OTTAWA - Canada fully expected the intense grilling it got from a United Nations committee earlier this year about its international obligations to shun torture and other cruel treatment, newly released briefing memos show.
Officials quietly advised Justice Minister Rob Nicholson the committee would "likely press Canada" on issues ranging from prison overcrowding and police use of force during demonstrations to murdered aboriginal women and redress for people subjected to torture abroad.
The federal government was also prepared to defend its refusal to arrest former U.S. leaders George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for alleged war crimes perpetrated during the American pursuit of terrorism suspects.
In late May, a delegation presented Canada's latest report on compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture.
Leading up to the appearance, officials provided the minister with copies of numerous talking points "for the delegation to use as needed to respond to the committee's questions in a manner that defends Canada's interests," says a memo to Nicholson released under the Access to Information Act.
"Canada's appearance may attract some media attention since organizations such as Amnesty International Canada will be present."
The Foreign Affairs Department was co-ordinating preparation of "communications products" on behalf of Justice, Public Safety, and Citizenship and Immigration, the memo noted.
The dozens of pages of internal memos reveal the extent to which Canada was prepared to defend its human rights record at the UN.
Canadian advisers noted that civil society groups occasionally call for prosecution of foreign public officials — including Bush and Cheney, leaders of the fight against terrorism — for actions during their time in office.
Investigations involving allegations of war crimes are complex, lengthy and resource intensive, says a briefing note on the former U.S. leaders.
"To ensure the most efficient use of resources, Canada prioritizes suspects who reside in Canada."
All war crimes cases require the consent of the federal attorney general before charges can be laid, the note adds. "Therefore, from a practical perspective, the police consult with the appropriate authorities prior to an individual's arrest."
The note advised that "if pressed" for information on Bush and Cheney, officials should tell the UN committee, "Generally speaking, Canada does not address specific criminal complaints in a public forum."
The notes also show Canada was concerned the case of Mahmoud Jaballah — currently facing deportation under a national security certificate — might come up during discussion of whether Canada would ever return someone to a country where they faced torture.
Canada acknowledged a key Supreme Court ruling left open "the theoretical possibility of removal to a risk of torture" in cases where the person's continued presence in Canada was outweighed by the threat they posed to Canadian security. But it added Canada had never deported anyone in a case where officials had concluded the person faced a substantial risk of abuse.
In its June report on the presentation, the UN committee expressed concern that Canadian law could allow the return of a persecuted individual to their tormentors.
The report also took issue with several other aspects of Canada's legal regime, including planned measures affecting refugee claimants and the continuing use of national security certificates to deport non-citizens.
In addition, it chastised Canada over a ministerial direction to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service allowing the spy agency, in some cases, to use information that may have been derived through torture, or to share information even if it might lead to abuse.
The committee recommended the federal government compensate three Arab-Canadians — Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El-Maati and Muayed Nureddin — who were tortured in Syria, in part due to lapses by Canadian agencies.
It also asked Canada to provide follow-up answers to key concerns and recommendations by June 1 next year.