Gerry BowlerFor centuries, Arab states across North Africa made fortunes from piracy. Now in the 21st century, a new pirate state is taking prisoners and holding them for ransom.

In the past, raiding the coasts of Spain and Italy, scouring the Mediterranean and ravaging into the Atlantic as far as Iceland, Barbary corsairs captured over a million Christian prisoners for their slave pens. Some were forced to labour for the rest of their miserable lives, some were forced into harems or the sex trade and some, the richer ones, were held for ransom.

The rulers of Algiers, Tripoli and Salé grew rich from this lucrative trade in hostages, but even better was the protection money they extorted from European countries in return for leaving their merchant vessels alone.

The newly independent United States found that American ships could no longer rely on the protection of the British Royal Navy and were the prey of these Barbary Coast pirates. Before too long, the ransom payments amounted to 20 per cent of the national budget. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson reported what an Arab ambassador to London had said provoked these attacks on American shipping:

“The ambassador answered us that it was founded on the laws of the prophet, it was written in their Qur’an, that all nations which had not acknowledged the prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every (Muslim) who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”

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After enduring this treatment for decades, the Americans decided enough was enough. Acting on the slogan “Millions for defence, not one penny for tribute,” they built a strong navy and, in co-operation with the British, made war on the Barbary pirates, blasting their home ports and putting an end to this slave-taking.

In the 21st century, it’s China that’s taking prisoners and holding them for ransom.

In retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition warrant, China has seized two innocent Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – on phoney charges and used their captivity to pressure the Canadian government.

While Meng is free to loll about her Vancouver mansion as she awaits legal proceedings, the two Michaels have been kept in cells with the lights on all day and night, and both have been subjected to interrogation at least three times a day. Both were denied access to lawyers for some time.

To make matters worse, the Chinese ambassador to Canada has openly threatened the safety of Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, while Canadian exports to China have been blocked on flimsy excuses. How is Canada to react?

The national motto of Scotland is Nemo me impune lacessit: “No one provokes me with impunity.” This  phrase should be on the lips of Canada’s federal officials.

Canada is in no position to strike back militarily but China must be made to pay a price, even if it hurts Canada as well. Expelling their diplomats and students, cancelling trade contracts, refusing permission to acquire Canadian assets, and making it harder for Canadians to spend money on Chinese goods or tourism will be noticed by Beijing.

Our speak softly and carry a limp stick approach has had no effect other than to embolden our antagonist. Prevent more hostage-taking. Act now.

Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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