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Although the Harper government seems to believe it has successfully buried the mountain of evidence demonstrating Canada’s long-term, large-scale systemic complicity in illegal Afghan detainee torture and the CIA’s horrific worldwide “extraordinary rendition” scheme, this ghost may soon rise again to haunt all of Canada in a big way. 

The UN Committee against Torture (UN CAT) last June followed its legal mandate to review Canada’s compliance with Geneva Convention obligations prohibiting detainee torture and complicity in detainee torture. The ensuing committee report took clear aim at Canada’s failures, specifically finding it to be “complicit in torture.”

Now the Geneva committee wants some answers, setting a June 1 deadline this year for a response from Canada.

We do not know if the government submitted a response as requested by the committee, at least in part because the mainstream media in Canada apparently considers this situation to be a non-event and has been unwilling to provide coverage. The UN CAT concluded its current session May 31 and will reconvene October 28; presumably it will turn its attention to Canada in this next session.

The UN CAT also wants to know if Canada is following its recommendation to “adopt a policy for future military operations which clearly prohibits the prisoner transfers to another country when there are substantial grounds for believing that he or she would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” And to find out if Canada has adopted policies aimed at “prosecuting suspects and sanctioning perpetrators of torture or ill-treatment.”

Harper government shows contempt for UN

Following last June’s UN CAT report, the Harper government immediately showed open contempt by publicly criticizing the widely esteemed committee in the international media for pointing out Canada’s deficiencies. 

And it has since ignored the committee’s recommendations, which would bring Canada into compliance with international law, by once again having an official policy in Afghanistan of transferring detainees to the United States — a nation known to torture. 

Just three months after the committee’s report, the Harper government quietly, by way of ministerial directive, gave Canada’s national police force and the federal border agency the authority to use and share 
information that was likely extracted through torture. The government soon followed up in November with the introduction of Bill C-42, which forbids RCMP members from questioning the use of illegal torture-tainted evidence, under the threat of dismissal.

And, as far as we know, the Harper government remains steadfast in its position that self-confessed torturers such as former president George W. Bush will be allowed to freely enter and roam about the nation with complete government protection, despite Canada’s international obligation to bar entry or prosecute.

Will the government even bother to defend itself? 

Human rights advocates and those concerned with the rule of law will be extremely interested in Canada’s upcoming response to UN CAT. But given the current government’s track record on accountability to UN agencies, it would not be much of a surprise if Canada does not even bother to defend itself with a response, particularly since no remedies have been publicly undertaken and the situation has actually worsened.

But this UN committee is not Canada’s only problem. Canada’s active role in support of the extraordinary rendition program was documented in 2009 by UN Special Rapporteur Martin Scheinen in a report to the UN General Assembly. 

While the practice of extraordinary rendition was put in place by the U.S., it was only possible through collaboration from other countries, the report says. It identifies Canada as prominent among the countries that provided “intelligence or have conducted the initial seizure of an individual before he was transferred to (mostly unacknowledged) detention centres in Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Thailand, Uzbekistan … or to one of the CIA covert detention centres, often referred to as ‘black sites'”.

The report continues: “The active or passive participation by states in the interrogation of persons held by another state constitutes an internationally wrongful act if the state knew or ought to have known that the person was facing a real risk of torture or other prohibited treatment.”

The problem for Canada, and therefore for Canadians, is that there are officials who actually enforce obligations under international law: The International Criminal Court (ICC), which has publicly stated several times in recent years that it is looking into the possibility of a formal investigation into Canada’s specific role in detainee torture, and into NATO’s involvement in the torture of Afghan detainees.

Failure to meaningfully indicate to international authorities that Canada is accountable and will no longer be complicit in torture could be the Harper government’s fatal mistake which resurrects Canada’s infamous detainee torture scandal.

John McNamer is an independent human rights activist and journalist. A Canadian citizen, he has worked in the past as a researcher and writer for Lawyers Against the War (LAW). He was awarded the Bronze Star
Medal for service with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam. He can be contacted by e-mail: jhnmcnamer[at]yahoo[dot]ca 

Image: Lance Page/