Middle East

Concerns raised over 'foreign fighter' laws

A photo purporting to show jihadist fighters in Iraq.

Australia's Human Rights Commission is warning new national security laws could significantly lower legal standards.

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

Australia's Human Rights Commission is warning new national security laws could significantly lower legal standards.

Commission president Professor Gillian Triggs has told a federal parliamentary inquiry the laws could be extremely dangerous if they're not reviewed.

Thea Cowie reports.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

The proposed new laws would create harsh penalties for Australians who fight overseas.

They would also give enforcement agencies extra powers to investigate, arrest and prosecute people who support foreign conflicts.

Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs says lowering the threshold for arrest on the basis of suspicion - rather than intention - to commit a terrorist act could have a "chilling effect".

"Many of these amendments, as you'll be aware, significantly lower the thresholds of existing law. The words 'may' and 'might' or 'suspicion' rather than words that require reasonableness and higher levels of 'shall' and so on. So they're drafting differences but ones that are quite profound in lowering these thresholds in levels that we think raise concerns."

The proposed laws would also make it an offence to travel or stay in a declared zone where terrorists are active, without having a good reason to do so.

Professor Triggs is calling for the list of exemptions to be expanded - or better still - a general clause allowing for innocent activity in those zones.

"What we'd like to see is a much greater capacity to be able to put an argument that's reasonable for a legitimate explanation for being there. Clearly if there's any element of that that relates to a terrorist purpose, clearly the government would want to deal with it. So we've made some suggestions as to how that might be done. So in short I think a list is dangerous and is never going to quite get you there. It would be much better to have something that provides an innocent purpose as a basis."

Professor Triggs says people should be able to travel to terrorism hot spots for legitimate reasons such as studying, learning languages or visiting relatives, Australia's human rights body says.

She says she's also concerned about some of the new powers being in place for 10 years.

"These are significant additional new offences, new powers, lower thresholds and arguably overreach. I can't think a better need for review within a year or so but clearly the government policy at the moment is to give a great extension of ten years. I think that's extremely dangerous without proper review processes along the way."

Under the proposed laws, people travelling to terrorism hotspots could be jailed for five years; their passports could be seized for two week periods; while welfare, family payments and paid parental leave could be cancelled on security grounds.

Stephen Blanks, from the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, says children could be the real victims.

"We have concerns about the provisions for secret cancellation of passports, or cancellation of passports without notice. There are some consequences of those provisions are likely to result in children being put into detention. Now that's a hot-button issue at the moment. One can expect that the way in which cancellation of passports and visas impacts on dependents will result in detention of children.

Mr Blanks is calling for a public interest monitor to oversee the proposed laws.

The anti-terror laws targeting foreign fighters were introduced to the Senate late last month.



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