Can Canada strike proper balance on rights and security?

As Canada reviews its national security policy, it’s time to raise issues that have been neglected or bungled for too long.

By: Amira Elghawaby | Toronto Star
April 26, 2016

Public safety is paramount to living in a functioning democracy. It’s why governments around the world are committed to ensuring their citizens are protected from those who would do them harm.

However, in the frightening days following 9/11 and in the years since then western governments have struggled, and at times failed, at both safeguarding public safety and protecting the freedoms they are ostensibly fighting for.

With Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale currently embarking on a sweeping review of national security policy in Canada, and promising to consult with communities and civil society, now is an opportune moment to raise critical issues that have been neglected or bungled for too long.

First, the federal government must review the lessons of the past and implement the required fixes. It’s hard to fathom but there is no guarantee that the mistakes that led to the detention and torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar couldn’t happen again. The recommendations put forward by the Arar Commission more than 10 years ago after a protracted public inquiry have yet to be fully implemented. The recommendations included a range of measures that would ensure proper oversight and review of security agencies, clear limits on information-sharing and adequate mechanisms to respond to the detention and potential torture of Canadians abroad (currently, there are at least two Canadians unjustly held in China and Ethiopia who have very likely been tortured).

Second, the government must accept the findings of an internal inquiry into the handling of a case involving three other men who were also tortured abroad. Back in 2008, Justice Frank Iacobucci found that the actions of Canadian officials indirectly led to the overseas detention and torture of Canadians citizens Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin and Abdullah Almalki. When in opposition, the Liberals supported the call for apologies and compensation to the three men. Today, the government is stepping up a legal battle to fight their claims for justice.

Moreover, the government has not yet taken a firm position on the use of torture-tainted evidence, or the sharing of information with states that are known human rights abusers.

These are critical issues that should be top of mind for the minister’s office and would be best addressed by “eliminating any possible Canadian complicity in torture, avoiding the risk of other human rights abuses and ensuring accountability,” as stated by the Arar Commission report.

Third, the government has committed to creating a new Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-radicalization Coordinator. We’re told details are forthcoming, but what communities will no doubt be watching for is whether this office will operate on the false premise that Canadian Muslims are the “problem” or will it turn the page on a lost decade of policy-making and truly address the various factors leading to radicalization, the role of community stigmatization, as well as security threats from far-right extremists (who have been identified by Canada’s security agencies as a leading security concern).

Additionally, the government’s approach cannot only be about “hard security” measures such as surveillance, arrest and incarceration, as a recent brief by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society points out. “Comparatively little time, effort and funding have been earmarked for ‘softer security’ approaches, which aim to deter individuals from radicalizing to violence in the first instance, or to ‘disengage’ those who have adopted violent behaviours,” wrote the brief’s authors, including a retired CSIS senior official.

Finally, perhaps the most important test for the government will be how it implements the recommended changes and amendments to the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015.

It makes sense that Goodale has been looking overseas to see how other democracies are addressing these complex issues, but he should be careful not to repeat their mistakes either. For instance, the British government’s counterterrorism program, “Prevent”, has been widely criticized. The government can be confident in knowing that we have our own legal and security experts, as well as robust civil society actors and engaged community partners, who are ready and willing to help craft made-in-Canada solutions.

In these difficult times, what the world needs now is a country that demonstrates how to balance rights and security to ensure everyone’s well-being. Will it be Canada?

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).