Many Canadians were outraged this week to learn that the Government of Canada, according to reports, was on the verge of settling a lawsuit with Omar Khadr, a one-time child soldier and Guantanamo prisoner, that would see the federal government pay out $10 million and offer Khadr an official apology.
Canadians certainly should be outraged — although perhaps not for the reasons they think.
And, no, we’re not asking for sympathy for Khadr. Whether or not his case evokes sympathy for him personally is quite beside the point. Instead, the Khadr case illustrates well what happens when governments don’t follow their own basic rules.
One of those rules is that we don’t torture prisoners, regardless of what their alleged offense happens to be. We also don’t aid and abet those who would mistreat our citizens, even if it happens to be an ally doing the mistreating.
In the case of Khadr, that’s what happened. Khadr was only 15 when he was captured by U.S. forces on the battlefield in Afghanistan — although not before he allegedly had thrown a grenade and killed an American medic. (It should be noted, of course, that his later ‘confession’ to this act came under extreme duress; had this case been brought before a judge here or in any conventional Western courtroom rather than a U.S. military tribunal, it undoubtedly would have been thrown out in short order.)
Canadian officials interrogated Khadr in 2003 and 2004, after Khadr, a minor at the time, had been subjected to sleep depravation; they then turned their findings over the U.S. authorities. This tactic would never, ever fly on Canadian soil; the Supreme Court of Canada said as much in a 2010 decision, where it ruled Khadr’s constitutional rights had been violated.
Whether or not you happen to think Khadr is guilty or worthy of sympathy isn’t really the issue — and it’s clear there isn’t much sympathy for Khadr in many circles. That’s certainly fair enough. But the issue is the rule of law. Governments have laws to which they must adhere; when they don’t, they end up (among other things) having to pay out embarrassing settlements.
In issues of justice, process matters. We’re reminded of criminal cases where charges are thrown out on a technicality. These instances are indeed infuriating — but if the state in not required to abide its own laws in enforcing justice, including the rights of the accused, then the power of the state is boundless; the rights of citizens are no longer worth the paper on which they’re written.
So if there’s anger that the government is in a position where it might have to pay millions of dollars in compensation to citizen to which it had a duty — that duty being not to be party to that citizen’s illegal mistreatment abroad — it’s a problem of the government’s own making. And if there’s anger that this case has come to this point, we should be reminded that it need not have evolved this way. The Canadian government had ample opportunity to choose a lawful, rather than politically expedient, course.
Now the ugly bill for that failure to do the lawful thing is coming due. We should be angry.