramifications may be most evident in 2010 in the Middle East, amid growing calls for Western governments to recognize and engage with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
Arguing that there can be no peace in the region without those groups’ participation, Carter has reached out to Hamas and Hezbollah, rejecting criticism that doing so could be viewed as legitimizing their violent activities. Since the 1980s both groups have killed hundreds of people in suicide bombings and other terror attacks, most of them Israelis and Americans.
The administration’s argument, presented by Solicitor General Elena Kagan (now a Supreme Court nominee) earlier this year, was in part that the intent of Congress was to block all assistance to terrorists, recognizing that any form of support – even imparting peaceful skills – might benefit and strengthen the organization.
Six of the justices concurred.
“At bottom, plaintiffs simply disagree with the considered judgment of Congress and the Executive that providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization – even seemingly benign support – bolsters the terrorist activities of that organization,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
In a statement reacting to the decision, Carter said, “We are disappointed that the Supreme Court has upheld a law that inhibits the work of human rights and conflict resolution groups.”
“The ‘material support law’ – which is aimed at putting an end to terrorism – actually threatens our work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence,” he said.
“The vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom.”
‘Intent is to further peace, not terrorism’
Carter’s statement was released through the American Civil Liberties Union, which earlier filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Carter Center and other organizations involved in human rights and peace-promotion advocacy.
The brief outlined some of the areas where the Carter Center was concerned its work could be affected.
“In the course of resolving or preventing conflicts, Carter Center staff will meet
with violent actors – some of whom may be or may in the future be designated as FTOs – to persuade them to cease violent activity and discuss specific paths to peace,” it said.
Meetings with such groups may include discussions about “peace-facilitating strategies” or advice on their “obligations under international law.”
Some of the groups the center had been engaged with in this capacity included FTOs Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as other group not currently designated as such – the PLO, Fatah, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, Maoists in Nepal and Sudanese rebels.
“The intent, of course, is to further peace, not terrorism,” the brief said.
During elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian self-ruled territories, Carter Center observers occasionally came in contact with “members of Hezbollah’s or Hamas’ political wing.”
It said the center’s advocacy and advising activity aims to ensure fair elections, but it was not clear whether it could be construed as prohibited “expert advice.”
“Similarly, the Carter Center, in its advocacy efforts to achieve peace between
Palestinians and Israelis, publicly calls for inclusion of Hamas in peace talks because Hamas represents a sizeable portion of the population and the Carter Center believes that true peace is not achievable without their active participation,” the brief said.
“The Carter Center’s advocacy in this regard is intended to ensure an effective peace process and is wholly independent of Hamas. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether even this type of advocacy could be viewed as a prohibited service because it could be construed as action taken ‘for the benefit of’ Hamas as Hamas would presumably derive some benefit from inclusion in the peace process.”
‘Not meeting with Hamas makes peace harder to achieve’
Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, rocket assaults and other attacks since the interim Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993. It has also been responsible for the deaths of American citizens, including victims in bombings in Jerusalem in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2003.
Carter controversially met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus in April 2008, despite being advised by the State Department beforehand not to do so.
“U.S. government policy is that Hamas is a terrorist organization and we don’t believe it is in the interest of our policy or in the interest of peace to have such a meeting,” department spokesman Sean McCormack said at the time.
Together with its partners in the Mideast Quartet, Washington’s policy on dealing with Hamas is that it will only do so if the group abandons terrorism, recognizes Israel and abides by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
“You know, I'm all in favor of dialogue, but dialogue has to have a purpose and it has to be within principles that the international community accepts,” the Bush administration’s assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Welch, said in an interview after the Carter-Meshaal meeting.
“Regrettably, every attempt to kind of stray from that has produced little as a result,” he added.
In a report on his trip, Carter defended his position: “We knew that some of our meetings – particularly with Hamas and the Syrian government – would be viewed negatively in some quarters,” he wrote. “The problem is not that we met them, but that the U.S. and Israeli governments refuse to meet with them, making peace harder if not impossible to achieve.”
In December of 2008, Carter again met with Meshaal in the Syrian capital, at a time when Hamas’ ceasefire – an Egyptian-brokered agreement to stop firing rockets from Gaza into Israel – was crumbling. Days later it ended altogether, and Israel launched a major offensive against Hamas.
During that December 2008 visit to the region, Carter also went to Lebanon to lay the groundwork for a Carter Center mission to observe the country’s elections scheduled for the following spring. He had hoped to meet with Hezbollah leaders but the Shi’ite group declined.
When he returned to Lebanon during the June 2009 election, Carter did meet with a senior Shi’ite cleric long associated with Hezbollah, Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.
Hezbollah has been linked to numerous terrorist attacks, some as far afield as Europe and Latin America. The U.S. government holds it responsible for a series of 1983 suicide bombings in Beirut, including blasts at the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks that killed more than 300 people, most of them Americans.
“Prior to September 11, 2001, [Hezbollah] was responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist group,” the State Department says in annual report on international terrorism.