The wider issue of travel bans goes beyond Trump

Sunday 19/02/2017

The debate over US President Donald Trump’s attempt to impose a ban on travel to the United States on people from seven majority-Muslim countries continues. Tens of thousands of opponents to the measure have taken to the streets in dozens of cities across the United States and Europe in protest.

This affair, controversial as it might well be, may have yielded positive derivatives. It brings to the forefront of world politics the issue of travel bans on groups or individuals. Trump’s ban, which was blocked by a federal judge in Seattle whose ruling was upheld by an appeals court, has high­lighted the recourse of many governments to impose travel bans, within and outside the realm of the law.

In today’s global economy, peo­ple increasingly view the freedom to travel as an essential right that should be enjoyed by all, regard­less of nationality or faith but dep­rivation of that right continues.

In Egypt, rights groups say, authorities have prevented human rights lawyers from leaving the country. To Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the bans are part of a larger campaign to suppress independent, critical voices inside the country.

Since the ouster of president Muhammad Morsi from power in July 2013, Egyptian authorities are said to have arbitrarily banned at least a score of leaders and mem­bers of Egyptian non-governmen­tal organisations from travelling abroad. Others prevented from leaving the country include mem­bers of political parties, youth activists, bloggers, journalists and academics.

This behaviour, rights advocates say, goes counter to international human rights law and Egypt’s constitution, both of which protect the right of Egyptians to leave and enter their own country.

Egypt is not the only country in the Middle East imposing travel bans.

In Qatar, the home of the televi­sion satellite network Al Jazeera, authorities have prevented a prom­inent human rights lawyer and for­mer Justice minister from leaving the country. Najeeb al-Nuaimi was one of the lead counsels defending ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hus­sein. He has also defended Qatari poet Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for writing a poem attack­ing the Gulf state’s monarchy. Ajami, who was accused of inciting violence, spent four years in jail before being released in 2016.

“Authorities in Qatar pre­vented… Nuaimi from travelling without informing him about any possible reasons,” the Gulf Centre for Human Rights protested.

Also, many Iranians have been arbitrarily prevented from travel­ling outside their country by the theocratic regime.

Travel bans should not be used as political tools. Governments should not try to prevent people from travelling because of their nationality, politics or religion. They should not misrepresent arbitrary bans as justified by security considerations when they are not.

There can be legitimate security concerns, especially in the global fight against terrorism. In recent days, Amnesty International might have been mixing apples and oranges when it condemned Tunisia for preventing hundreds of individuals from travelling overseas because it suspected them of harbouring an intent to join jihadist groups. By banning these would-be jihadists, the Tunisian government said it was helping safeguard peace and secu­rity in the world. It might have a case there.

This is a quandary for any government when it suspects its younger citizens have been radi­calised and recruited by terrorist groups. Slapping travel bans on terrorist suspects is not the same as imposing restrictions on non-governmental organisation leaders or intellectuals.

Returning to the ban Trump wanted to impose, the proceedings that have unfolded during these last few weeks have surprised many Americans and no doubt left more than one leader in the Middle East speechless.

In a rare demonstration of the extreme complexity of the inner workings of a democracy, the Unit­ed States has shown the world that, despite being the most powerful man on the planet, the president of the country can be challenged by a simple judge — who can live to tell about it.