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Closing the loophole: time to clip Hizballah’s “wings”

This is a guest post by James Mendelsohn

On 18 June, just 15 days after the terror attacks in central London, the flag of Hizballah was paraded through central London at the annual Al-Quds Day March, without police intervention. This post argues for an urgent change in the law.

Introducing Hizballah*

Hizballah, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group, was established in the early 1980s, with the initial aim of driving foreign forces out of Lebanon. Its bombing of French and American bases in Beirut in 1983 claimed 299 lives. It is best known for its hostility towards Israel, culminating in the ruinous 2006 war. More recently, Hizballah has supported President Assad in Syria.

Hizballah’s chosen salute and militaristic emblem require little commentary. Nor do the ominous 2002 words of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Nor does its track record of terrorist and criminal activity across the globe. However, Hizballah has also participated in elections in Lebanon since 1992. It won 10 seats in 2009 and holds government positions. It also provides social welfare. Consequently, Hizballah is not completely “proscribed” under current UK law.

“Proscription” and its consequences

Under section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (“the Act”), “terrorism” has a three-part definition. It comprises of: the “use or threat of action” involving (among other things) “serious violence”; “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause”; which is “designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation”. This can include action undertaken overseas and/or which is designed to influence the government of countries other than the UK.

Under Section 3, an organisation is proscribed if it is listed in Schedule 2 – either as originally drafted, or as subsequently amended.

Section 13(1) makes it an offence for a person, in a public place, to wear an item of clothing, or to wear, carry or display an “article” (which clearly includes a flag) “in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable suspicion that he is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation” (emphasis added).

On a plain reading of these provisions, Hizballah is clearly “proscribable”. Equally, it seems it should be an arrestable offence to display the Hizballah flag in public. The latter is not the case, however, because UK legislation distinguishes between Hizballah’s (supposed) “military” and “political” “wings”.

Hizballah’s “wings” – the current distinction

Hizballah was not included within the original Schedule 2, which comprised solely of organisations linked to Northern Ireland. The “Hizballah External Security Organisation” was added in 2001. In 2008, this wording was replaced by a reference to “[t]he military wing of Hizballah, including the Jihad Council and all units reporting to it (including the Hizballah External Security Organisation).” The other “wings” of Hizballah – its MPs, government ministers and social welfare activities – are not proscribed.

The consequences of the distinction

The consequences of this distinction were clearly seen on Al-Quds Day when, as in previous years, Hizballah flags and other articles were paraded through London. No arrests were made. Since all “wings” share the emblem, the police appear not to see its parading as constituting an offence under section 13 of the Act.

Some of the emblem-bearers – perhaps encouraged by the rally’s organisers – even affixed stickers expressing support for the political “wing”. Yet they also chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – a rallying cry with clear militaristic overtones. This would appear to undermine any claim that they were supporting the political “wing” only.

For and against the distinction

Arguments for maintaining the distinction are not persuasive. There is no consistent international approach: whilst some countries (and the EU) ban only Hizballah’s political “wing”, it is banned entirely in others, including the USA. If the reason was to facilitate UK government contact with Hizballah’s political “wing”, there was no such contact as late as 2013 (see paragraph 48.13 of this document). If the aim was to encourage Hizballah to disarm and wholly embrace democratic politics, this has clearly failed.

Most importantly, however, Hizballah itself has consistently rejected any notion of separate “wings”. An early document stated

“Our military apparatus is not separate from our overall social fabric. Each of us is a fighting soldier”.

In 2000, deputy secretary-general Sheikh Naim Qassem said:

“If the military wing were separated from the political wing, this would have repercussions, and it would reflect on the political scene. But Hezbollah has one single leadership, and its name is the Decision-Making Shura Council. It manages the political activity, the Jihad activity, the cultural and the social activities. . . . Hezbollah’s Secretary General is the head of the Shura Council and also the head of the Jihad Council, and this means that we have one leadership, with one administration.”

In 2002, Muhammad Fannish of Hizballah’s Political Bureau said that

“no differentiation is to be made between the military wing and the political wing of Hezbollah.”

In 2013, Hezbollah’s Political Affairs Official, Ammar Moussawi said

“Everyone is aware of the fact that Hezbollah is one body and one entity. Its military and political wings are unified.”

Hassan Nasrallah settled the matter beyond doubt with this 2013 statement:

“However, jokingly I will say – though I disagree on such separation or division- that I suggest that our ministers in the upcoming Lebanese government be from the military wing of Hezbollah!”

In the light of such clear statements, the distinction between the military and other “wings” maintained in UK legislation seems artificial and untenable.

Time to abolish the distinction

We end where we began. It seems unconscionable that just 15 days after the central London terror attacks, the flags of a terrorist group were paraded through nearby streets with impunity. Since the Al-Quds Day March, there have been calls from both Conservative and Labour figures (including Sadiq Khan) for the distinction to be abolished and for Hizballah to be proscribed in its entirety. It is to be hoped that the Home Secretary will now do so.

*The original Arabic term, meaning “Party of God”, can also be transliterated as “Hezbollah” or “Hizbullah”. “Hizballah” is used in UK legislation.

Update: In the comments, “MehtaKultur” draws attention to a note produced by David Blunkett in the 2004 case of R v Kalayci, which claimed that the “wings” distinction was based on the UK government’s dealings with the IRA. Whilst the government had proscribed the Provisional IRA, it had not proscribed Sinn Féin for fear of undermining the Northern Ireland peace process. However, this has little to do with the reality of a foreign organisation such as Hizballah, which itself denies the “wings” distinction in strident terms.