As media reports broke that Omar Khadr was finally being flown back to Canada via US military transport and driven to Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ontario (near Kingston) – now confirmed by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews – commentators were already asking how the case will be remembered. While extremely welcome and long overdue, repatriation is simply the start of a new chapter in this decade old saga.
Up until now, many of us expected the battle around Omar Khadr’s transfer to be settled in the Canadian courts. While today’s transfer pre-empts yet another inevitable negative decision – the courts have consistently ruled against the government over the years – Canada is not off the hook. An explanation for the long delay is owed not just to Omar Khadr, but to the Canadian public.
This case has always been about the fundamental injustice of Guantanamo Bay and the decision to repeatedly interrogate and subject a child combatant to an unfair trial by military commission that failed to meet international standards for fair trials. No one should have been transferred to a detention facility operating outside the rule of law, let alone the dozens of children aged 11-17 who ended up there including, of course, Omar Khadr. All of this happened in 2002 just after the international community had embraced a landmark agreement on child soldiers – an initiative led by none other than Canada. Instead of demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration, they faced torture and ill-treatment, unlawful detention and the hopelessness of indefinite legal limbo.
For better or worse, the 2010 plea agreement opened the door to Omar Khadr’s case finally being moved out of Guantanamo and into the Canadian system. It is hoped that a degree of fairness will finally surround this case – even the Minister conceded that the next steps, including the prospect of parole, should be in the hands of the Correctional Service of Canada and not the realm of politics.
The courts, UN bodies and numerous NGOs including Amnesty International have repeatedly pointed to the outstanding human rights violations yet to be remedied in Omar Khadr’s case. The allegations of torture and ill-treatment are credible and troubling, and must finally be investigated. Canadian officials were also found to have violated Omar Khadr’s Charter rights when they continued to interrogate him in Guantanamo despite the fact that his detention and treatment violated international standards. His status as a child combatant – and the obligations that follow from that – also continue to go unacknowledged.
Discussions of remedy often zero in on matters of financial compensation and apologies. But a vital part of the picture is also the need to ensure non-repetition. For far too long, Canada has been inconsistent in its approach to Canadians detained abroad facing serious human rights violations. Omar Khadr’s case stands out as one of the most spectacular failures to stand up for a citizen. We must work towards a system where citizens receive equal protection and the government pursues opportunities for effective engagement in a timely way. A citizen should not have to go to court to force action in cases where the human rights violations are as blatant as they are in a case like Omar Khadr.
While the government has finally taken a step in the right direction, Amnesty International will continue to follow the case closely.