By Sarah Teich, December 1, 2023
The dramatic “pause” in the war in Gaza has put a spotlight on the scourge of hostage-taking like no time in recent history.
As hostages are slowly released after the Hamas-led assault on southern Israel, we’re witnessing once again the horror that is inflicted on kidnapped civilians caught in the crossfire of international politics.
Canadian citizens, of course, have not been excluded from this common tool of authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups alike. The hostage-taking and the arbitrary detention of Canadians by rogue states and non-state actors has been prevalent for many years.
In one of the more horrific examples, Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist organization based in the Philippines, kidnapped and beheaded Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall seven years ago. Canadians have also been taken hostage or arbitrarily detained by Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Iran, China, Russia and, of course, most recently, Hamas.
Current Canadian law and policies have been inadequate to combat these crimes, which threaten the safety and security of Canadians across the globe.
The government of Canada needs to be able to effectively take care of our people, whether they are held hostage or detained in China, Russia, Iran, the Philippines, or Gaza.
In recognition of the pervasiveness of the problem, Canada launched the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations on February 15, 2021, in Ottawa. That was a commendable first step, but more is needed.
Substantive law should be the second step.
Today (Dec. 1) in the House of Commons, Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman’s private member’s bill, Bill C-353, enters its second reading. This bill, which was introduced in September as the Foreign Hostage Takers Accountability Act, tackles an important Canadian issue that rises above partisan politics.
As the law stands now, targeted sanctions policies are generally not used to combat hostage-taking and arbitrary detention. Following a review of existing sanctions across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union, U.K. barrister Amal Clooney noted that there is an “apparent reticence among some policy-makers to use sanctions in response to cases of arbitrary detention or against judicial officers for such detention or unfair trials.”
Legislation that clearly directs that sanctions may be implemented on perpetrators in state-to-state relations could give the Canadian government the clear power and direction to immediately deploy targeted sanctions in response to these crimes.
Any legislation should ensure that hostages and detainees and their families are placed at the centre of the Canadian government’s efforts. The families especially should receive consistent and reliable support from the federal government, something that has been sorely lacking for many years. A Toronto Star investigation from 2016 exposed the inconsistent and inadequate nature of the government’s communications with the families of hostages, and not much has changed since then.
Going beyond declarations and passing substantive law to combat hostage-taking and arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations may help to improve the safety of Canadians abroad by giving greater teeth to the government’s efforts to combat these crimes and, ultimately, deter the behaviour in the first place.
Bill C-353, which is based on a legislative proposal co-published by the Canadian Coalition Against Terror and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute almost three years ago, could move Canadian law and policy forward in the right direction. If passed, it may embolden policy-makers to take a stronger stance in defence of Canadians held hostage or arbitrarily detained abroad. It would send a warning to would-be perpetrators that their strategy will not work and will result in meaningful consequences levied on them by the Canadian government.
As hostage-taking and arbitrary detention in state-to-state relations continues, the safety of Canadians all over the world is at stake. Canadians are routinely seized as hostages by terrorist groups and by authoritarian regimes, and many Canadians remain imprisoned as hostages today in China, Gaza and elsewhere.
It is time for Canada to introduce effective and specific legislation to combat kidnapping and send a clear signal that such crimes are unacceptable and that combating them is a Canadian priority.
Sarah Teich, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and legal advisor to Secure Canada, is an international human rights lawyer and the author of “Fighting back against global hostage-taking: A proposed new Act to hold state and terrorist actors to account”.