Irwin Cotler is a Canadian former minister of justice and attorney-general. Brandon Silver is an international human rights lawyer and director of policy and projects at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.
Hamas’s atrocities against Israeli civilians in recent days have been unimaginably horrific, and their crimes are continuing. At least two Canadian citizens are being held hostage along with more than 100 other civilians. Canada can help put an end to these crimes, and should act immediately to save lives.
Those being held captive by Hamas face untold brutality, with every passing moment risking evermore violent torture. Canada has both a moral responsibility to help and a meaningful role to play.
Canada also has a legal duty. As we explained in our report of the High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, an individual’s country of citizenship has an obligation under international law to provide them consular services and support when being held abroad.
Canadian-Israeli Vivian Silver was brutally taken hostage by Hamas, as was Tiferet Lapidot, the young daughter of Canadians. Born in Winnipeg and a graduate of the University of Manitoba, the 74-year-old Ms. Silver has devoted her life to peacebuilding and women’s empowerment, winning accolades for her work advancing the conditions of Israel’s Arab minority and supporting Gazan civilians, including arranging medical treatment for sick Gazan children. The captivity of these hostages is a continuing war crime, and those being held include young children, a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor, and entire families.
Canada just convened world leaders at the UN General Assembly last month to address the issue of hostage-taking, grounded in the Canadian-led Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State relations. Seventy-four countries have endorsed the declaration.
Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly has said Canada is sending a team of experts to support Israel’s chief hostage negotiator, but more can be done. We must now move toward global action, leveraging this goodwill and international buy-in for the declaration to enforce norms, free hostages, and deter further arbitrary detentions anywhere in the world.
Hamas is serving as a proxy for the regime in Iran, while its leaders are hosted and financed by Qatar and Turkey. Iran reportedly orchestrated and gave the green light for these atrocities; Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan was the intelligence chief who oversaw the establishment of a Hamas headquarters with a base of operations in Turkey to organize attacks on Israeli civilians. And Qatar provides much of Hamas’s budget and houses its senior leadership. Hamas and its state backers must be shown that arbitrary detention is a liability rather than leverage.
First, Canada should use its significant convening capacity to co-ordinate an international legal and diplomatic response on behalf of all hostages. With nationals from around the world being held captive, Canada should help establish a working group of all concerned countries to co-ordinate collective action. This can be modelled on the International Coordination and Response Group for Iran’s downing of Flight PS752, which issues joint press statements and is pursuing a common agenda on behalf of all victims. A group working on behalf of Hamas hostages could mobilize multilateral action for captives, such as diplomatic engagements and resolutions, humanitarian support for those held, legal interventions, intelligence and law enforcement support, and a shared position in any prospective communication with captors and in acts of deterrence.
Second, Canada should list the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terror entity. The IRGC funds and trains Hamas while simultaneously murdering and maiming women and ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, and should not be able to use Canadian banks and businesses to help them do so. Canada should also designate other terror groups in Gaza that support Hamas crimes, but which remain free to operate in Canada.
Third, while Turkey and Qatar may be able to play the role of middleman with Hamas, they cannot be allowed to enjoy impunity for their complicity in crimes. In hosting those responsible for atrocities, Qatar and Turkey are in breach of their international legal commitments, including those under the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages. They should be designated as state sponsors of terror and their officials responsible for supporting crimes subject to Magnitsky-style sanctions.
Hostage-taking is a tool used by bad actors because it serves their interests. By increasing the cost and consequences of this crime in accordance with international law, we can hold Hamas and its enablers accountable, and bring justice and freedom closer for suffering victims.