Dr. Mustafa Barghouti

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti

What Happened

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti planned a three-day speaking tour of Canada in March 2010, co-organized by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). His visa was not issued on time, forcing him to cancel the tour, though it was rescheduled and took place two months later. CJPME accused the government of intentionally issuing the visa late. The government said it was a matter of timing and submitting a complete visa application.

In early 2010, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East planned a speaking tour of Canada. Barghouti was scheduled to speak between March 20th and 22nd in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, about ‘Palestinian political dynamics and realities for Middle East peace.’ Dr. Barghouti has done previous speaking tours in North America, including an interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2009.

As part of his Canadian speaking tour in 2010, Dr. Barghouti was supposed to meet the leaders of Canada’s three federal opposition parties. Prime Minister Harper did not plan to meet with Dr. Barghouti, though Barghouti has not been critical of the the Harper government.

Travel troubles

To do his speaking tour, Dr. Barghouti had to overcome two obstacles.

First, he had to get to Jordan for his flight to Canada. The Israeli government does not allow Palestinians to fly from airports in Israel. This can be a problem because 1) Israel controls (and often restricts passage across) the border between the West Bank and Jordan, and because 2) Jordan requires that Palestinians entering Jordan for onward flights already have a visa to enter the country to which they are going. 

Secondly, Dr. Barghouti needed the visa to Canada. In the past, he had received visas to enter Canada in two to three days, and had even received a visa to enter the United states less than 24 hours after applying. But this time, the process proved unusually difficult.

Dr. Barghouti applied for the Canadian visa on March 5th, 2010, so he could leave the West Bank for Jordan on March 19th. After Dr. Barghouti’s office notified CJPME that the visa was not forthcoming, CJPME made inquiries with the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry.  Officials at Foreign Affairs admitted that they were aware of the application, but would give no assurances that the visa would be issued in time for Dr. Barghouti’s trip.  Following this failure to give assurances, CJPME asked a Member of Parliament to ask Lawrence Cannon – then Minister of Foreign Affairs – to look into the matter.  Lawrence Cannon, was made aware of Dr. Barghouti’s application on March 17th. However, on the eve of Dr. Barghouti’s departure, the visa was still not issued because of “checks on Barghouti, and his host organization Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME).”

Finally, after intense pressure for several days from CJPME and elected officials, the Harper government agreed to issue Barghouti a visa “after office hours” on March 20th. But by then it was too late, since Dr. Barghouti would only receive notice of his visa at 9pm on a Friday night, when the border from the Palestinian territory to Jordan was closed by Israel for the weekend.

Harper government ‘muzzling critical voices’

CJPME was surprised that Dr. Barghouti’s visa application would require such lengthy bureaucratic “checks” before approval, given his previous well-publicized visits to Canada and the United States, and his international standing as a respected political moderate. “Dr. Barghouti has long advocated for a peaceful transition to a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine - his message should appeal to anyone with a sincere commitment to Middle East peace," said Thomas Woodley, President of CJPME.

Noting government’s full awareness at the highest levels of the VIP visa need, and that the visa was issued in such a way as to prevent Barghouti’s visit, CJPME accused  the Harper government of obstructing the issuing of Dr. Barghouti's visa.  CJPME observed that the behaviour seemed to fit “a broader strategy to muzzle or obstruct any voice critical of the policies of the Israeli government.”

Woodley called the incident another example of the Harper government’s dislike for free speech.

The government made no official comment on the case, but pointed out that the “Canadian embassy in Israel recommends visitors apply for visas at least six weeks before they expect to travel.” A spokesperson for the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, stated that Canadian officials do their best to treat urgent matters in a timely manner, but this is sometimes not possible “such as when information is incomplete or arrives at the last minute.” A visa can be issued only when the complete application is received - and I'm giving you a hint here," added the spokesperson.

Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada, said the Jewish lobby had no part in delaying the entry of Dr. Barghouti. He believes “that if anything it had to do with the bureaucrats, but certainly it was not an issue on the Jewish agenda.”

Barghouti speaks, controversy remains

On April 13th, 2010, CJPME announced that Dr. Barghouti’s speaking tour would take place after all, on May 6th through 8th, adding a fourth stop in London. Dr. Barghouti had no visa trouble on his second attempt to speak in Canada.

The Harper government has been accused of numerous other attempts to prevent open public debate about Israel and Palestine. See, for instance, the cases of Kairos, Alternatives, the Canadian Arab Federation, Rights & Democracy, and QuAIA, and British MP George Galloway who was also prevented from speaking in Canada about Israel and Palestine.

Relevant Dates:

  • 5 March 2010: Dr. Barghouti applies for a visa to Canada, having received previous visas for Canada in two to three days.
  • 9 March 2010: CJPME makes an official announcement of the three-city Canadian speaking tour with Dr. Barghouti between March 20th and March 22nd.
  • 17 March 2010: Minister Cannon, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, is made aware of the urgency to issue Dr. Barghouti’s visa.
  • 19 March 2010: Dr. Barghouti’s visa is finally issued too late for him to leave, since he is unable to use the Tel Aviv airport or cross into Jordan.
  • 6-8 May 2010: The rescheduled speaking tour of four Canadian cities takes place. Dr. Barghouti has no trouble acquiring his visa on time.

Role or Position

Dr. Mustafa Barghouti is a Palestinian doctor, politician and pro-democracy activist. He founded the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committee in 1979, and the Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute in 1989. Barghouti ran for President of the Palestinian Territory in 2005, finishing second with 19% of the vote. In 2010, he was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Implications and Consequences

  • Free speech: The obstruction of Dr. Barghouti’s speaking tour, despite his credentials as a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who had spoken on countless previous occasions in Canada and in other developed countries, raises more questions about the Harper government’s willingness to encourage an open public dialogue about Israel and Palestine.
  • Equality: The issuing of Dr. Barghouti’s visa only when he would still be prevented from speaking in Canada shows a lack of equal treatment afforded to other visa applicants, especially high profile visa applicants whose files have been personally seen by a federal Minister.
  • Democracy: In a democracy, all people are free to speak their minds, and not only on issues for which there is consensus and approval from the state. In fact, it is speech that the government specifically opposes or avoids that is most valuable, since it ensures that the citizenry can hold the government accountable for its policies both domestic and foreign. The willingness of others to share their perspectives with Canadians, and the desire of Canadians to hear these views, must therefore be respected, and no democratic government is within its rights to interfere.