A judicial inquiry headed by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci found Canadian officials responsible for the torture of Canadian citizens abroad, made possible through the sharing of information with foreign intelligence and police agencies. Iacobucci’s official report later deemed this shared information to be “inflammatory, inaccurate, and lacking investigative foundation”. (1) The UN committee has urged the Canadian government to issue an apology and compensate the three Canadians who were tortured by foreign powers.
The three torture victims—Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin—are now suing the Canadian federal government over its role in their detention abroad.
The report goes on to critique the federal government for stalling the repatriation of Canadian Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay. The Canadian Supreme Court has found Canadian officials, once again, complicit in Khadr’s ill-treatment overseas. As in the previous case, the UN committee also urges the Canadian government to extend their apologies to Khadr and compensate him for his poor treatment.
Public Safety Minister Victor Toews has been heavily criticized by the UN committee for his directive to catch suspected war criminals by posting their names and faces online. Toews’ recent move to allow the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to use information obtained through torture, whenever it deems public safety to be at risk, is also seen as highly problematic, and, moreover, contradictory to the UN Convention against Torture. The Convention requires Canada, and other participating states, to take effective measures to prevent torture within their borders.
The report also goes on to urge the Canadian government to create a policy that plainly prohibits the transfer of prisoners to countries where there are “substantial grounds” to suspect a risk of torture.
If Canada is to conform with basic UN standards, a severe examination of the Canadian prison system is also necessary. The UN report calls for Canada to “clamp down on overcrowding, reduce institutional violence and in-custody deaths, and add more mental health treatment centres” for prisoners with serious mental health issues. To this day, it is not uncommon to hold mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement, often further exacerbating their conditions. Overcrowding in federal penitentiaries has also risen to an all-time high : “We’ve actually seen the daily count exceed 15,000 offenders for the first time in Canadian history,” says Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator.
The Canadian government’s reaction to such criticism has been undeniably negative. “In times when there are serious concerns regarding human rights violations across the world, it is disappointing that the UN would spend time decrying Canada,” said Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Toews. “Canada is a nation of laws and the actions of our government uphold the highest standards in the protection of human rights.”
In an even more alarming move, Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Larry Miller is now urging the Canadian government to rethink their position in the UN. “The United Nations is an organization that was designed to work collectively to solve the major problems facing the world,” said Miller. “If this is the type of action that the UN will be taking then I think that it is high time that we review our participation in the United Nations.”
Such a conception of the UN and its duties is perhaps the most problematic aspect of Canada’s reaction to the aforementioned criticism. The UN must not only criticize, condemn, and hold responsible those countries with the most blatant of human rights violations ; the West is not unsusceptible to the same form of criticism, despite the reaction of the Canadian government. Rather, if we are to hold ourselves in such high regard, we should also hold ourselves responsible for our missteps, mistakes, and downright offenses.
Such an attitude on the part of the Canadian government has, undoubtedly, strained relations between Ottawa and the UN panel. Claudio Grossman, head of the UN Committee against Torture, has most succinctly replied to the Canadian government by simply saying “we need to treat everybody in the same way.” The UN committee has asked Canada to respond by means of an official report by June 2013. In the meantime, the Canadian government has one year to enact the more-than-20 reforms suggested by the UN report.
Ezat Mossallanejad, a policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, welcomes UN oversight and criticism. “[It is] extremely important that we subject ourselves to the same checks that apply elsewhere,” Mr. Mossallanejad said.
Nevertheless, the Canadian government’s overwhelmingly negative reception to the UN committee does not bode well for the next UN panel deadline. One week following the release of the UN report, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said that Canada has no intention of withdrawing from the UN, but will continue to voice its concerns over, what the Canadian government deems, its questionable actions.
In this instance, however, the concerns of the Canadian government are questionable, at best, and downright dismissive and irresponsible, at worst.
Canada’s record on preventing and punishing torture and ill-treatment should not go unquestioned. We must take our commitment against torture seriously, if others are to do the same.