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A gateway ban? The dangers of Harper’s promised “terror tourism” law

Regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Palestine, Colombia and virtually every country in the Middle East could become no-go zones for Canadians.

While on the campaign trail, Stephen Harper announced that if re-elected, he would ban what he called “terror tourism” to certain regions, “the most dangerous places on Earth where governance is non-existent and violence is widespread and brutal.” These are regions that are under the governance of terrorists, places he says Canadians have “absolutely no right” to travel to: “That is not a human right.”

Barring a very select few exceptions – diplomats, aid workers, journalists – Canadians would be restricted from visiting parts of the world their government has decided are too volatile. And those few who are allowed to travel for specific reasons would be forced to prove their need to travel. How this would work is at this point unclear. And if Harper isn’t re-elected in October, the idea could be dropped entirely. But if re-elected, it may be within the realm of possibility to one day soon see the Canadian government “vetting” which Canadian journalists can travel abroad to cover its military, diplomatic or foreign operations. 

It’s not a win for journalism, and at its worst lends itself to censorship through restricted mobility. Such a law could be abused to deny any Canadians seeking first-hand knowledge of what their government is doing abroad – be they reporters, academics or even NGO-workers – access to such knowledge. It’s also a situation that opens itself up to manipulation, political rhetoric and propaganda.

There are many dangerous places on the planet, and anyone’s reasons for travelling to them should scrutinized: by the individual, and not by their government. The number of Canadians opting to travel to regions where violence runs rampant and the law is an oft-ignored suggestion are few and far between, for very valid reasons. Out of those who go anyway, not many take up arms. I refuse to believe we’re facing a terror tourism exodus: those few who have been pulled to the Middle East to fight for radicalized ideologies are hardly representative of the Canadian majority. And who’s to say another just as radical idea may not have called those individuals to action at home or abroad, had it not been ISIS?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a terrorist organization. Google ISIS and there is no shortage of horrifying examples to back that definition (and no shortage of media coverage and commentary to further convince you). There are several components that define terrorism, and academically speaking, it’s a definition that is up for debate. Can a state or head of state be a terrorist? Is an attack that targets military facilities and personnel a terrorist act, or guerilla warfare? Generally speaking, terrorism is an act for an ideological purpose intended to induce terror in and intimidate the public. Canada’s definition says so.

I mention this because a lot of the time, the label “terrorism” gets applied to non-state actors who aren’t “entitled” to use violence as a means for resolving conflict or bringing about change. There are many people around the world would who consider various leaders, from George Bush to Bashar al-Assad, terrorists in their own right. I’m sure just as many disagree. Horrifying acts of war on the part of governments often get labelled as just that – “acts of war” as opposed to terrorist acts.

So when Harper talks about restricting travel to regions “under the governance of terrorists,” what does he mean? Could this include banning travel to countries with oppressive states whose actions which, if they weren’t “government actions”, could very well be considered terrorist? And when it comes to preventing Canadians travelling abroad to fight for terrorist organizations (and fighting for terrorist organizations is currently illegal), would we ban Canadians from travelling to join the ranks of militaries widely considered to have also perpetrated war crimes? (Again, note the difference in language of “war crime” and “terrorist act”.)

A list of “terrorist entities” exists on Canada’s national security page. The 54 listed include the ETA, a group headquartered in the Basque provinces of Spain and France, and the Kurdistan Workers Party, currently at the forefront of a Turkish civil war aggravated by Syria’s. Most governments and international organizations have their own lists, but the right of Canadians to travel freely would be limited by one government’s view of who the world’s terrorists are. It’s interesting to note that no governments are listed either, just non-state actors – the “freedom fighters” of many; terrorists to us. 

What Harper has right is that yes, it’s not a universally declared “human right” to specifically travel to regions governed or controlled by any of the groups above. However, the freedom of mobility is a constitutional right in Canada, and the right to leave and return to one’s country – any country – is part of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of the press is a right, too. And any law that comes close to touching that freedom should be critically examined (and probably thrown out). Even though it doesn’t explicitly stipulate anything, Harper’s proposal appears too uncomfortably close to a law that restricts the Canadian media’s ability to cover the Canadian government’s operations abroad. Maybe not now, maybe not at first, but maybe a year or two down the slippery slope when we decide it’s too risky for anyone, in any profession (excluding the military), to travel to the world’s most violent regions, as decided by the Canadian government.

As dangerous as these terror-filled areas may be, there is a need for people to travel to them. While Conservative attack ads rail against Justin Trudeau for wanting to send winter coats to Syria, the fact remains that over three million Syrians have left their country as refugees due to the current conflict. Another 6.5 million are internally displaced. Syria’s population sits at around 22.5 million, meaning over 40 per of Syrians have fled their homes. Education about issues and awareness of their root causes, and their actual effects, is extremely important, and really should form the basis for Canada’s foreign policies. Media access is a key component of this, as is not being forced to rely on informational government handouts.

There are certain types of laws that restrict the actions of many. But the restriction falls in line with commonly held values, does not directly affect the majority who would most likely not have taken said actions in the first place, and have the potential to serve as a strong enough deterrent to those who may have. Look at murder, or fraud, or theft. 

But a wide-sweeping law, mentioned on the heels of Canada’s controversial Bill C-51, that would restrict Canadians’ constitutional right to the freedom of mobility because less than 200 individuals have purportedly travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside ISIS, is something entirely different.

If Harper wants to take about the “gateway drug,” let’s talk about his proposed “gateway ban”: one that toys with constitutional freedoms, fuels fear and leaves the door wide open for censorship and propaganda. 

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