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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Passport, or carte blanche to raise hell?

September 2, 2007

An increasing number of Canadian activists are blending tourism with aggressive advocacy abroad. In the process, they may be taking their liberty for granted

Esther Kern – mother of two and retired nurse – had only been in Hebron eight weeks when she found herself pitted against Israeli soldiers.

It wasn't an accident that landed this soft-spoken woman face to face with an M-16. She, backed by two other foreigners and a Palestinian woman, had stormed the Israeli post, demanding that the soldiers revoke their order that Palestinian children stop playing soccer at night.

"The soldiers had their guns aimed at us all the time," she recalls. "But I wasn't afraid, it didn't bother me."

Her confidence came from the secret weapon she keeps tucked in her pants while abroad: her Canadian passport.

Is it naiveté or is Kern right? Does our passport entitle us to charge into foreign lands, smugly demanding they right what we view as wrong in their society?

"It's a privilege that I enjoy," says Kern. And it's a privilege that sends this 64-year-old around the world, from Colombia to Israel, with an organization called Christian Peacemaker Teams. The goal of her travels? To get in the way.

"We get in the way of violence, we stand in solidarity with those who we perceive as being oppressed and victims of violence," she says. She's part of a group that is merging travel with activism like never before. We're not talking about volunteering in orphanages or running summer camps for street kids abroad. In increasing numbers, Canadians are hurling themselves in harm's way; armed with only their citizenship and the belief that some citizens of our global village have more freedom to express their beliefs.

Just ask the six activists – two of them Canadian – who returned home safely last month after a daring protest in which they unfurled a 42-square-metre banner on the Great Wall of China. It read "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008" in English and Chinese.

Some of them, such as Vancouver's Sam Price, can now brag that being Canadian has allowed him the luxury of twice escaping unscathed from protesting in what is, arguably, one of the most protest-unfriendly countries in the world.

The Department of Foreign Affairs says that Canadians are subject to the laws of the country where they are arrested. But the response from Canada's top ranks after Price and his colleagues from Students for a Free Tibet were arrested suggests that this rule isn't hard and fast.

"We'll be doing everything we can do to help and, of course, pointing out to the Chinese government – as we're entitled to do – that such expressions of opinion are a natural part of the human rights that Canadians do expect in this country," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters prior to the activists' release.

The Free Tibet activists made it home safe and sound after being held for a few hours in China and being deported to Hong Kong. The story hasn't read the same for the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

In 2005, four members of their group were kidnapped in Iraq. Three were released in good health, but one, American Tom Fox, was killed. "Any Canadian citizen can do whatever he or she wants," says Jean Gabriel Castel, professor emeritus of international law at Osgoode Hall Law School. "The question is whether it's illegal to do that in the country where you are."

Whether you'll be deported, jailed or worse, he says, depends on what the locals are doing. The fact that these Canadians are intervening on behalf of locals who can't do it themselves might be their saving grace.

"If you're in Tiananmen Square and you're watching people protest against something and you just barge in, it would be less of an offence from the point of the view of the Chinese, than if you organized the whole thing yourself," he says laughing. You can't organize a protest in a foreign country, he says.

But that's flexible, too. "In our country, for instance, if tomorrow the Chinese came here and organized a protest over the way the Chinese were treated a century ago when they were building the railways, it wouldn't matter, because we allow that kind of stuff."

Canada's relationship with the country in question also plays a role, one that he says allowed the Free Tibet protesters off the hook, scot-free.

"I think they were pretty lucky just to be, you know, kicked out of the country."

Legality aside, the question of ethics lingers, says Alex Goodman, research director at The Dominion Institute. Are these people causing more harm to the international community than good? "It's polarizing. I know that people feel strongly about this both ways and I know that some people feel like at some level we don't have a right to get involved."

Goodman throws his support behind the Free Tibet protesters, but is not blind to the strain their foreign activism puts on the international community. "These people feel that they have a moral responsibility to act," he says. "And at the same time that moral responsibility has been charged to the point where they are engaging in actions that have pushed these situations to be quite escalated, quite politically charged and quite controversial."

He dismisses criticisms of the protesters, though, arguing that they knew exactly what they were getting into. "It's certainly brave and sometimes the accomplishment from it might not be what had originally been imagined and frankly not much might come out of it sometimes. But I don't think I would call it irresponsible."

It's a new concept in international development, one that distances itself from the handout mentality that has characterized most Canadian involvement to date in the developing world.

"Charitable organizations decide what they think is best to do with their money," says political commentator Judy Rebick. "That's not empowering, that's saying if you do this, we'll give you money. Or we'll give you money for this."

Contrast this with people willing to put themselves in harm's way in order to get a message out for the people they're working with. This partnership, with one side doing the speaking, Rebick says, is ultimately more empowering for both sides than anything we've seen.

That's what brought Esther Kern up against those Israeli soldiers in Hebron. Her sense of empowerment was palpable when the commander of the post relented and allowed the children to play soccer from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. every evening.

"It may not sound like much," Kern says, "but that was a real win for us."

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