Summer yawn: Indifference meets UN report on Canadian complicity in torture

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It's been more than a month, but Canadians in general have been able to go about their daily business despite the United Nations declaration that the federal government is complicit in torture. July 1st flag-wavers didn't have their spirits dampened by the findings that, apart from a few headlines, fell victim to the vagaries of the 24-7 news cycle.

The report from the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) came on the heels of another UN report from the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, who not only expressed concern about the growing inequality gap in this country, but also took Canada to task for what he called its "appallingly poor" record of respecting and implementing the recommendations of UN human rights organizations.

De Schutter told Postmedia that "this sort of self-righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all." His blunt statements, while drawing ire from the Harper government, also reflect the government's record on the issue of torture.

The CAT report points out that Canada has yet to make good on recommendations made in successive reports over the past decade that have called on this country to bring itself in line with its international law and treaty obligations. While Conservative MPs loudly protested that the UN had no right to be making such pronouncements (despite the fact that a key part of UN membership includes submitting to such reviews), others questioned whether Canada should even stay in the UN. Such questions did not arise when Canada wanted UN sanction to bomb human beings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

While relatively short, the report is nonetheless an important reminder of ongoing human rights violations that have taken place both overseas and at home. The CAT made special note of the fact that Canada has yet to implement the Convention Against Torture "in full at the domestic level," noting that implementation is essential since "it would allow people to invoke it directly in courts... as well as to raise awareness of its provisions among the judiciary and the public at large."

The report is certainly not comprehensive (among those absent from it were numerous individuals seeking justice, apologies and compensation for Canadian complicity in their torture, from Abousfian Abdelrazik -- tortured in Sudan, prevented from returning home, and subject to a wholly unwarranted assets freeze -- to Benamar Benatta, rendered to torture in the U.S. on September 12, 2011). Nonetheless, it remains a disturbing laundry list of what are clearly legal violations with serious human consequences, including within it a reminder that Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin, all tortured with Canadian complicity, have yet to receive an apology, compensation, and the systemic changes needed to ensure such acts never again take place.

For instance, Canada was hauled on the carpet for its ongoing refusal to close the door on deportation to torture, a blight courtesy of a 2002 Supreme Court decision (as well as refugee "protection" legislation that allows bureaucrats to decide whether it is in Canada's best interest to send someone off to a dungeon). While the government insists that its "right" to conduct such deportations is merely "theoretical," there have been numerous documented cases of individuals showing up in prison, tortured, or murdered following their forced removal from Canada. The CAT also expressed its concern that Canada does not respect the UN's conclusions when individuals apply to the international body for "interim measures of protection," which would put on hold such deportations until the UN could hear in full the case at hand. The fact that Canada has ratified the Convention and thereby undertook to co-operate with the Committee is not reflected in reality, and "by deporting complainants despite the Committee's requests for interim measures...[Canada] has committed a breach of its obligations." (Needless to say refugees facing a grave fate rarely even get to the stage of seeking interim measures: they are normally hustled out of Canada with the cowardly Federal Court's seal of approval).

Supporters of the government's seriously repressive new refugee rejection legislation failed to heed the CAT's critique of mandatory one-year detention without bail for individuals who arrive via an "irregular" fashion (as if refugees often have a choice of travel), along with the Immigration Minister's discretion to designate certain countries as "safe," a power that seriously limits the rights of whole classes of asylum seekers.

Perhaps the most draconian of immigration measures in Canada, the secret trial security certificate process, continued to be a target of the CAT as well, especially federal efforts to rely on "diplomatic assurances" from torturing countries that torture would not be inflicted on deportees from Canada.

While two of the five Muslim men subject to the process have had their cases thrown out -- both Hassan Almrei and Adil Charkaoui have since launched lawsuits against the federal government -- three cases remain, with Ottawa's Mohamed Harkat now appealing to have his case heard at the Supreme Court in order to end his decade-long struggle to stop deportation to torture in Algeria. In Toronto, Mohammad Mahjoub and Mahmoud Jaballah, both facing judicially sanctioned rendition to Egypt, continue to face the excruciatingly long process before the Federal Court.

In the Mahjoub case, significantly, it came to light in December of last year that CSIS knew most of his case was derived from information obtained by torture. Remarkably, that revelation did not put a stop to the proceedings, nor have ongoing revelations that CSIS refuses to discard information gleaned from torture. (Notably, the Committee did err in stating that Almrei's case was based on torture). The CAT reiterated the findings of similar UN reports calling on Ottawa to use criminal law proceedings and safeguards in such cases, recommendations that remain ignored.

Objective readers of the report might find it surprising that in the 21st century, a self-described democratic country such as Canada needs to be reminded, for example, never to transfer prisoners from military operations to another country where there are substantial grounds for believing the detainee would be subjected to torture.

Among other significant findings of the CAT were Canada's failure to exercise universal jurisdiction when it comes to apprehending those alleged to have perpetrated war crimes (readers may recall the ease with which former President George W. Bush waltzes into and out of Canada, despite legal objections filed with the Deptartment of Justice). They also issue a call to repatriate Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay, especially given the acknowledgement by the Supreme Court of Canada that Canadian officials had violated his rights while at the notorious detention and torture centre. The CAT also criticized Canada for continuing to honour state immunity, preventing victims of torture from suing overseas governments.

Importantly, the committee also took note of a number of areas not commonly associated in most people's minds with torture but which take place in our own communities: the treatment of the mentally ill in Canadian prisons, the continued use of extended periods of solitary confinement, and police use of lethal conducted-energy weapons.

And while the Canadian government argued another issue should not even be discussed, the CAT disagreed, pointing out that Aboriginal women continue to face "disproportionately high levels of life-threatening forms of violence, spousal homicides and enforced disappearances."

In a theme that seems to run through much of the Harper government's conduct, mention was also made of the government's failure to fully co-operate with the committee by submitting its replies to questions three months late. Such delay and obstruction is typical of Canadian government responses to such inquiries, and has more recently formed the backdrop to a number of military investigations. Indeed, while the family of the late soldier Stuart Langridge continues seeking answers from a stonewalling military that refuses to divulge key documents regarding the suicide of the Afghanistan war veteran, the Military Police Complaints Commission released a late June report on Canadian transfers of Afghan detainees to torture that also criticized the government for its refusal to co-operate. When it came to the federal government providing information to the commission, the report concluded, "the doors were basically slammed shut on document disclosure."

Such refusals to allow full disclosure about torture and related issues shows the extent to which the government is ultimately afraid of democratic processes and exposure of its own seedy practices. It's also a sign of how much governments fear popular resistance and understand that an informed public is one that is likely to resist such policies and seek substantive change.

Among those who will be doing just that come October will be members of Stop Canadian Involvement in Torture, currently organizing a national day of speakouts and town square readings of documents such as the UN report and other findings about Canadian complicity in torture. 

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Scott Weinstein/Flickr

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