TORONTO – Victims of terrorism will be able to sue perpetrators in Canadian courts under new federal legislation to be introduced in Parliament this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Sunday.
“We will introduce legislation that will give victims of terrorism the power to obtain just compensation from those responsible for their suffering,” Harper told a cheering crowd at a Canadian Jewish Congress event in Toronto, where he received the Saul Hayes Human Rights Award.
Harper said the proposed new law, which will amend the State Immunity Act, would provide victims the opportunity for justice by holding responsible the individuals, organizations and foreign states that commit and support acts of terrorism.
It would also send the message that Canada will hold those accountable for their crimes.
Harper provided no details, preferring to wait until Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan introduces the legislation this week.
Families of the Canadian victims of terrorist attacks have long been campaigning for just such a law, said Aaron Blumenfeld, a Toronto lawyer with the advocacy group Canadian Coalition Against Terror.
“The intention is not just to try to get compensation out of those people who sponsored these attacks, but also to expose them for what they’ve done,” Blumenfeld said in an interview.
The coalition represents families who lost their loved ones in terror attacks, including the 9-11 attacks in the U.S. and the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182.
Co-founder Maureen Basnicki, whose husband Ken was killed in the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, called the announcement “significant” because it sends would-be-terrorists the message that they won’t win.
“We all must know that money is the lifeblood of terrorism and to be able to go to the transparency of the courts and follow the money trail would give me a great satisfaction and help create that proper legacy for Ken,” she said.
“Many of our Canadian victims of terrorism remain invisible – but this will give us all some sense of justice and doing everything possible to protect our fellow Canadians.”
The coalition had supported a private member’s bill presented to the House of Commons in 2005 asking the Parliament to amend the State Immunity Act, which protects foreign states from lawsuits, Blumenfeld said.
That effort was not successful at the time, but similar petitions have been working their way through the government for the last few years.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who spoke after Harper at the CJC event but was not present for his address, expressed support for the bill, saying Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister, has been working for the past two years on civil remedies for terror victims.
“I noticed this morning that the Prime Minister has taken action, which, if you’ll allow me to say, would not have been possible with the preparatory work of Irwin Cotler,” Ignatieff said during an impassioned speech about the rights of Israel.
“My party will never claim to be the only genuine defenders of Israel in Canadian politics, because I don’t want my party to be alone in the defence of Israel, I want all parties to defend Israel.”
Law professor James Morton said Harper’s announcement raises a lot of questions, even if it was warmly welcomed by the crowd.
“This will be an enormous change in the way that Canada deals with foreign states and while it may be a good thing, it opens up all kinds of issues,” Morton said.
The proposed legislation also raises questions about how lawsuits involving other countries would work, he added.
“If we, for example, allow someone from Israel to sue Syria for some type of alleged terrorist action, similarly that means that they’re going to have people from Jordan allowed to sue Israel, and people from Iraq allowed to sue the United States,” Morton said.
“Presumably it would all be restricted to persons residing in Canada, which is fine, but it opens up lawsuits against nations across the world through the Canadian courts.”
The United States amended its laws in the mid 1990s to allow U.S. victims to successfully sue state supporters of terror attacks.
One of those lawsuits involved the Libyan government’s role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Blumenfeld said.
All 243 passengers and 16 crew members were killed in that attack, along with eleven people on the ground in the south Scotland community where large sections of the plane fell.
“The Libyan was one success story. I wouldn’t say that this is the entire answer to terrorism, but it is one part of a multifaceted strategy,” said Blumenfeld.
Harper’s announcement came during a day-long celebration of the CJC, also attended by NDP Leader Jack Layton and Elizabeth May of the Green Party.