David Wilkins, the United States ambassador to Canada, has scolded Stockwell Day, Canada's minister for public safety, for raising the case of Maher Arar. In 2002, the United States deported Arar, a Canadian of Syrian origin, back to his country of origin based on a suspicion that he had links to terrorists. The Syrians jailed and tortured him. This week, in response to an inquiry that cleared Mr. Arar of any wrongdoing, the Canadian government compensated him. Stockwell Day then lobbied the United States government to take him off their watch list. Apparently on behalf of the Bush administration, the US ambassador, has described Canada's advocacy for Mr. Arar as an unjustified interference in American affairs.
In a less connected world, Mr. Wilkins would have a perfectly good point. However, not only do we live in a connected world, we live in a connected world where the United States government policy promotes connections in the form of free trade agreements, and undermines them by imposing national security restrictions. One of these restrictions looks set to undermine a basic foundation of the current international system: air travel.
The Bush Administration has not merely forbidden Mr. Arar to enter the United States, but have banned him from American airspace. This inconveniences Mr. Arar a lot more than simply denying him the delights of holidaying in Disney World. Very few commercial flights across Canada can guarantee they will not at any time enter sovereign US airspace, so Mr. Arar will find it difficult to find a commercial flight within Canada, to say nothing of the problems he will face should he wish to visit Mexico or points south. It also violates a principle of cooperation in air space and in maintaining the safety of flight that Canada and the United States, as well as most other countries, have shared for a long time. A series of treaties in force since 1944 govern access to national airspace by international flights. These treaties make provision for aviation safety, and enshrine the principle of equal and reciprocal access to national airspace. At least in principle, asserting that the United States can ban Mr. Arar from traveling in their airspace for any reason or no reason brings this principle into question. It undermines the understanding upon which international civil aviation depends.
If Canada decided to retaliate by picking an American at random, say Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and making him persona non grata in our airspace, Senator Lieberman would find it very hard to find a commercial flight from most parts of North America to Europe. But that kind of retaliation, or really any kind of retaliation, would undermine the cooperation upon which aviation safety depends. The international air travel system depends on people and nations making their choices based on safety, not what they happen to feel like doing. In that sense, the banning of Mr. Arar belongs to that class of acts, like counterfeiting, that people can only get away with because most people don't do them.