Amnesty International challenges Canadian guidelines on torture-derived intelligence

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Amnesty International Canada is calling on the Conservative government to quash a controversial policy directive that allows intelligence officials to share information even when it could lead to someone being tortured.

The Canadian Press reports the respected human rights organization has written the federal public safety minister and the chief of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, saying the directive contravenes Canada's international obligations to prevent brutalization of prisoners.

The 2011 directive sets out guidelines for deciding whether information can be shared if there is a "substantial risk" that it might lead to a detainee being abused.

It also reaffirms an earlier policy that protection of life and property are the top considerations when deciding whether to use information that may have been obtained under torture.

Amnesty Canada secretary general Alex Neve wrote in the letter that when Canadian authorities shared information immediately after 9/11, it led to the torture of Arab-Canadians in Syria, including Maher Arar, sent to Syria and tortured based on information supplied to American officials by Canadian authorities.

Neve said in the letter the fact the policy may be limited to exceptional circumstances involving public safety "is no justification as international law does not allow or excuse the use of torture in any circumstances."

In an opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen, law professor Kent Roach asked whether Canada had learned nothing from the Arar affair.

The directive contains references to Canada's international and Criminal Code obligations regarding torture, said Roach, "but no substantive engagement with those obligations."

Roach went on to outline nearly a decade of what he called "Canada's descent from a leader on human rights to a nation associated with torture," not all of which can be blamed on the Conservative government and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

"Canada went offside on torture immediately after 9/11," he wrote. "The Supreme Court accepted that while deportation to torture is never justified under international law, it might in 'exceptional circumstances' be permissible under the Charter.

"In 2009, the Federal Court of Appeal refused to apply the Charter even as it assumed that Canadian Forces handed off Afghan detainees to torture. There are echoes of these regrettable decisions in the July, 2011 directive."

Two public inquiries into alleged Canadian complicity in the torture of Arar and others recommended Canadian agencies re-evaluate their policies on information sharing.

"Toews' July, 2011 directive is not what reformers had in mind," said Roach, who served on the Arar Commission's advisory committee.

The policy leaves a murky climate with dubious oversight of Canadian intelligence practices, said Roach. The watchdog committee that's supposed to oversee CSIS activities has been without a permanent head since last November, he noted.

"This is a dangerous game. We should all be concerned about the danger of complicity in the brutal practice of torture."