Published on
The Toronto Star

Repatriating Khadr: Justice and Politics

Irwin Cotler

In marked contrast to the quick action being taken south of the border on Guantanamo Bay, the new parliamentary session has only brought more of the same when it comes to the case of Omar Khadr, the lone Western citizen remaining imprisoned at the discredited facility.

During a recent question period, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon was asked how the Canadian government could continue to stand idly by while everything it always held to be true about this case - such as the fairness of the process and the support of the United States government - was crumbling. His response was steadfast, if not original: three times he repeated that the government's position remained "unchanged."

"Mr. Khadr was and is still charged with very serious crimes," Cannon said. "The American authorities will be reviewing his case. Clearly, the wisest course of action is to wait for those authorities to make their decision."

Indeed, the Conservative government appears content to act as if nothing has changed - though everything has. In November, when I and other Members of Parliament asked the foreign affairs minister what the government was doing, he called action "premature" and contended that "there is a judicial system that is ongoing." But now that the military commission under which Khadr was charged has been suspended and the judicial system has stopped - all by order of President Barack Obama - it seems to have made little difference.

The Conservative wait-and-see government could stand to learn a few lessons from Obama, who acted almost immediately upon being sworn in to ban torture and close Guantanamo Bay within a year.

There is no room for equivocation on this issue. Either the Conservative government appreciates that rights have been denied through the Guantanamo system of detention and military commissions - as both the United States Supreme Court and our own Canadian Supreme Court have declared - or it is standing alone in the international community while abandoning its citizen.


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It appears that the Khadr case is characterized by a growing set of facts that the Conservative government would prefer to ignore. Whether or not he is charged with a serious crime, Khadr is still a Canadian citizen entitled to due process of law, which has been denied him. Whether or not he was recruited into a recognized army, Khadr was still a child soldier when he was captured (contrary to what Prime Minister Stephen Harper alleged in an interview), and is entitled to protection under international humanitarian law. And whether or not our government realizes it, the era of acquiescing in arbitrary detention, prisoner mistreatment and human rights abuse is finally coming to a close.

All these facts are important. While repatriating Khadr was always the responsible thing to do, it is now the political thing to do as well. Our government may prefer to abdicate responsibility and take its cues from our neighbour, but few cues will be more overt than the executive order closing Guantanamo Bay.

If our Prime Minister wants to help out the Obama administration - while at the same time protecting Canadian security and the rights of Canadian citizens - then bringing Khadr home is the easy choice. The tarnish of Guantanamo makes justice in Canada the only reasonable option from all perspectives. Indeed, while our government has been dragging its feet on the case of its own national, European governments have been discussing the possibility of accepting detainees who have absolutely no connection to their countries as a show of support and solidarity with America.

The Conservative government's vehemence on the Khadr case, to this point, has turned a human rights issue into a partisan issue - an issue of justice into an issue of politics. Yet with Obama's commitment to the rule of law, Harper can still think politically and do the right thing.

It's time that he did.

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