Lieutenant-General (retired) Roméo Dallaire is the founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.
It is close to 15 years since the July 27, 2002, firefight in Afghanistan that killed a U.S. soldier, injured another, and left 15-year-old Canadian citizen Omar Khadr badly wounded and near death.
And thus began an agonizing and Kafkaesque years-long journey of injustice, suffering and abandonment for a teenager who was a child soldier and should never have been pushed into the middle of a war in the first place.
There is much blame to go around for the harm and wrongs done to Mr. Khadr. Clearly his father should never have put him in this situation in the first place. Undeniably, U.S. officials bear the bulk of responsibility for the endless human rights violations he endured – including torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and an unfair trial – in both the notorious Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
But there is more. Canada is part of Mr. Khadr's story, very much part of that story. And it is by no means a source of pride.
Canada was complicit. The Supreme Court of Canada has made that abundantly – in fact unanimously – clear; most compellingly in its 2010 ruling condemning the willingness of Canadian intelligence officers to interview a teenager who had been subjected to days of sleep deprivation, an agonizing and insidious form of torture.
Canada was indifferent. We were – and still are – a country that has eloquently championed new global standards over the past 20 years that lay out protections for child soldiers, and we have led efforts to end the terrible worldwide practice of drawing children into war. Yet when faced with this first example of a Canadian, one of our own children, needing that help, we looked away and abandoned him.
Canada was punitive, mean and vindictive. When Mr. Khadr needed his government most, when he was lost in the abuse and lawlessness of the U.S. government's so-called war on terror detention regime, the Canadian government did not offer compassion and assistance.
Quite the contrary. For years under the previous government, all Canadians heard from the Prime Minister and many of his ministers was vitriolic and toxic rhetoric about Omar Khadr the terrorist and war criminal. No acknowledgment that those accusations were dubious at best and, more likely, without foundation. And certainly no talk of a child soldier who deserved understanding and protection.
When Mr. Khadr needed Canada's help in finding a way out of the Guantanamo nightmare, at senior political levels it was apparent that the end-game was to keep him there as long as possible.
It has, to say the least, been disheartening to hear reruns of this vilifying smear campaign in recent days. It has been particularly distressing to hear it so vociferously from the leader of the Official Opposition and a number of Conservative MPs.
They were presented with an opportunity to leave behind the ugly tone taken under the Harper government. It instead could have been and still is a moment to recognize the inspiring and resilient young man who has impressed so many Canadians, particularly in Edmonton where he lives since his release on bail more than two years ago.
It was and still is a chance to make a break with the past, recognize the harm that was done (which occurred, of course, under past Liberal and Conservative governments; this need not be partisan at all) and push reset.
We urge those who have once again rushed to demonize Mr. Khadr to think again. For he is indeed a victim of years of human rights violations for which Canada has much to account.
It is not a good thing that Omar Khadr, a 15-year-old child soldier, was in the compound that became the scene of a deadly firefight. It is reprehensible, in fact, that a teenager was in any way allowed to take part in fighting in Afghanistan. And it is certainly tragic that a U.S. soldier was killed that day, leaving behind a young family.
The way out of all of this sorrow and tragedy has been far too long in coming. It lies in the settlement that has been reached. And it rests in us, as a nation, collectively committing that, next time, we will respond with help and protection, not abandonment and insults, when faced with a child soldier in need.