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Andrew Ellis

Andrew Ellis

Andrew Ellis

Canada must do more for the taken Add to ...

Andrew Ellis is the former assistant director of operations for CSIS and chief executive of the ICEN Group, a private travel-security firm that has worked on behalf of Canadians detained abroad.

In July, 2012, a naive and reckless young couple decided to undertake the adventure of a lifetime and travel for five months to the former South Asian republics of the Soviet Union. Unbeknownst to their parents living in small towns in Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canadian Joshua Boyle and his U.S.-born wife, Caitlan Coleman – who was two months pregnant – decided to trek into Afghanistan in early October.

Mr. Boyle and Ms. Coleman disappeared days later and continue to be held captive by the notorious Taliban-aligned Haqqani network. Since their abduction, Ms. Coleman has given birth, and two boys have survived. They are no longer a couple in danger, but a family. A family of innocents thousands of kilometres from their homes and families.

Paying a ransom is said to be a bad thing: It might beget more kidnappings. It is a widely accepted theory, but there is little if any statistical evidence to support the assertion.

According to New America, a think tank based in Washington, hostages from countries known to pay ransoms or make concessions are far more likely to be freed, even when they are being held by the terrorist groups that are most likely to murder their hostages. Based on the New America data and victim and family-support service Hostage US, there is no clear link between a country’s ransom policy and the number of its citizens taken hostage. While a range of factors, including foreign and military policy need to be considered, 80 per cent of hostages from Western European Union countries that pay ransoms or make concessions held by jihadi terrorist groups were freed, compared with 25 per cent of hostages from the United States and 33 per cent from Britain – two countries that don’t.

If it were the family of a federal minister or bureaucrat, however, a ransom would be paid. Any parent would make the same decision. While there has been no demand for ransom in this case, the Boyles and other families like them need to avail themselves of all the options to protect their loved ones. They must be free from the fear of prosecution hanging over their heads if they participate in the payment of a ransom or other actions that might arguably advance the interests of a terrorist organization.

While Mr. Boyle and Ms. Coleman are being held by an extremist organization, the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan can weigh in with differing degrees of influence to facilitate the family’s safe return. How much time and effort have our Prime Minister and federal ministers invested in persuading their counterparts in Kabul and Islamabad to do more? (Obviously we are not privy to their closed-door conversations.) A government’s first and foremost responsibility is the protection of its citizens.

While Mr. Boyle had briefly married into a Canadian family whose patriarch, Ahmed Khadr, had been linked to extremists, he and his new wife are harmless hippies. Early in the kidnapping, U.S. officials reported that their abduction had nothing to do with Mr. Boyle’s former spouse and was rather a horrible coincidence. Canada agreed. Mr. Boyle and Ms. Coleman are by no means the first, or likely the last, Westerners to wander foolishly close to war zones only to find themselves captured.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the low point of his tenure was the day he learned of the shocking murder of Canadians in the Philippines. One would imagine that the day was so much worse for the families of those so grotesquely murdered. It is time for a clear, decisive, results-driven approach to resolving the Boyle family’s kidnapping. This should be a top priority for all departments – and for the Prime Minister. This is what all Canadians deserve.

The Canadian position on the prohibition of paying ransoms may appear laudable in some circumstances, but it ties the bureaucracy in knots. Does it make sense to have a single policy rigidly applied in the same manner to criminal kidnappings for cash in Mexico and to political jihadi kidnappings in Asia and Africa? Where is the line between responsible and unacceptable behaviour for bureaucrats in these circumstances? Government officials must have the fortitude to do more than just what they are required to do. They must have the policy foundation and moral support to do everything they can.

While Mr. Boyle and Ms. Coleman were foolhardy and impulsive, they did not deserve this fate. Canadians owe it to them and their families to do everything in our power to bring them home safely. Rich or poor, famous or infamous, diplomat, journalist or store clerk, Canadians should demand and receive the best protection their government can offer.

Managing a kidnapping on the other side of the globe is a complex undertaking. Tackling one that involves the citizens of two countries and the lives of children is excruciating. The behind-the-scenes manoeuvring in a kidnapping case, with its pantheon of interested parties and the unpredictable foreign policies of the United States, Canada, Afghanistan and Pakistan – as well as myriad supposed intermediaries – makes every decision facing the families and their governments that much more difficult.

Behind this backdrop lies a devastated Canadian family. Patrick and Linda Boyle, along with Joshua’s four siblings, have suffered in relative silence. Their son and daughter-in-law’s lives have hung in the balance for more than four years, and they’ve met their grandchildren over grainy and threatening video clips. Rumours, both good and terrible, circulate almost daily. Last August, the captors released a video threatening to murder the young family if their demands were not immediately met. The Boyles and Colemans persevered through this terrible moment, but just barely.

While the case is undoubtedly complex and challenging, the Canadian government can and should do more. Relatives of previous Canadian hostages have demanded changes to the archaic system. It is hoped that a rumoured parliamentary-committee review of these issues comes to fruition soon.

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