Canadians detained abroad need more than 'responsible conviction'

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One thousand four hundred. This is the approximate number of Canadians detained abroad. Some of them have been tortured, detained for months without charges, kept in solitary confinement, threatened to be killed or waiting to be killed. This is almost the same number I heard over and over since 2002 when my husband Maher Arar was one of those Canadians detained abroad.

The response I got then from Foreign Affairs officials was that "Canada uses quiet diplomacy." I didn't understand what "quiet diplomacy" means when your loved one has been in a dungeon beaten with electrical cables and the dictator safe in his palace surrounded by his guards. Fourteen years, two changes of governments later, it seems that there has been a change in vocabulary used by Foreign Affairs but not in attitudes or in actions.

"Responsible conviction" is a strange combination of words that summarizes the guiding principle new Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion is proposing to follow in order to fulfill his mandate.

Resorting to the philosophies of Max Weber and using them as his source of inspiration, Mr. Dion explained that today we couldn't use the ethics of "responsibility" in absolute terms or the ethics of "conviction" in absolute terms. Rather, he proposed to be enlightening his path with a newly discovered concept of "responsible conviction."

He promised that this new principle will make some noticeable shifts in Canadian foreign policies and one of the examples he gave is that of death penalty: "We will demand clemency for all to maximize the possibility of obtaining it for some."

However, Mr. Dion didn't say a word on how "responsible conviction" can help cases of Canadians detained abroad like: Huseyin Celil, detained in China for 10 years, or Salim Alaradi, detained in the United Arab Emirates for almost two years. Does it mean concretely that Mr. Dion will "responsibly" call his counterpart in China and ask for the transfer of Mr. Celil and his return to Canada to his wife and four children? Or does it mean that Mr. Dion will call his Emirati counterpart and use the over-$1.6 billion trade relationship as a "convincing" argument to demand that Mr. Alaradi be given a fair and transparent trial or let go?

But how about the Egyptian government which has been preventing a Canadian family from returning to Canada? Will Mr. Dion advise Prime Minister Trudeau to kindly call the ruthless General Al-Sissi, who has been detaining and disappearing hundred of activists, and beg him to give the Al-Qazzaz family the green light to leave?

And how about the Saudi Arabian government -- will Mr. Dion whisper in the ear of the Saudi Ambassador to Canada or maybe shake his hand or perhaps finish some trade business with him and then later demand that Raif Badawi not be lashed another time and instead allowed to come to Canada to join his family? And last but not least, what will happen to Bashir Makhtal's promised transfer to Canada? Will Mr. Dion "convince" our Ethiopian ally to send him home?

Meanwhile, two concerned groups have come forward with two powerful documents on how to assist Canadians detained abroad. They presented "responsible" steps to deal with this serious issue. Amnesty International along with the Fahmy Foundation released a "Protection Charter" that the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group endorsed along with other human rights organizations. More recently the Rideau Institute released a document that highlights policy and legislative guidelines that should be followed by the Canadian government.

So far, we haven't heard a word of commitment by Minister Dion about following the steps suggested by both of these documents. Wasn't he convinced enough that these steps are necessary and crucial to obtain the release of Canadians detained abroad?

"Enshrine the right to Consular assistance and equal treatment in Canadian laws" and "Equality of service" are both principles emphasized by Amnesty International and the Rideau Institute, respectively, to deal with these difficult situations.

"A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian," repeated Prime Minister Trudeau during the last federal campaign. No matter where you were born and what you believe in and how awful the act you committed. The law should prevail. But, I don't see how Mr. Dion is applying this principle so far and how his "responsible conviction" can be inserted into that slogan.

Another strong counterargument used by the government in dealing with cases of Canadians detained abroad is the question of privacy. Each time we learn about another sad case, the response that we receive from Canadian officials is that privacy concerns wouldn't allow them to share information with human rights organizations and the public.

Justice Dennis O'Connor, who conducted a lengthy inquiry into the case of Maher Arar and released his report in 2006, stated in that regard that:

"Consular officials should clearly advise detainees in foreign countries of the circumstances under which information obtained from the detainees may be shared with others outside the Consular Affairs Bureau, before any such information is obtained."

Gar Pardy, a former Director of Consular Affairs Bureau at Foreign Affairs who dealt with several high-profile cases of Canadians detained abroad and who wrote the report for the Rideau Institute, shares his skepticism about whether this recommendation was implemented by Global Affairs.

Maybe Max Webber was misinterpreted and, after all, his rigid distinction between responsibility and conviction should be better amalgamated and used like Mr. Dion attempts to do; but nothing should justify or prevent Canada from adopting a serious policy that would save the lives of hundred of Canadians abroad.

This column was first published in the Huffington Post.

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog

Photo: Barrie Greens/flickr

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