CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online
Ten years after Arar inquiry, security reform in the spotlight
At a conference hosted by the University of Ottawa last month, human rights activist Monia Mazigh received a standing ovation for her heartfelt call to action on the 10th anniversary of a public inquiry into the illegal rendition and torture of her husband, Maher Arar.
Arar, an Ottawa engineer, was seized by US authorities in the aftermath of 9/11 and deported to Syria on the basis of flawed intelligence from the RCMP. His plight was subsequently ignored by the Canadian government and he endured months of prison and torture, before finally being released amid mounting public pressure and an embarrassing lack of evidence.
The role of government and police in this and similar cases would be the subject of ground-breaking inquiries and formal investigations over the following years, eventually making legal history and generating a series of recommendations about aspects of national security in Canada. Reports from the inquiries underline above all a need for better oversight of Canadian security and intelligence services, as well as for greater care to be taken when sharing information with foreign agencies.
The fact that these recommendations have for the most part been shelved by the Harper government, while harassment and surveillance of Canadians continue to occur in the name of “security,” emerged with a new urgency at the Arar+10 conference on Oct. 29.
Co-sponsored by the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and Amnesty International, with support from CAUT, the conference brought together judges, lawyers, journalists, activists, former diplomats, academics and community leaders, who offered a wide variety of perspectives on lessons learned from the Arar affair and parallel instances of mistreatment by the Canadian security apparatus.
Strong words were used by a number of panelists, including respected senior judges and former inquiry commissioners, who described the government’s political motivations for not implementing key recommendations. The capacity audience also heard first-hand accounts from those whose personal lives and families have suffered in consequence, including Sophie Harkat and Abdullah Almalki as well as Monia Mazigh.
Their testimony, along with insights from professional advocates working on similar cases, pointedly revealed how police and security organizations selectively use unfair methods against members of targeted communities in their devastating and often secretive treatment of Canadian citizens. Those targeted are further threatened by recently-introduced legislative changes that can impose extraordinary limitations on their rights to fair process, while making no provision for effective oversight of the agencies whose powers have been expanded. Together, these factors have had a serious negative impact on the Muslim-Canadian community in particular, with wide-spread loss of trust and confidence as a result.
Panelists also reflected on security policy more broadly, especially in the wake of the Oct. 22 attack in Ottawa. Observing that security measures too often focus attention and resources on ill-conceived reactions to events, rather than on well-researched proactive means to prevent violent incidents, participants in a final session moderated by former Solicitor General Warren Allmand agreed that university based research should be a key element of developing more effective security laws based on long-term social realities.
It is crucial that lessons be learned from individuals whose lives have been turned upside down by human rights violations associated with national security investigations, charges, arrest and imprisonment. As Mazigh pointed out in her closing remarks with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, “Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.”