Gordon Campbell on the government’s reluctance to treat the enemies of Islamic State as its friends

While the government attacks the left’s alleged reluctance to respond militarily to Islamic State, it continues to be strangely timid about another aspect of its own response. Question: under our anti-terrorism legislation, is it legal or illegal for New Zealanders to donate funds online to the Kurdish organisations who are doing the bulk of the actual, effective fighting on the ground against Islamic State ? Bear with me while I set out my failed attempt to get a straight answer from the government on this point.

Last weekend, I happened to be reading the Facebook page of the YPG, the Syrian arm of the Kurdish resistance to IS. (This is the group that has just driven the IS forces out of the Syrian town of Kobane on the Turkish border, after months of fighting.) Scroll down the YPG’s Facebook page and you’ll find an item about Richard Janssen, a Dutch volunteer with the YPG who had been brain-damaged in the recent fighting. Reportedly, Janssen’s father has just launched an international appeal for funds to help pay for the surgery necessary for his son to make a recovery. I was about to link to this appeal in my column when I thought – hang on, would this be legal? Can you legally send funds to help a foreign fighter in Syria, even if they’re fighting against Islamic State?

On Monday at his post-Cabinet press conference. Prime Minister John Key happened to be talking about the social media sophistication of Islamic State, so I asked the question – is it legal or illegal for Kiwis to donate online to Kurdish organisations fighting against Islamic State? Key replied that he didn’t know the answer, but would get back to me. The PM’s lack of knowledge was a bit surprising, but….maybe he was just being careful.

Thankfully though, SIS Minister Chris Finlayson had just returned on the weekend from a high level conference in Europe that had been co-ordinating the global response to Islamic State, particularly in relation to its recruiting activities online. Finlayson has also been engaged – since his appointment as SIS Minister last year – in reviewing the adequacy of the New Zealand anti-terrorism legislation. Surely, he would know. So late on Monday afternoon, I emailed this request for comment – to Finlayson’s press officer :

At the Post- Cab press conference today I asked the PM if it was legal for Kiwis, under the current legislation, to donate online to Kurdish organisations involved in the war against Islamic State. Can you answer this query on behalf of Minister Finlayson ?

Secondly, and in a related point, the Kurdish YPG Facebook page is currently carrying a story about a European volunteer fighter who has sustained brain damage in battle, and his father is conducting an international appeal for funds for the brain operation that will put him right. Again, would it be legal or illegal for Kiwis to send funds online to that cause ?

Yesterday afternoon, I got this amazing response on behalf of Minister Finlayson :

I’ve looked into your query and have been advised that whether or not it is legal to donate money to Kurdish organisations involved in conflict largely depends on the circumstances. Particularly whether or not the activities of organisations or individuals involved are captured by the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002, the Crimes Act or other relevant legislation.

Generally, it is not appropriate for the Government to comment without the full details of the situation, and it is for the judiciary to interpret and apply the law through the court system.

However, it may be helpful to have a look at these Acts, including section 8 of the Terrorism Suppression Act which relates to the financing of terrorism and section 5(1) that sets out the definition of a ‘terrorist act’.

So, basically…. Finlayson is refusing to clarify the government’s position, and is claiming that it would be an infringement on the independence of the courts for him to do so. That’s novel. More to the point, he is willing only to advise New Zealanders on how to become bush lawyers – and then take our chances on being prosecuted by him, if we get it wrong. Does the Kurdish YPG fall into the category of banned organisations, or not – and if they do, why should the Islamic State’s current worst nightmare be something that New Zealanders are forbidden by law, to support?

This blanket reticence, remember, is coming from the same guy who the taxpayer has just sent to an expensive overseas conference to keep him abreast of online issues to do with Islamic State, who is the Attorney-General, and who has spent the past few months reviewing the ambit and adequacy of New Zealand’s anti-terrorism legislation. How much information does Finlayson need before saying whether we can, or cannot, donate to help those Kurdish organisations who – very soon – may well be the most dependable allies of our own troops in the fight against Islamic State?

Why is the government approaching such questions as if they were a loaded hand grenade? For months, the underfunded, relatively poorly armed Kurds have racked up victories against IS in northern Iraq, and in Syria. However, some of their fighters are linked to the Kurdish PKK, which – well over a decade ago – was added to the UN’s list of terrorist organisations, under US pressure at the time to placate the previous government in Turkey, in its internal battle against its persecuted Kurdish minority.

This situation underlines a serious failing of the UN list on which New Zealand’s anti-terrorism legislation is based – namely, that once you get put on the UN list of terrorist groups, there seems to be no mechanism for getting off it again. Moreover, the UN anti-terrorism list is also completely out of kilter with the current realities whereby all kinds of former enemies of the West – such as Hizbollah and the ultra-violent Shi’ite militias inside Iraq – are now our de facto allies in the fight against Islamic State. That’s why Finlayson is being so cravenly timid. He doesn’t want to be the person giving a greenlight to helping the Kurds, even though they’re fighting and dying in the battle against Islamic State because….technically, New Zealand’s anti-terrorism laws are inflexibly dictated by an ancient list of terrorist organisations, maintained by the UN bureaucracy. Keep Finlayson’s timidity in mind when next you hear the government’s rhetoric about how it is bravely rushing in against Islamic State where the left fears to tread.

Dude, Incredible

Have to say, when the government bangs on about their ‘boys hanging together, whatever’ stance against the evil bros from ISIS, this bombastic song by Shellac comes to mind.

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