Amanda Ghahremani and Matt Eisenbrandt are former legal directors of the Canadian Centre for International Justice.
Bill Horace should have faced his alleged victims in a courtroom, in what could have been a landmark war crimes trial in Canada. Instead, he was gunned down in London, Ont., last month.
Mr. Horace, whom witnesses say was a sadistic military commander during Liberia’s civil war, left a long list of people who deserved justice but received nothing in his wake. The government of Canada had the opportunity to deliver accountability by prosecuting Mr. Horace but failed to act and, in turn, failed these people. We know this to be true, because we served the government a mountain of evidence against Mr. Horace on a silver platter.
In March, 2010, journalist Michael Petrou broke the story about Mr. Horace’s alleged atrocities in Liberia – including torture, rape, and crucifixions – and his location in Ontario. The Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ), then an Ottawa-based human-rights organization, used Mr. Petrou’s reporting to launch its own investigation. Matt Eisenbrandt, co-author of this column and a former legal director of the CCIJ, joined forces with two experts on the Liberian war: Swiss lawyer Alain Werner, who had worked on the prosecution of Charles Taylor in The Hague, and Liberian journalist Hassan Bility, who was himself a survivor of torture at the hands of Mr. Taylor’s men.
During investigations in Liberia in 2011 and 2012, they amassed numerous survivor and witness accounts detailing the brutality of Mr. Horace’s alleged conduct. In 2012, Mr. Eisenbrandt presented all of this evidence in a detailed dossier to the Canadian government’s Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Program, on the condition that it be used to criminally prosecute Mr. Horace in Canada, and not merely to deport him to Liberia where he would likely go free.
Years passed with no official confirmation that the government was pursuing a serious criminal investigation, despite having clear authority under Canadian law to do so. In the meantime, Mr. Bility and Mr. Werner established organizations in Liberia and Europe to document war-related crimes committed in West Africa in the 1990s, leading to arrests and prosecutions in several countries. In Canada, however, the CCIJ eventually learned that the government was only pursuing a deportation case against Mr. Horace. This was not what survivors and witnesses had envisioned when sharing their harrowing testimonies.
Deportation is not accountability. Sending perpetrators back to live freely among the people they tortured is a travesty of justice. In the end, a different type of brutality knocked on Mr. Horace’s own door, extinguishing his life along with all of the efforts to hold him accountable.
Failing to prosecute Mr. Horace was a missed opportunity for Canada. In 20 years, the War Crimes Program has only prosecuted two individuals, the last ending in acquittal in 2013. Instead, the Canadian policy to “deny safe haven” to war criminals has been interpreted as a licence to strip them of citizenship or residency and deport them back to their country of origin, where there is often complete impunity. This strategy has been touted as cost-efficient, but it is by no means effective if the goal is real accountability.
The purpose of the War Crimes Program, born out of a recognized importance to pursue Nazis and modern perpetrators such as Rwandan genocidaires, is to carry out Canada’s international obligation to end impunity and prevent the recurrence of these crimes. However, the Canadian government has provided little financial support to the program, whose budget has remained meagre since it was established in 1998. Regrettably, this has created a Catch-22 wherein a lack of funding prevents prosecutions, and the lack of prosecutions prevents more funding.
Even if these prosecutions are complicated and expensive, we cannot put a price on upholding Canada’s commitment to humanity. Prosecuting war criminals creates a lasting public record of their crimes, one impermeable to revisionist history. This legal record contributes to the long-term entrenchment of human-rights norms.
In limited and imperfect ways, the criminal process also provides a forum for survivors to participate and share their experiences, enabling them to become active participants in their quest for justice. Conversely, deporting war criminals to countries that have no intention of prosecuting them puts survivors and witnesses in danger, risks their retraumatization, and could even be a destabilizing force in fragile, post-conflict states.
Canada calls itself a global leader in international justice but has failed to live up to this mantle, which has not gone unnoticed. The failure to prosecute Bill Horace is not necessarily an indictment of the committed lawyers and investigators at the War Crimes Program, but of Canada’s waning interest in international accountability.
The government recently joined 66 other members of the International Criminal Court to denounce U.S. sanctions against the Court’s staff. In that statement, they reaffirmed their position that “national authorities have the primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute [atrocity] crimes.”
Canada has fallen short of this responsibility. If our government truly believes in multilateralism and the global project of international justice, then we must invest in it here at home.
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