The Prime Minister wants New Zealand to do what it can to help Western powers deal with the so-called Islamic State that has taken over a swathe of Iraq and Syria. It would be "odd" if this country did not take part, he said at the weekend. Without air strike capability there is not much New Zealand can contribute to the present level of engagement, and if the United States and its allies decide to put forces on the ground, Mr Key sounds reluctant to follow suit. So what can this country do to show support?
Yesterday the Cabinet considered a proposal to stop anyone from this country going to fight for Isis by seizing the passports of anyone suspected by authorities of going. It may be the little that New Zealand can do for the cause but it would be too large an affront to New Zealand's liberties.
Seizing a passport is a drastic step, stopping a person from going anywhere. The person ceases to be a free citizen and becomes a captive in his or her own country. That may be justified if the person has committed a crime or been found to be acting against New Zealand's interests overseas, but not merely on suspicion.
Muslims in New Zealand, especially if they have migrated from the Middle East, have reason to fear they could have their passports confiscated if they try to travel to the region for family reunions, pilgrimages or other innocent purposes. But all New Zealanders might be disturbed to see the Government taking this step.
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It is always odd to be reminded that a passport is not a personal possession, that it belongs to the state. A passport feels like a birthright. It is a badge of citizenship that for most people has been acquired at birth. It should never be withdrawn lightly, even for the 12 months suspension permitted under existing law.
The Green Party pointed out yesterday that it is already an offence under New Zealand's Terrorism Suppression Act to participate in a terrorist group. Isis has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, which is surely sufficient grounds to do more than seize the passport of any New Zealander found to be associating with it. Arrest and immediate detention would be in order.
But Mr Key was talking at the weekend of a system of passport forfeiture on suspicion of an intention to participate in Isis activity. "Potentially we would have powers to look at arresting someone under the view that they would undertake what would then be deemed to be a criminal act," he said on Sunday morning television, adding, "So that's a very big step. I'm not saying we will take that."
It would be a very big step too far, even if it did put us in step with Australia's recent stride. It is most certainly not a law that should be passed merely for the purpose of demonstrating New Zealand's support for the West's response to Isis. Its appalling butchery of British and American hostages, posted on social media, is having its desired effect. It is probably symptomatic of the methods these monsters apply to impose their idea of Islamic rule on captured communities, particularly religious minorities. But air strikes are not stopping them, in Syria at least.
The United States and its allies have yet to develop a proper military operation with a clear achievable objective and the force necessary to carry it out. If they devise a credible strategy, covertly if necessary, New Zealand should contribute if it can.
The Prime Minister is right, it would be odd not to stand with our natural allies. But not with passports seized on suspicion. That only offends our freedom.
Debate on this article is now closed.