OTTAWA - A major alliance that promotes European security has criticized Canada for opening the door to the use of information that may have been extracted through torture.
Newly disclosed briefing notes and correspondence show the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe wrote to Canada's representative to the organization to express concerns about the policy.
Canada belongs to the 57-member alliance, which bills itself as the world's largest regional security organization, working for peace, democracy and stability for more than a billion people.
The Canadian government responded to the February 2012 letter with a staunch defence of its information-sharing policy as a principled response to terrorism and other security threats.
The OSCE's concerns came to light through heavily censored records released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Though the organization's letter to Canada's then-ambassador to the OSCE is blacked out, a spokesman for the Vienna-based agency's human rights office spelled out its concerns to the news agency. In addition, the office of the foreign affairs minister made a copy of its return correspondence available.
The OSCE quietly expressed its objections to Canada over revelations the government had directed Canada's spy agency to use information that may have been gleaned through torture in cases where public safety is at risk.
The government once insisted the Canadian Security Intelligence Service would toss out such information, but secretly issued a directive in December 2010 telling the spy agency to act on it to protect lives or property.
The directive said that in "exceptional circumstances" where there is a threat to human life or public safety, urgency may require CSIS to "share the most complete information available at the time with relevant authorities, including information based on intelligence provided by foreign agencies that may have been derived from the use of torture or mistreatment."
Amnesty International Canada and the official Opposition publicly urged the Conservatives early last year to impose a total ban on material derived from abuse, saying there can be no exceptions when it comes to torture.
Janez Lenarcic, director of OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, wrote to the Canadian OSCE delegation to express concerns such a directive "would undermine the implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments and international human rights standards — in particular the absolute prohibition of torture and other forms of ill-treatment," said Thomas Rymer, a spokesman for the office.
Canada's then-ambassador to the OSCE, Fredericka Gregory, forwarded the letter to Ottawa, and the matter eventually landed on the desk of Lynda Clairmont, senior assistant deputy minister for national security in the Public Safety Department.
In preparing a response, Public Safety consulted CSIS, the Canada Border Services Agency and Foreign Affairs.
The late May 2012 reply to Lenarcic, signed by Gregory, pointed out that the 2010 directive had been expanded, giving CSIS the go-ahead to provide information to foreign agencies even when there is a "substantial risk" it will lead to torture.
The July 2011 directive, attached to Gregory's letter, says Canada "does not condone the use of torture" and is party to international agreements that prohibit torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
It adds that "terrorism is the top national security priority" of the government and it is essential that CSIS maintain strong relationships with foreign entities and share information with them on both a routine and urgent basis.
Gregory noted the latest directive requires the involvement of senior officials in decisions about whether to share information "as the risk of mistreatment increases."
"This is a principled and proportionate response to terrorism and other threats to national security, while at the same time promoting and upholding the values Canada seeks to protect," Gregory wrote.
A federal commission of inquiry into the case of Ottawa telecommunications engineer Maher Arar recommended in 2006 that information never be provided to a foreign country where there is a credible risk that it will cause or contribute to the use of torture.
Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was detained in New York in September 2002 and shipped overseas soon after by U.S. authorities — winding up in a dungeon-like Damascus prison cell. Under torture, he gave false confessions to Syrian military intelligence officers about involvement with al-Qaida.
Canada's current approach to information sharing appears squarely at odds with the European alliance's position on fighting extremism.
"As underlined in the OSCE commitments, the OSCE participating states have pledged to respect and protect human rights in all their measures and practices to counter-terrorism," Rymer said in an email.
The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights stands ready to assist members, including Canada, in "implementing their commitments on the protection of human rights in the anti-terrorism context," he said.
Rymer added that the OSCE "looks forward to continuing the dialogue with Canada on these matters."