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Mark Salter

Mr. Khadr, his passport, our security Add to ...

For the second time, the Canadian government has denied Abdurahman Khadr a passport on grounds of national security. Mr. Khadr, a Canadian citizen who had been captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and held for months as an "enemy combatant" by U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay, has never been charged with any crime. So, we must ask: By what right and under what conditions can Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay deny a Canadian citizen a passport and effectively prevent that citizen from leaving the country?

The passport system is nearly 100 years old, although passports have been around in some form or another since biblical times. After the First World War, when standards were first agreed, no one expected that it would last for more than five years. It was a temporary solution to the temporary problem of massive population movements in Europe and the invention of new states. As with so many short-term solutions, the system is still around.

In the world of international law, the passport is the promise of a government to other governments that the bearer is who he says he is and that he is not dangerous. Canada's passport is rightly viewed as one of the most secure identity documents in the world. It contains numerous security features, and the application procedure has become far more rigorous since Ahmed Ressam, the so-called millennium bomber, was caught with a fraudulently obtained Canadian passport on his way to bomb the Los Angeles airport in late 1999.

The introduction of the biometric passport will further strengthen the system. The core problem for Passport Canada is that breeder documents, like the birth certificate, have no biometric data. While the inclusion of such data will freeze our photos and fingerprints (or iris scans) onto our passport, it will not fix the underlying problem that our birth certificate has no necessary connection to our bodies. Passport Canada has augmented its ID system to include verification of social connections -- phoning the guarantors of identity. This pushes the problem back two years but does not solve the fundamental slippage between the body and the identity.

But there is no absolute right to a passport. Canadians have the right to leave the country, but they are not entitled to a passport by virtue of their citizenship. The granting of a passport is a royal prerogative, just like a knighthood. It has become so routine that we expect to get our passports.

At its root in Canadian law, however, the government retains the absolute right to refuse a passport on national security grounds. The initial Federal Court of Canada ruling ordering Ottawa to cease denying Mr. Khadr a passport was not based on this absolute right but, rather, on the misapplication of procedures. The national security exception was put in place after Mr. Khadr had submitted his application. Now Mr. MacKay has invoked these national security concerns in refusing a passport to Mr. Khadr.

Here is the difficult choice that Mr. MacKay faces. The 23-year-old Mr. Khadr has not been charged with any crime in Canada. In the eyes of the law, he is a normal Canadian citizen. On the other hand, if the minister does have secret information, he would not want to reveal it.

Mr. Khadr is a member of one of Canada's most infamous families. The family, whose links to al-Qaeda are well known, first came to Canada's attention in 1995 when Mr. Khadr's father was arrested in Pakistan on allegations that he had played a role in bombing an embassy. My concern is that, without clear public evidence for denying Mr. Khadr's passport on grounds of national security, the sins of the father are visited on the son.

While the government is plainly within its rights to refuse the passport, it has a responsibility to provide a clear definition of what "national security" constitutes. With secret hearings for security certificates, increased surveillance, and passenger profiling for international and domestic air travel, the government is widening its police powers under the justification of the war on terror. How much secrecy are we willing to accept from our government? What counts as "national security"?

Mark B. Salter, a professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Political Studies, is the author of Rights of Passage: The Passport in International Relations.

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