Criminalizing Dissent

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It’s not just the text of Bill C-36 (the anti-terrorism act due to pass the Senate before the end of December) that we need to be concerned about; it’s also the context in which the legislation is going to be implemented.

While the Justice Minister’s amendments to Bill C-36 did make it less likely that peaceful protesters will be charged as terrorists, civil liberties are still at risk.

Much of what is behind the government’s new anti-terrorism initiatives is Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s desire to please United States President George W. Bush. Given that the U.S. is setting the anti-terrorism agenda, the case of a group of anti-nuclear activists being prosecuted in the U.S. may be a good indicator of what’s to come in Canada.

On July 14 this year, a group of activists engaged in a peaceful action at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to protest plans for a National Missile Defense (NMD) system, commonly referred to as Star Wars. This system would feature radars and satellites designed to detect enemy missiles, using U.S.-based missiles or lasers in space to destroy them before they reached their targets. However, critics point out that this $65-billion project is like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet.

As a result of the peaceful action at Vandenberg, fifteen Greenpeace activists and two independent journalists are facing two felony charges and a misdemeanour. The charges are: Conspiracy to violate a safety zone, and failure to adhere to the Commander’s instructions. The first is a Class D felony charge, which has a maximum six-year jail term. It could also result in a fine of up to US$250,000. The second charge is a misdemeanour, carrying a maximum one-year jail term and a maximum US$5,000 fine. Both sentences would be served at the same time.

These charges are remarkable, not just because they are so disproportionately harsh, but also because they are the most severe in the history of peaceful protests at Vandenberg. Clearly, a message is being sent to protesters. The United States government will not tolerate those who disrupt its agenda, no matter how peaceful the disruption may be.

Apparently, the same could be said about Canada. As a result of the anti-terrorism legislation that the Liberals are pushing through here, dissent could easily be criminalized.

Campaigns on issues such as nuclear weapons, toxics and forestry have often involved peaceful protest. Protests have played an important role in ending apartheid in South Africa, winning women the vote in many countries and establishing core labour standards in many places.

However, the Canadian government has adopted an approach to national security that neglects to consider how vital civil rights are to national security.

We have civil rights, in part, to secure us from injustice and oppression. Civil rights enable us to challenge government policy and action, confront corruption, mobilize against inhumane business practices and express our beliefs and ideas. We have civil rights because politics is not just the business or responsibility of government; it is also the business and responsibility of the people.

It’s understandable that the Canadian government is scared of terrorist attacks. However, its behaviour also reveals its fear of democracy. Dissent, by nature, is provocative because it seeks to create change. And change can be quite threatening to governments.

Sarah Blackstock is a campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.

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