Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

A History of Hypocrisy: Canadian Complicity Links U.S. Cold War Torture with Cases like Maher Arar's

Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

A History of Hypocrisy: Canadian Complicity Links U.S. Cold War Torture with Cases like Maher Arar's

Article excerpt


To judge by the statements of government officials, Canada is--as it should be--staunchly opposed to torture. Just over two decades ago, Canada became one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture, adopting an absolute ban on "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person." In 2005, foreign affairs minister Pierre Pettigrew restated our support: "The use of torture is unacceptable and must not go unchallenged. Canada is fully committed to the elimination of torture, to investigating suspected cases of torture, and to supporting torture victims." Canada recently also co-sponsored a resolution at the UN calling on Iran to address its continued use of torture, and our current minister of foreign affairs publicly demanded that Syria take firm measures to stop its use of torture, investigate allegations, prosecute perpetrators and provide remedies for torture victims.


Officials' noble words notwithstanding, there is much that suggests a darker reality shadowing the image of Canadian opposition to torture. In April 2006, for example, the UN Human Rights Committee stated it was "concerned by allegations that Canada may have cooperated with agencies known to resort to torture with the aim of extracting information from individuals detained in foreign countries." The committee mentioned Maher Afar in particular, but was also concerned about similar cases involving other Canadians tortured abroad. Indeed, at the later Iacobucci inquiry into three such cases, Justice Department lawyer Michael Peirce, speaking on behalf of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and the Department of Foreign Affairs, argued that signing the UN Convention against Torture does not necessarily prevent Canada from sharing intelligence with countries employing torture.

In the wake of 9/11, the Supreme Court of Canada likewise unanimously decided that there were instances when Canada could deport people to face torture. This is despite perfectly clear language in the Convention against Torture that rules out sending anyone to another state "where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture." As a result, the UN Human Rights Committee found Canada in violation of the prohibition of torture enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As Human Rights Watch's Jennifer Egsgard wrote to The Globe and Mail, that Supreme Court ruling, "humiliatingly, makes Canada the only Western nation whose laws have been interpreted to allow them to return an individual to torture"

More recently, details of Canadian complicity in Afghan abuse have been trickling out across the front pages of the Globe. After repeatedly dismissing credible allegations of torture, the Harper government was finally forced to concede that torture existed in Afghan prisons when Canadian diplomats were confronted with a man covered in fresh welts who pointed out the hidden electrical cable and rubber hose secret police had used to beat him. He had been captured by Canadian forces, who routinely hand detainees over to Afghan authorities. A couple of weeks later, it was revealed that the Canadian government knew of--but tried for months to keep secret--allegations that the governor of Kandahar was personally involved in the torture of at least one detainee. Despite pledging to cooperate, the federal government has likewise refused to release uncensored documents to the Military Police Complaints Commission's investigation of Afghan detainee transfers. And when the MPCC decided to hold a public interest hearing to gain access, the Tories moved to quash the inquiry.

All of this has unfolded under the banner of America's so-called war on terror. "Since 9/11," the University of Ottawa's Peter Jones reminded us in the Ottawa Citizen last October, "the Bush administration has systematically redefined torture to provide the CIA and other U. …

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