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Stephen Harper Wants to Make it a Crime for Canadians to Go to Terrorist Hot Spots

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the pledge as part of his re-election campaign, telling reporters on Monday there is "there is no human right to travel and visit ISIS."
August 10, 2015, 5:30pm
Photo by Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to bar Canadians from traveling to regions that are under the control of terrorist groups, declaring "there is no human right to travel and visit ISIS."

The election promise, made Sunday and re-emphasized on Monday, would create a new category of banned travel zones, known as "declared areas," in an attempt to shield Canada from extremist violence and crack down on what he dubbed "terror tourism."


"A re-elected Conservative government will designate travel to places that are ground zero for terrorist activity a criminal offense," Harper said in Ottawa on the weekend. "We are talking about the most dangerous places on earth where governance is non-existent and violence is widespread and brutal. There are very few legitimate reasons to go to places like these. And those who go without such legitimate reasons will face the full force of the law."

He told reporters that there is "absolutely no right in this country to travel to an area under the governance of terrorists. That is not a human right."

He said on Monday that the measure would be limited to "a few, small number" of areas that are "clearly under the control of terrorist organizations."

The announcement is the latest in a number of recent controversial anti-terror measures brought in by the government, such as Bill C-51, which gives Canada's spies broad new physical and intelligence powers. In May, a new law that gives the federal government power to revoke the citizenship of some Canadians found guilty of terrorism, espionage, or treason, came into effect.

While the Conservatives did not go into detail about which regions would be designed as 'declared areas,' they singled-out the areas of Syria and Iraq under the control of the so-called Islamic State as being the first candidate.

Harper added that there will be exceptions to the rule and that it should not be difficult for people who are traveling to such regions for "legitimate" reasons to prove themselves.


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A Conservative spokesperson confirmed to VICE News that there would be exemptions for journalists, humanitarian workers, and those who join groups fighting against the terrorist entities — like the handful of Canadians who enlisted in the Peshmerga to battle IS — although the spokesperson noted that the Conservatives discourage "mercenary activity."

I'm announcing steps we'd take to stop the flow of foreign fighters who pose threat to Canada. — Stephen Harper (@pmharper)August 9, 2015

The plan emulates a similar Australian law which gives the government the power to ban travel to certain terrorism hotspots. Since the law was introduced in 2014, Canberra has forbidden all travel to Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS' caliphate. Any Australian who travels to the area and returns to the country could face up to 10 years in jail.

"This is something we've got to nip in the bud before trained terrorists return to this country," Harper said.

The announcement comes amid a marathon election campaign where security and defense issues are taking on an unusually high profile.

Traveling from Canada to join a terrorist organization is already a crime under Canadian law, but that law has rarely been applied. Seemingly the only charge applied thus far has been against Hasibullah Yusufzai, who traveled to Syria last January and has seemingly not returned.


The Conservatives say the change would make it easier to obtain convictions for those who traveled to join terrorist organizations.

Unsurprisingly, the proposed ban has irked civil liberties groups in the country, who say it could disproportionately target certain groups or ethnicities who work or have family in conflict zones.

"A blanket travel ban on all Canadians does, on its face, raise serious civil liberties concerns. Not only are mobility rights affected, but liberty and equality rights may also be affected," Sukanya Pillay, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) told VICE News in an email. "CCLA will look into this issue and comment in more detail as more information becomes known."

Tom Henheffer, executive director for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) told VICE News the ban is "dangerous, bad, and overbroad" and could be detrimental to Canadian journalists working abroad.

"I don't see how this is going to stop anyone from joining a terrorist organization," Henheffer said. "Harper said that travel is not a human right. Well the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, article 13, upholds freedom of movement, so it absolutely is a human right."

Henheffer added that if the ban becomes law, it would be "ripe" for a constitutional challenge.

Both CCLA and CJFE are suing the federal government over certain provisions in Bill C-51, known as the Anti-Terrorism Act, which came into effect in June.


On Monday at an Orthodox Church outside of Toronto, Harper also announced he would allocate $9 million for religious freedoms in the Middle East.

"The program will seek to build on the Office of Religious Freedom's highly successful Religious Freedom Fund to work with organizations operating in the region to protect places of worship and the retention of religious artifacts that are under threat of destruction by ISIS," a Conservative press release said.

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And last month, the associate minister of national defense announced it would fund new programs aimed at "countering radicalization among young Canadians" as part of a wider, $12-million initiative to bolster public security.

Follow Justin Ling and Rachel Browne on Twitter: @justin_ling@rp_browne

Watch the VICE News Documentary, The Islamic State: