Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Canada: Suing terrorists okay; prosecuting pirates...?

The federal government in these parts is proposing a law that would allow Canadian victims of terrorist attacks to sue any foreign governments that had a hand in such incidents. If passed, the law would be retroactive to 1985, in order to allow the families of the Air India disaster to participate, victims of the most horrific terror attack committed against Canadians. Part of the impetus for this proposed legislation comes from the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (C-CAT), among whose members are the victims of the 9/11 attacks (their website can be seen here, though it's still somewhat minimal).

Now lest all this sound unique, it should be remembered that the U.S. enacted similar legislation back in 1996, and by last year courts there had awarded over $19 billion against a variety of states (though only about two per cent has been collected, according to The Globe & Mail's report on all this.)

Still, the idea of enacting legislation to sue the sponsors of terrorist actions seems a little misplaced. While I have great sympathy for the victims of terror attacks, I must ask two harsh questions: Is it really feasible to be compensated for your loss financially and, more to the point, is this a deterrent? On the former, can one really expect to ever see representatives of al-Qaeda or the Taliban in a Canadian court? And on the latter point, laws should be enacted primarily to reduce or eliminate whatever threat exists to the public security.

As the Vancouver Sun's Don Martin has written, much of this current idea strikes one as part of an effort to deflect from the broader domestic economic problems. But from this perspective, I also wonder why the powers that be can come up with an idea to address the plight of terror victims - years, even decades, after this became an issue - but can't figure out how to deal with suspected pirates by Canadian naval forces off the Horn of Africa.

Of course, Canada isn't the only nation grappling with the legal issues involved when it comes to (mostly) Somali pirates. The international community is, in effect, dumping captured pirates on Kenya or Somalia, and hoping they'll deal with the individuals involved. This is, in my opinion, wrong.

The Kenyan judicial system leaves much to be desired, (as my colleague Andrew Mwangura call well attest). It is neither impartial nor free of corruption. As for Somalia, well let's just say the least said the better. Again, in my opinion an internationally-recognized admiralty court would be be the best option to prosecute pirates. Whether in London - which has a lengthy historical precedence in this matter - or The Hague or Mombasa or, even, New York, this would be a distinct improvement on relying on Third World nations to deal with an issue which is, quite frankly, affecting the First World.

My point is that if we can create laws to deal with terrorists, why not change or amend or improve those that deal with pirates? What are we scared of? Worst case scenario: A Somali guy ends up before a Canadian - or other - judge and is acquitted. So we send him home. And he knows, and will relate to others, that we did not look on him or his ilk well.

Once we realize that piracy is an issue of global note, there are only three ways to address it, each one more difficult than its predecessor : We've done the first by sending naval warships to show a presence. The second stage is to show we'll effectively prosecute those carrying attacks. And the third, most difficult aspect is to deal with things ashore, where they begin.

Laws can be changed. And should, if necessary. Otherwise, use the full extent of existing statutes and quit pussy-footing around.

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