Canada’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly, has promised a combination of “humility and audacity” for Canadian foreign policy. She will inevitably face a barrage of questions relating to important issues critical to Canadian foreign policy – from our relations with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, to Canadian policy on shoring up crumbling democratic institutions, including in Allied countries, to helping (or even leading) international efforts at re-building Haiti. These are daunting challenges at a time when the media has taken note of the desperate shape of Global Affairs Canada. This, too, is a problem that has to be tackled with determination.
If audacity is going to be Joly’s leitmotif as Canada’s foreign minister, let us suggest one issue that she can tackle immediately: extend consular assistance to more than 40 Canadians detained or isolated in Syria and facilitate their return to Canada.
The plight of these Canadians now trapped in Syria isn’t a new story. It goes back more than a decade to a period in which extremists in Syria and Iraq attracted the support of a large number of foreigners who travelled to the region in support of ISIS or other radical Islamic organizations. More than a year ago, the respected international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, published a lengthy report on the current situation of these Canadians. It related how they had ended up in detention camps, following a round-up of thousands of foreigners by the Global Coalition against ISIS (which includes Canada). Among those living in Syria in ISIS-controlled areas were people from some 60 countries, “at least” 47 of whom were identified as Canadians: 8 men, 13 women and 26 children. Some were misguided, disillusioned individuals who made a catastrophic error in judgment in venturing abroad in support of an indefensible extremist cause.
Since their detentions, most of these Canadians have appealed to the Canadian government for help in getting them home – asking for the consular assistance to which Canadians are entitled when they run into trouble abroad. Under Article 6. (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.” This right is reinforced by a consular service fee in support of consular services that Canadians pay when they obtain passports.
Over the past several years, despite investigations by Global Affairs Canada, the Canadian government has done essentially nothing to get these Canadians out of what is a desperate, appalling situation. The official Canadian position is that it is “monitoring” the issue. It claims that the “security situation” in Syria and the absence of consular officials on the ground make it difficult or impossible to offer assistance. One group of 26 Canadians has recently launched a lawsuit in the Federal Court to force the government to act.
The truth behind the government’s lethargy is straightforward. This is an issue the government does not want to handle. There is no “upside.” The Canadians in Syria have few advocates in their corner. Most Canadians probably believe that those who ended up in Syria in support of a vicious and bloody extremist movement deserve what came to them.
And there are “downsides.” Bringing these Canadians back to Canada will cost money, and their re-entry will involve rehabilitation and reintegration, for which the provinces will have to pay. Their return will also trigger investigations and possibly prosecutions, expanding the workloads of the RCMP and the Department of Justice. For some time to come, their situations would need to be monitored by CSIS. This issue is a public affairs nightmare, re-kindling security concerns about extremists returning to Canada while offering no positive incentives for the government to act.
With negligible support in Canada for these Canadians, the government has taken the coward’s way out. Despite its consular obligations to Canadians, it is playing a delaying game in the vain hope that the problem will somehow fade away. It is also ignoring the urgings of the UN, the Global Coalition against ISIS, and others to repatriate the Canadians and resolve the larger issues of the detention camps. It may be hoping to lose its eventual court battle, which would provide an undeniable rationale for finally doing something. In the meantime, the locus of decision-making on this issue has shifted from Global Affairs Canada to the Prime Minister’s Office. And there it sits, with predictable results.
Let’s accept that Mélanie Joly wants an audacious foreign policy, one that tackles tough issues and is animated by a bit of principle. In that case, she could begin by securing the authority of the PMO to move on this question. Simply put, this problem isn’t going away; it needs to be resolved. The 26 children are growing up in appalling circumstances, increasing the prospect of their radicalization and resentment as they mature. Nothing is served by delay. Some of the adults have acknowledged the appalling misjudgments that led them into this Syrian nightmare. A few will be subject to prosecution on their return.
No one is arguing the case for a soft line for this group. Like other Canadians who are assisted while abroad, this group should pay for their travel back to Canada. They should receive only temporary travel documents until they own up to their miscalculated adventurism. Every year, Global Affairs helps tens of thousands of Canadians in trouble abroad, including those convicted of serious crimes in foreign courts. The Canadians trapped in Syria will eventually return, as is their constitutional right. Taking a proactive approach will make it possible to assess the threat they may still pose, and appropriate action can be taken against those subject to criminal charges.
And why should Mélanie Joly take on this thankless challenge? Because responsible governments take on tough tasks, and because it’s best done expeditiously and thoroughly, not because our hands are forced by our allies or the UN. Other countries are tackling this issue. There’s no reason why Canada should remain a laggard, waiting for the Federal Court to issue a judgment in their favour. Global Affairs can manage this issue. Let’s see how audacious the new minister wants to be in unshackling her ministry from a poor government position on this issue.