08/16/2011 12:43 EDT | Updated 10/16/2011 05:12 EDT

Jason Kenney vs. Amnesty International: When the Critics Hit Home

CP File

Jason Kenney can't take constructive criticism. That is the greatest lesson to be drawn from the Immigration Minister's recent tit-for-tat with Amnesty International over Canada's move to deport 30 alleged war criminals from Canada illegally.

Responding to an open letter, the Canadian branch of the international human rights NGO penned to Minister Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Kenney implied that Amnesty had no right to criticize Canada when it comes to human rights.

In his reply to Amnesty, Minister Kenney seemingly sarcastically suggested that if Amnesty was now "(mustering) its formidable powers of suasion" towards Canada's immigration system, "the world's most truculent regimes have discharged their last political prisoners and advocates of democracy are free to march in the streets of Tehran and Pyongyang." He later charged that Amnesty's voice and scarce resources were "misapplied" by its decision to criticize (his term, not mine) the Canadian immigration and refugee system.

Minister Kenney is mistaken, however, on all accounts.

The presence of political prisoners in Syria and the fact that failed refugee claimants to Canada have access to our courts does not mean that Amnesty International, or any NGO for that matter, is barred from expressing its concerns towards Canadian acts.

Canada is not perfect, and we can always do better. Suggesting that the existence of worse offenders precludes a rights organization from questioning the actions of Canadian officials, or other 'lesser offending nations,' is tacit acknowledgement of belief that there should be a double standard in international human rights. Our smaller violations can slide so long as your gross violations continue.

Such an argument is wholly untenable. Does the U.S. get a free ride on Guantanamo? Should our police forces forgo investigating robberies because they are not as serious as murders?

And let's get something else straight. Amnesty's expression of concern (my term, not Minister Kenney's) that Canada might be aiding impunity by merely displacing these individuals without any assurance that they will be brought to justice is not unfounded or without merit. Canada was one of the forces behind the creation of the International Criminal Court, and this present government has not tried to hide its penchant for locking people up for crimes they have committed.

So why then, if we have 30 war criminals in our midst, are we putting them on a plane and sending them home where, for all intents and purposes, they might continue what they started? Where is our commitment to justice in that?

Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to ensure that Canada is not removing individuals to places where they face a risk of torture, the prohibition of doing so being a peremptory norm of international law. Any observer of Canada's security certificate cases knows that the Canadian government has in the past attempted to justify deporting someone where he faced a real risk of torture, only to be stopped by the courts.

There are other concerns that Amnesty raises, but it is not my intention to pick apart the merits of each substantive claim. It should also be pointed out that in his response, between the jibes and sarcasm, Minister Kenney does present substantive rebuttals, such as the burden on the Canadian justice system and ability for the individuals to challenge their deportation before the courts, indicating that there are two legitimate positions to this debate.

Labeling someone a war criminal is serious business. It's even more seriousness when the legal standard used to reach that conclusion is "reasonable grounds to believe." The conclusion that these individuals are war criminals was not concluded "beyond a reasonable doubt" like in criminal law, or even on a "balance of probabilities" like in civil cases. The immigration threshold is as low as you can get in law, but it sticks nonetheless. There is cause for scrutiny.

Amnesty International does not side with war criminals. Asserting that its compassion is misplaced on perpetrators over victims would be, to borrow a word from Minister Kenney, "poppycock".

We do have a generous and fair immigration system. But it does make mistakes and innocent people get hurt. So we need individuals and groups, like Amnesty, to hold us accountable to make sure that we continue to maintain the excellence Canadians have come to expect.

So instead of getting up in arms because the Canadian branch of an international rights organization chose to write an open letter questioning the actions of the Canadian government, a more tempered response is warranted in the future. A willingness to engage in substantive dialogue does not signify failure on the part of our government. Instead, it would be an affirmation of our commitment to safeguarding human rights, equity and justice.

Canada is not North Korea, Syria, Iran or Saudi Arabia. But neither is it above the law, or reproach. And if Jason Kenney, a skilled and impressive politician, can multitask, so can Amnesty.