National Post View: Playing politics with terror

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Does the threat of “terror tourism” warrant limiting Canadians’ mobility rights? Conservative Leader Stephen Harper would appear to think so.

At a campaign stop in Ottawa over the weekend, Harper promised new legislation to designate certain parts of the globe under the control of terrorist organizations as “no-travel zones,” making it a crime for Canadians to go there. An accompanying news release made clear that exceptions would be made for persons travelling for “legitimate” reasons, including diplomats, humanitarian workers and journalists. But there’s the rub: the onus would be on them to “demonstrate” that their purposes were indeed “legitimate.”

Until Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had a sure grip on the anti-terrorist file by virtue of a policy to fight violent Islamist zealotry that is both tailored to the country’s military means and supported by most Canadians. Given the cruelty and barbarism of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, on display daily, the opposition arguments against our modest contribution to the war effort in Iraq and Syria have had little political traction.

But then, as is its wont, the Conservative party took a posture that had appeared more-or-less reasonable, and torqued it for sensational effect into something entirely different, which will and should alarm principled conservatives and civil libertarians alike.

In fairness, Canada would not be the first country to impose such limits. Australia last year passed a law imposing jail terms of up to 10 years for persons travelling abroad to regions controlled by terrorists. The law has since been invoked to cancel the passports of more than 90 suspected extremists to prevent them from travelling to Iraq or Syria, or from returning to Australia from these regions. The Abbott government has also moved to cut off welfare payments to persons who travel to prohibited regions.

Certainly radicalization of Canadian citizens, particularly young people, is as much of a problem here as elsewhere. In May 2015, 10 youths were arrested at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport on suspicion that they were travelling to commit terrorist acts. Seven others had left since the beginning of the year and another 15 were detained trying to do so. The problem became so acute in Montreal that local and provincial government officials announced in March that they would establish an anti-radicalization centre there, and immediately set up a telephone hotline to report potential “terror tourists.”

Still, it’s hard to see just what the Conservatives’ new law would accomplish. The infringement on civil liberties may seem slight — a general right to enter or exit the country need not necessarily apply to every part of the globe. And yet it is troubling to contemplate a person accused of this new crime, facing as much as 10 years in jail if convicted, being forced to prove his reasons for travel were innocent, rather than the other way around. Such reverse onuses are not unknown in criminal law, but can only be justified in exceptional cases. Is this such an exception?

As with so many measures the Conservatives have unveiled to much fanfare, the authorities would seem already to have the power it proposes. Recall that Michel Zehaf-Bibeau, the Parliament Hill attacker, had been frustrated in his quest to travel to Syria by the simple expedient of denying his passport application. Measures enacted as part of this spring’s omnibus budget bill have made it easier to take away passports from those judged to be security risks.

Which raises the question: why are the Conservatives promising their new travel ban now? Why was this proposal not part of Bill C-51, which was also passed this spring? The only answer is that the Tories kept the travel proposal in reserve, to have something to put in the window as Canadians head to the polls this October.

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