Security reform should protect our freedom

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, John Packer, Director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa,and Roch Tassé, National Coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.

A timely conference on Wednesday reminded us that as debate swirls about new national security measures in Canada, vital lessons have emerged over the past decade about protecting human rights.

In the wake of last week’s attack in Ottawa the government is rolling out proposed changes to Canada’s security laws and practices. We don’t yet know the full extent.

On Wednesday, a remarkable group of judges, lawyers, journalists, activists, former diplomats, academics and community leaders came together in Ottawa. We were joined by individuals whose lives have been turned upside down by human rights violations associated with national security investigations, charges, arrest and imprisonment.

The conference marked the decade since the ground-breaking judicial inquiry into the shocking treatment of Canadian citizen Maher Arar was established in 2004. That inquiry found that Canadian actions, negligence and dysfunction had set Maher Arar up for grave human rights violations, including torture, in Syria.

When it comes to security and human rights this has been an impressive decade for Canadian judges.

Yesterday’s conference featured a panel made up of Dennis O’Connor, the retired Ontario Court of Appeal Justice who headed the Arar Inquiry, alongside two retired Supreme Court of Canada Justices, Frank Iacobucci who conducted an inquiry into the overseas torture of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin, and John Major, who presided over the inquiry into the Air India terrorist bombing.

Among them, those three senior judges spent eight years investigating, reaching findings and issuing prudent recommendations regarding sensitive aspects of national security in Canada.

They are not alone. The past decade has seen numerous court rulings upholding key human rights principles in the midst of national security secrecy and global cooperation.

The Supreme Court ventured into the world of Guantánamo Bay, twice, with its Omar Khadr rulings. The Court also grappled with the controversial immigration security certificate system twice, overthrowing it in the 2007 Charkaoui case and upholding a revised form in the 2014 Harkat ruling.

The Federal Court slammed the government for withholding a passport from a Canadian citizen and torture victim, stranded abroad and facing vague security-related accusations, in the 2009 Abdelrazik judgment.

And on goes the list.

What came through loud and clear at yesterday’s conference, though, was that strong findings, important recommendations and precedent-setting rulings from judges have been matched by almost equal failure of government to comply and implement.

Maher Arar received compensation and an apology. But a proposal for strengthened national security oversight has been ignored for eight years. And a recommendation that Canada never share information with a foreign government if it is likely to cause torture has been deliberately flouted with a ministerial direction allowing precisely that.

The response to the Iacobucci Inquiry has been dismal. A lengthy list of wrongdoing, elaborated by a senior judge, has been disregarded. Three men who experienced torture abroad, tolerated and even facilitated by Canada, are lost in a contentious lawsuit instead.

The risk to all our fundamental freedoms – to our democracy – is real.

It is not enough simply to assert that Canada’s national security practices will take account of human rights. It needs concrete and precise action.

There must be redress for the many individuals who have suffered security-related human rights violations, as confirmed by some of Canada’s most senior judges.

And very significantly, review and oversight of agencies and departments involved in national security must be strengthened. The urgency of doing so has mounted since Justice O’Connor’s 2006 proposed comprehensive and integrated model.

It would be perilous to move ahead with another round of national security law reform unless past human rights violations are remedied and Canada’s national security review and oversight gap is – finally – addressed. Otherwise, what exactly are we protecting?

Originally publised in the Ottawa Citizen.