Rights to freedom of expression and assembly, enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and numerous international human rights treaties binding on Canada, are absolutely essential in ensuring that individuals are able to participate effectively in the democratic life of their nation.
Governmental respect for these rights is often tested in situations involving large-scale protests during high-profile meetings of world leaders. We have seen that around the world in a growing list of notorious venues, including Seattle, Turin and Quebec City. It is playing out again this week, in fact, as G20 leaders regroup for another summit and demonstrators seek to take their message to the streets — this time in Seoul, South Korea.
Individuals rightly see these official gatherings as important occasions to publicly express their concerns about a range of issues of both domestic and global significance. Governments must both recognize and actively protect the right of individuals to assemble and express those views in a meaningful way; while also taking steps to ensure security at and around the site of the meeting.
It is over four months since the drama and spectacle of the Toronto protests dominated Canadian news at the end of June. And four months on there continue to be serious concerns that the approach taken to providing security in the lead up to, during and in the aftermath of the G8 and G20 Summits in Huntsville and Toronto failed abysmally to adequately protect these fundamental rights.
The list of concerns is a lengthy one, and only grows with time. It includes the questionable legal and other measures adopted before the summit’s opened (such as the nefarious use of the provincial Public Works Protection Act); excessive policing and a stunning number of mass arrests during the summit; detention conditions and treatment of detainees; and the charges (both how they were laid and how they were dropped), restrictive bail conditions and trials of individuals who were arrested.
Across the country, Canadians have called for a comprehensive public inquiry, so that there will be a full accounting for the human rights violations that occurred at the G8 and G20 Summits. An inquiry would offer a critical opportunity to take stock of what happened, leading to lessons and recommendations for future similar events. It would provide individuals whose rights were violated with an account of what transpired. And it would lay the ground for ensuring that there is accountability for any individuals who may have been responsible for human rights violations.
Canadians are looking to the federal and Ontario governments to work together in convening a public inquiry. Wouldn’t it be novel to see that sort of cooperation and recognition of shared responsibility and accountability? It is the only approach that makes sense. Due to the integrated nature of the security arrangements at the Summits it is vital that both levels of government be involved and collaborate closely. To date, however, both governments have declined to do so and have shown no interest and taken absolutely no steps towards convening any sort of joint, public inquiry.
At the provincial and municipal level a number of reviews have been launched, including by the Toronto Police Services Board, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, the Toronto Police Service’s Summit Management After Action Review Team, the Ontario Ombudsman and former Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry. At the federal level, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety is holding several days of hearings looking into G20 security matters. The Office of the Commissioner for Public Complaints against the RCMP has also launched a review. But the federal government itself has, to date, not announced any review process, nor has the RCMP, CSIS or other federal departments or agencies involved in the security operation.
All of these various review initiatives that are currently underway will consider specific and limited aspects of the laws or security practices associated with the two Summits and will do so in isolation from each other. Many aspects will remain unexamined, as will the interplay among the various dimensions of the security arrangements. Some of the processes are likely to prove more independent than others. Some are quite obviously not independent at all. Some will have a wide degree of public transparency; some will play out almost entirely behind closed doors. Some are more expert than others.
The bottom line is that none of these review processes provide the comprehensive, independent, expert and publicly accessible forum that is needed.
A comprehensive public inquiry is necessary, and it is possible. All we await is the political will and leadership to make it happen.
The federal and Ontario governments owe that to the thousands of individuals whose rights were violated or who felt the chill of the heavy-handed police response at the time of the Summit. They owe it to the many policing and government agencies and departments involved in the 2010 summits, who should be provided an opportunity to learn lessons from this debacle.
And they owe it to the public at large — not just in Canada, but in all G20 nations and around the world — who seek assurance that their governments are committed to upholding their crucial rights to freedom of expression and assembly, even when the timing may be inconvenient and the message uncomfortable.
Alex Neve is the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.