Canada's diplomat of the year fails the torture test

Minister Chrystia Freeland outlines Canada's foreign policy objectives during a speech in the House of Commons. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

When Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister accepted her "Diplomat of the Year" award in Washington last week, her acceptance speech called for a "rules-based international order" and quoted liberally from a former U.S. president whose illegal wars in Central America during the 1980s merited World Court condemnation for multiple violations of those very rules.

Chrystia Freeland also heaped praise on the United States as a champion of freedom and democracy, even though that nation's government is the world's pre-eminent violator of the "rules-based international order," with a record of illegal wars and occupations, mass murder, coups, support for torture states, and global pillage that is without precedent in human history.

But perhaps it made sense to give a U.S. award to Freeland, because her notion of diplomacy matches the bulldozer approach that has always marked U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, this is the same diplomat of the year who defends the murderous, blood-stained sale of $15 billion in weapons to the Saudi regime and who remains silent on the use of said weapons in the genocidal war being waged in Yemen.

Freeland also has no problem with the ever-expanding mandate of her department acting as a global weapons broker, especially to the US. Indeed, the behaviour of her department mirrors changes to definitions that are militarizing the concept of international aid. She has yet to utter a word about the illegal concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, falls silent when it comes to the no-fly list preventing Canadians from getting on planes, and certainly has no issue with negotiating secret trade agreements that will benefit corporate interests and further repress rights at home and abroad.

Perhaps understandably, no award winner wishes to reflect on her rather poor record. Indeed, absent from her acceptance speech was any mention of the recently released and quite damning 2018 auditor general report on the failure to properly provide consular services to Canadians held abroad, especially those facing torture and other forms of mistreatment.

No obligation to Canadians

It may come as a surprise to Canadians travelling abroad that the provision of consular assistance when troubles arise is not mandated by legislation, but is instead a purely discretionary act, one that reflects the racist biases of many a consular affairs case officer. Thus when CSIS shares inflammatory and often incorrect information, say, about a Muslim individual travelling in the Middle East, Global Affairs is under no obligation to check on whether said individual is being tortured while detained as a result of that false information.

According to the auditor general, the failing at Global Affairs to engage with updated information those travellers most likely to face difficulties is hugely problematic, as when "Canadians are in distress abroad, they look to their government for assistance and information, and Canadian missions abroad are at the forefront of both. These findings also matter because if Canadians have access to current, accurate advice about the risks of travelling to various destinations, they may make safer choices, which could reduce demand for consular services."

The auditor general noted that the department's role in responding to an emergency actually can work, though its exercise of discretion may well depend on political will and the identity of victims. For example, when those Canadians wealthy enough to enjoy traveling in the Caribbean were stranded by Hurricane Maria, an emergency response centre with 200 staff was put together and responded within two minutes to emails and telephone enquiries from 5,000 people. Admirable as that is, it is a sign of political priorities that while vacationers facing such horrors as power outages and flight delays can access Global Affairs, those with loved ones detained illegally and tortured abroad do not receive such expedited responses. Sometimes it can take years.

Insufficient documentation

Critically, one finding of the report regarding those detained is:

"Global Affairs Canada officers did not always contact Canadians who had been arrested or detained abroad within its service standards, and case files often provided no explanation as to why no contact was made. We also found that the level of consular assistance varied from one case to another. While assistance may vary due to local conditions or judgment of the consular officer, the files did not contain sufficient documentation to explain this variation."

In addition, even when certain "service standards" were being met, it likely made no difference at all to those who were being tortured. The report continues:

"In cases involving allegations of mistreatment or torture of Canadians detained abroad, we found that consular officers took immediate action to contact detainees and make in-person visits when possible. However, we found that it took between one and six months for departmental officials to formally assess the allegations. Also, the Department did not provide sufficient training to consular staff on how to conduct prison visits."

While the auditor general says this is important because "Canadians detained abroad often require immediate contact and information from family members as well as lists of local lawyers," it is also significant because most torture occurs immediately after detention begins. If it is taking Ottawa up to six months to figure that out, the torture survivor is essentially stranded. Such abandonment of Canadians detained abroad is nothing new, and was in fact detailed in two separate judicial inquiries by Judges O'Connor and Iacobucci into the role of Canadian officials in the torture of four Canadian Muslim men in Syria and Egypt. The inquiries also found that the term abandonment might be too charitable a description; complicity in their torture would be far more accurate.

Even after the Global Affairs bureaucracy was put on notice with those inquiries (both ended well over a decade ago), it seems little has changed in the bunker on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, which sits comfortably down the street from the Saudi embassy. While Freeland jets to the U.S. to receive diplomacy awards, her people "did not have a sufficient quality control process to ensure that consular officers contacted imprisoned Canadians as required."

Nor did consular officers document their assessments of the vulnerability of imprisoned individuals in order to identify who might require more frequent contact and oversight.  In a small sampling of overseas consular cases involving torture and mistreatment (15, which indicates the numbers may well be far higher), the report also found that, while official policy is to contact the minister as soon as there is serious and credible information indicating torture, "it took between one and six months for departmental officials to formally assess the allegations.

Inexcusable delays on reporting torture

"Once officials had determined that torture or mistreatment had likely occurred, it then took a further 47 days on average to inform the Minister in writing for cases of torture, and 29 days on average to inform the Deputy Minister in writing for cases of mistreatment. In our view, taking three months or more to advise the Minister about whether a Canadian detained abroad is being or has been tortured does not meet the intent of Justice O'Connor's recommendations. We note that of the 15 cases we reviewed, 6 Canadians remained detained abroad as of March 2018."

Minister Freeland's bureaucracy was also criticized for failing to keep updated training modules and for not providing tools or sufficient guidance on how to detect incidents of torture, abuse, or mistreatment.  

While four of the cases involving Canadian involvement in torture have been "settled," Montreal's Abousfian Abdelrazik continues fighting Ottawa for justice. After being harassed by CSIS and going to Sudan, he was detained and tortured there at the behest of Canadian officials and prevented from returning home. Internal documents released under freedom of access requests indicate how hostile the foreign affairs bureaucracy was to helping return a Canadian who had been tortured abroad due to the actions of CSIS.

"We will take no extraordinary measures, such as sending in a government airplane or a private charter, to effect his [Mr. Abdelrazik's] departure from Sudan," wrote Canadian ambassador David Hutchings from Khartoum in 2004.

"Should [Abdelrazik's ex-wife] get a private plane, there is very little we could do to stop him from entering Canada. He would need an [emergency [passport] and I guess this could be refused but on what ground?" wrote a particularly nasty case officer, Odette Gaudet-Fee, who later added she wished she had a magic wand to make the case go away.

While the Federal Court found that the Canadian government violated Abdelrazik's rights in refusing to return him home (and ordered the government to comply with a repatriation order), Odette Gaudet-Fee remains a consular case officer with no punishment or consequences.

Deportations to torture

While Ottawa continues fighting the claims of those who have been tortured with Canadian complicity over the past two decades, it unceasingly continues its illegal efforts to deport people to torture. It's in violation of Freeland's international order and, in particular, the Convention Against Torture, which places an absolute prohibition on involvement in torture and returning people to torture. Despite that, Team Trudeau is trying to deport Mohamed Harkat, a refugee who has lived in this country for 22 years, to face torture in Algeria.

On October 26, 2017, Trudeau clearly stated:

"I hope people remember to demand of governments, this one and all future governments, that nobody ever has their fundamental rights violated either through inaction or deliberate action by Canadian governments. Nobody ever deserves to be tortured. And when a Canadian government is either complicit in that or was not active enough in preventing it, there needs to be a responsibility taken."

Because Trudeau is a man of sometimes-fine words that are rarely matched by equivalent and consistent action, on June 25 (the eve of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture), friends and supporters of Mohamed Harkat will gather at the prime minister's Ottawa office. They'll be calling on Trudeau to take that responsibility and end his government's efforts to deport Harkat to torture.

The basis for these efforts to torture Mr. Harkat is a medieval star chamber process known as the secret trial security certificate that still exists, and which still fails the test posed when it was first declared unconstitutional in 2007: "How can one meet a case one does not know?"

Since International Human Rights Day in 2002, when he was arrested in Ottawa without charge, without bail, and thrown into solitary confinement for over a year in conditions that were tantamount to torture, Mr. Harkat has never been allowed to see the substance of the case against him, if any exists.

The whole basis of the alleged case rests on secret hearsay allegations from an informant who failed a lie detector test and an informant who was carrying on an affair with his CSIS agent handler. It's also based on decades-old summaries of conversations, the original recordings and transcripts of which were destroyed and whose accuracy and existence is impossible to verify.

The Trudeau regime is perhaps familiar with the techniques of psychological torture, also known as no-touch torture, that were perfected in Montreal at McGill University during the 1950s. Mr. Harkat is being subjected to just such a form of psychological torture now, because every moment of every day for over 15 years, he has lived with the threat of being shipped to an Algerian torture chamber.

On June 25, supporters will demand that Trudeau end this psychological torture, which consists of keeping Mr. Harkat suspended in limbo, unable to move on with his life, because he never knows when the shock of electric prods or the snap of the whip will be his daily reality.

Such a decision to end these deportation to torture proceedings would be wholly consistent with England's Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which settled this issue in 2016 when it ordered Theresa May to stop deporting Algerian nationals at risk of torture, and the Irish Supreme Court, which last July blocked a deportation to Algeria because of the real risk of torture.

Freeland's role in this sordid affair will be to provide diplomatic cover for the Algerian regime by seeking and receiving "diplomatic assurances" that a state which tortures individuals designated threats will not torture Mr. Harkat if he is deported.

Absent major public pressure, it is unlikely that Canada's diplomat of the year will be up for the challenge of obeying the absolute prohibition on torture and the international rules-based order that she hails when accepting awards, but ignores every other day of the year.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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