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Maher Arar reacts during a news conference in Ottawa on the day in 2007 that Canada formally apologized to him and offered $10-million in compensation. Mr. Arar was deported to Syria by the United States after the RCMP mistakenly labelled him an Islamic extremist. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Maher Arar reacts during a news conference in Ottawa on the day in 2007 that Canada formally apologized to him and offered $10-million in compensation. Mr. Arar was deported to Syria by the United States after the RCMP mistakenly labelled him an Islamic extremist. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Globe editorial

The West gave torture a helping hand Add to ...

The United States could not have set up a system of secret foreign jails and extraordinary rendition after Sept. 11, 2001, without the cooperation of foreign countries. Fifty-four countries, including Canada, helped. No region of the world stayed aloof. Twenty-five countries in Europe, 14 in Asia and 13 in Africa helped. Australia helped. And that worldwide help undermined the international norm against torture, says a new report by a non-profit group based in New York, the Open Justice Society Initiative.

The report, Globalizing Torture, shows that when push came to shove, the West’s prohibitions against torture were sometmes treated as so much flotsam. In the realpolitick of the era, countries leant airspace and refuelling stops for CIA planes – Canada did that, too – let the CIA run jails on their territory and looked the other way as people disappeared. Sometimes those people turned up in Egypt or Syria and were tortured. Sometimes, as in the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, they gave out false information. The current U.S. film Zero Dark Thirty has people asking whether torture may have helped lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden. It’s worth remembering that Mr. al-Libi, under Egyptian torture, falsely linked Iraq to chemical weapons trade with al-Qaeda. Colin Powell cited this information at the United Nations as a justification for the Iraq war.

Canada is the only country that apologized to an individual caught up in the U.S. practice of extraordinary rendition (the extra-legal transfer of suspects between countries), the report says. Maher Arar of Ottawa was shipped off to Syrian torture by the U.S. after Canada wrongly labelled him a suspected terrorist. A 2 1/2-year judicial inquiry followed, providing Canada a national soul-searching. We were right to beat ourselves up. It’s disconcerting to find we were the only ones who did.

The Open Justice Society Initiative is a program of the Open Society Foundations, a charity started by investor George Soros to help formerly Communist countries embrace the rule of law. It urges the U.S. and other countries to “own up” to what they did. The information will come out sooner or later, the report says, because court challenges are underway against officials in the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Romania and others.

Canada publicly repudiated its actions in the Maher Arar affair, but it seems unlikely others will follow, unless they are forced to. The result is that it is more difficult for the West to make the argument that torture is wrong.

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