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Why Has Canada Still Not Signed the UN's Optional Protocol on Torture?

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Allan Brown via Getty Images
Allan Brown via Getty Images

Canada, along with other democratic nations, is against mob rule. That's essentially what groups like ISIS and their ilk, of various faith denominations and political persuasions, represent. These groups have no time for the rule of law, human rights, or internationally recognized rules of engagement.

Their words and deeds are in direct contradiction with the principles that Canada, and its coalition partners, claim to be defending whenever launching military action to stop their spread. So why is it so difficult for Canada to ratify a document that ensures the type of horrific actions perpetrated by these groups -- including torture -- are stamped out? What is preventing Canada from fulfilling its commitment to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture?

The Optional Protocol, adopted over 12 years ago, allows for the establishment of national and international systems for inspecting detention centres where torture often takes place in a shroud of secrecy. Canada promised to ratify the protocol in 2006 and 2009 but has yet to follow through on its pledge.

We know that organizations like Amnesty International have documented widespread torture in 141 countries. We also now know that America's intelligence community has been complicit, itself using torture against foreign nationals in what represents egregious human rights violations. We know too that Canadians have been caught up in this nightmarish dragnet.

Canada's credibility is severely compromised if its government says it is committed to the rule of law on the one hand, but takes little concrete steps to promote it elsewhere. See no evil, hear no evil is a dangerous policy that endangers Canadians. Several of our citizens remain imprisoned in countries where torture is endemic. Journalist Mohamed Fahmy remains in an Egyptian cell with two other media colleagues; Bashir Makhtal is still in an Ethiopian jail after eight years of failed government promises to bring him home; and Huseyin Celil continues to serve a life sentence in a Chinese jail following a discredited court trial.

Is it possible that the Canadian government is concerned that ratifying this Optional Protocol will bring its own practices under greater scrutiny? It remains unclear exactly what federal officials and leaders knew about the torture of detained Afghans handed over by Canadian Forces to local prison personnel. Additionally, Canada's cooperation with U.S. security agencies led directly to the deportation and torture of one of its own, Maher Arar. And while Arar received an apology and compensation, there are still several Canadians with similar experiences awaiting justice.

Recommendations following public inquiries into these detentions included better oversight of Canada's security agencies. Those recommendations remain ignored. Furthermore, several ministerial directives in recent years have explicitly allowed Canada's security agencies and military to share their own information with governments that may subsequently use that information to torture people.

It is contradictory for Canada's foreign minister to say that Canada does not itself engage in torture, and yet exchange information with governments that might. Besides, it's clearly understood that such information has very questionable value.

So is it the government's poor record on these related issues that is behind the failed promise to ratify the protocol?

Or is it our national policies around solitary confinement in Canadian prisons that are giving this government pause? These practices may also come up short when measured up against international norms. Retired Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour recently called the policy on solitary confinement a "barbaric cultural practice," alluding to a similarly named bill purportedly aimed at saving women and girls.

Whatever the reasons, nothing can justify the shirking of responsibilities of such global magnitude.

If this government is truly against mobs and their undemocratic and barbaric practices, it needs to prove it, and not just on the battlefield. To quote an open letter sent to the Prime Minister by a host of civil society groups, this issue has become about leadership and political will.


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