Australia Introduces Foreign Fighter Bill on Eve of Obama Chairing UNSC Meeting on Foreign Fighters

The Australian Government introduced a proposed law on Sept. 22 aimed at preventing Australian residents from traveling abroad to join terrorist organizations. Called the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014, the proposed law easily constitutes the most significant reform to Australia’s counterterrorism framework since 2003 and would increase the government’s ability to investigate and punish people suspected of traveling abroad to join terrorist campaigns. The bill, which could have a very real impact on civil liberties, marks the second phase of the Government’s legislative response to the “serious and ongoing threat” posed by the escalating crisis in Iraq and Syria, and by foreign fighters who plan to return to Australia after fighting overseas.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told lawmakers on the day the bill was introduced that “the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some so that there can be more protections for others.”

The proposed legislation was introduced one day before United States President Barack Obama is to chair a UN Security Council meeting to discuss a wide-reaching, U.S backed, Chapter VII resolution aimed at curbing the flow of foreign fighters into the conflict in Syria and Iraq. (Click here and here to read Just Security’s critiques of the proposed resolution.)

Some of the controversial civil liberties aspects of the proposed Australian legislation include:

  • A new offense of entering, or remaining in, a foreign country that is a “declared area” of “terrorist activity” without a “legitimate purpose”. Under the proposed laws, a “legitimate purpose” could include:  humanitarian aid; performance of official government or UN related duties; news reporting by professional journalists; and bona fide visits to family members;
  • Life imprisonment for the new offense of entering a foreign country “with the intention of engaging in a hostile activity in that or any other foreign country”. Under the proposed legislation’s expansive definition “engages in a hostile activity” this can include: “intimidating the public or a section of the public” of any foreign country; causing  “serious physical harm to another person”; or causing “serious damage to property”;
  • A new offense of “advocating terrorism” prohibiting a person from counseling, promoting, encouraging or urging the “doing of a terrorist act or commission of a terrorism offense”. Those convicted will face a minimum of five years imprisonment;
  • A lowering of the legal threshold for arrest of a person without a warrant (a police officer need only “suspect on reasonable grounds that the person has committed or is committing a terrorism offense”);
  • New emergency powers for the Australian Government entitling it to suspend and seize passports of citizens for up to 14 days and cancel the visas of a non-citizens if they might be a “direct or indirect risk to national security”;
  • The government will also be empowered, for the first time, to cancel welfare payments and paid parental leave on “security grounds” without the need to provide reasons;.
  • To avoid being convicted of treason for supporting hostile forces, or the new offense of “incursion into a foreign State”, humanitarian aid organizations will be required to prove that any conduct they are engaging in is “solely” for the purpose of providing humanitarian aid;
  • Amendments that make it highly unlikely persons accused of committing a “terrorism offense” will receive bail and those convicted will be made to serve the majority of their sentence in prison.
  • Amendments providing the judicial branch greater flexibility when deciding whether to admit evidence obtained from overseas in proceedings related to terrorism offenses.

The bill will undergo review by a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security for approximately two weeks and then be put forward to the Australian Senate for consideration. The first tranche of Australia’s proposed  anti-terror legislation, which was introduced into Parliament in July, will be debated in the Senate next week. Under the proposed laws, Australian spy agencies will have substantially increased powers with respect to intelligence collection, questioning and detention.

The third set of anti-terror legislation will likely be released at the end of the year and will contain a raft of amendments related to data retention.

For the first time since 2002, the Australian Government has raised its national terrorism public alert system to “high,” which means that a “terrorist attack is likely.” According to the Australian Government, while they are yet to detect a specific plot against Australia, there is “a body of evidence that points to the increased likelihood of a terrorist attack in Australia.”

The change in alert level took place shortly after ASIO (Australia’s spy agency) along with the Australian Federal Police conducted the largest counter-terrorism raids in Australia’s history last Thursday.

According to estimates of Australian intelligence officials, there are “60 Australians involved directly in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, with around 100 providing support roles in Australia.” 

About the Author(s)

Abby Zeith

Former Legal Research Assistant at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@ZeithAbby).