Canada is failing to live up to its international obligations to stop torture. Last week, the UN Committee against Torture released its concluding observations from a review of Canada’s record on preventing, punishing and remedying torture and ill-treatment. It’s a review that comes around periodically, the last one in 2005, by virtue of the fact that Canada signed on to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 25 years ago.
The committee lays out a solid framework of recommendations for action by the federal government. Key now is for the government to promptly implement those recommendations. Doing so will uphold the rights of individuals who have experienced torture or ill-treatment through the action, inaction or complicity of Canadian officials. It will also position Canada as a forceful leader in the campaign to eradicate torture worldwide.
There has been much debate recently about the validity of UN human-rights experts reviewing countries like Canada. The UN special rapporteur on the right to food faced derision from a number of cabinet ministers for carrying out a mission to Canada last month. Those criticisms seem predicated on the view that because human-rights violations are much worse elsewhere, global bodies should not waste their time looking at Canada’s record. No doubt some will raise the same objection to this report from the Committee against Torture.
But that misses the point. Human-rights norms, whether dealing with the right to food, protection against torture or any other right, are universal. No one is more or less entitled than anyone else to have their rights protected. If UN human-rights experts start drawing lines between countries, they will undermine that fundamental notion of universality.
The committee’s review does not, by any measure, suggest that there is a crisis of torture in Canadian prisons. Holding the report up against the review it has recently completed of Syria’s record leaves no doubt as to where torturers are most active.
But international obligations with respect to torture are directed not only at those who apply electric shocks and beat prisoners with cables and clubs. Countries are obliged to ensure that they do not in any way facilitate torture in other countries. They are required to make sure torturers face justice wherever they commit their crimes. They must ensure that survivors of torture receive redress. And they must put in place laws, policies and oversight processes that will prevent torture and ill-treatment from occurring in the first place. The committee finds Canada comes up short across all of those obligations.
For instance, Canada risks complicity in torture by allowing deportation to torture, denying fair process in security-certificate cases, giving the nod to prisoner transfers in war zones when there is an obvious risk of torture and, under proposed legislation currently before Parliament, restricting appeal rights for refugee claimants who fear torture in their home countries. There is clearly complicity in the ministerial direction to CSIS allowing intelligence information to be shared with other countries even when that might cause torture, and in authorizing the use of intelligence information that was likely obtained through torture in other countries. The committee has called on Canada to adopt reforms in all of these areas.
The failure to provide redress to the three men whose cases were examined in a judicial inquiry conducted by former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci attracts the committee’s attention. The inquiry found Canadian complicity in the overseas torture inflicted on Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin in Syria and Egypt. Five years later, the men are bogged down in court, trying to obtain compensation and an apology. The committee chastises Canada for failing to provide them with redress. It also notes the importance of remedying the human rights violations that the Supreme Court of Canada has twice ruled on in Omar Khadr’s case.
The committee speaks out about a range of other issues, many of which have been the subject of considerable attention in Canada. It calls for a national action plan to address violence against indigenous women, rejecting the Canadian government’s worrying assertion that this was an issue beyond the scope of the Convention. It points to the need for inquiries to look into the policing of the 2010 G20 Summit; as well as the Ontario Provincial Police’s handing of indigenous land protests at Tyendinaga, Ont., in 2007 and 2008.
It notes that the government’s 2011 “most wanted” list once again exhibited a preference to deport accused war criminals and torturers rather than actively ensure they will face justice. It highlights that state-immunity laws should not shield foreign governments from Canadian lawsuits brought by survivors of torture. It is concerned about the lack of consistent restrictive standards for Taser use. And it urges that the Arar Inquiry’s proposal for reformed oversight of national security activities in Canada be adopted.
Torture and ill-treatment continue to be a worldwide human-rights plague. Canada can be a leader in the campaign to bring it to an end by doing what the UN’s expert body on torture says we must do, and then by forcefully and consistently pressing other governments to follow suit.
Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.