As all civilized countries agree, seizing ships on the high seas is a very bad thing.
This sentiment was greatly strengthened in 1985 when Palestinian gunmen seized the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and killed a disabled American passenger. An outraged international community came together to make it an international crime (under the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against Maritime Navigation Safety) to seize control of a ship or to harm its passengers.
Canada has been part of this consensus, and in recent years has sent warships to thwart Somali pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden.
Yet there hasn’t been a murmur of protest from Canada over the Israeli seizure of a Turkish ship in international waters late last month, and the shocking killing of nine peace activists on board.
While governments around the world denounced the Israeli attack and Turkey decried it as an act of “state terrorism,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper cheerfully followed through with a planned meeting the next day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Appearing with Netanyahu, Harper merely expressed regret about the loss of life and the fact that it interfered with Netanyahu’s visit to Canada: “I’m sorry this has coloured this [visit],” said Harper, “but delighted you were able to join me at least last night and today, and we’ve had some important talks, so welcome to Canada.”
Welcome to Canada?
Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine Harper being so welcoming and convivial had, say, the Iranian navy — or Somali pirates — seized a ship in international waters and killed nine people on board.
There is a compelling need for a serious, UN-mandated investigation of these killings, which are as horrific as the killing on the Achille Lauro.
Three of the victims on the Turkish ship bled to death after other passengers spent hours pleading in vain with Israeli commandos to get medical assistance, according to Al Jazeera reporter Jamal Elshayyal, who was on board the ship.
Both Elshayyal and Canadian activist Kevin Neish, also on-board, report that the attack began with Israeli commandos firing live ammunition onto the darkened ship from helicopters above, before descending onto it.
Israel has appointed its own inquiry — a move that an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz dismissed as a “farce.”
But Canada will give legitimacy to that “farce” by allowing Ken Watkin, former judge advocate general of the Canadian military, to serve on it.
The Haaretz editorial noted that Israel wants to put the focus on the activists, not on the decision-making that led to the ship’s takeover.
Let’s not lose sight of what was going on. Nearly 700 activists from 50 nations took great personal risks in order to bring humanitarian aid — including medical supplies and wheelchairs — to the 1.5 million blockaded people of Gaza, whose plight has been largely ignored by the world.
This unarmed “freedom flotilla” wasn’t planning to attack heavily armed Israel.
The allegation of weapons on board turned out to be as mythical as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
But while the flotilla posed no physical threat to Israel whatsoever, it did pose another very real threat — drawing world attention to the suffering caused by Israel’s blockade.
Israel is desperate to refocus the story, to turn the humanitarians — nine of whom are now dead — into the aggressors. And it looks like our Prime Minister is delighted to help.
Linda McQuaig is author of It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.