Monday, October 27, 2008

how do you feel about human rights?

Here in Canada the discourse of human rights is ever-present. My own University has a senior management appointment that has the specific task of ensuring that people's human rights are respected. People up and down the country expect that their human rights will be observed. Yet Canada's record on human rights is not what it appears. The 'war on terror' has produced several significant cases of Canadian complicity in quite profound human rights abuses. To my mind, however, none is more damning than that of Omar Khadr.

Born in Ottawa, Omar Khadr was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. forces on 27 July 2002, having been moved to Afghanistan by his family in 1996. He was accused of killing a U.S. soldier, and, following his capture, was transferred to Guantananamo Bay in Cuba. He has been there ever since.

Omar Khadr must define one's attitude to human rights. This is the case for 2 reasons. First, because Khadr was only 15 years old when he was captured by U.S. forces (having been shot 3 times): Khadr was taken to Afghanistan by his family when he was 11, and thus had no say in the matter. Second, Khadr comes from a family that quite openly proclaims their support for anti-Western Islamist fundamentalism, and thus falls within a category that many people would find deeply disagreeable.

The key question in Omar Khadr's case is whether a minor can be held responsible for their supposed actions. The U.S. government thinks so; it argues that as Khadr turned 16 in Bagram base in Afghanistan, after his capture, he can be treated as an adult. As a consequence, he has been treated to the standard techniques used by the U.S. military in dealing with 'terrorists'. The digital footage of Khadr's interrogation is pretty harrowing. He comes across as a frightened boy that is clearly out of his depth with the circumstances that he is facing. From this footage, there can be little doubt that by any stretch of the imagination Khadr has been fairly systematically physically abused at Guantananamo. Moreover, there can also be little doubt that Canadians that visited Khadr in Guantananamo saw the evidence of abuse and did nothing about it.

Omar Khadr is the last citizen of a Northern country to be held at Guantananamo. He is still there because the Canadian government's position on Omar Khadr is that he has to go through the 'legal' processes put in place by the U.S. government. The fact that it has been 3 years since he was charged and that his 'trial' (under a format that has been globally condemned) has still not begun however makes one wonder how meaningful are these processes. Moreover, if found guilty, he faces life in prison. Khadr is now 22.

Imagine: a kid is indoctrinated by his family. He is shot. He is abused while in custody. He spends almost a third of his short life in a legal limbo and faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. I don't know Omar Khadr, and I don't know for a fact what he has or has not done. However: what he has or has not done is irrelevant. Omar Khadr's fundamental human rights have been systematically abused from the time he was a small boy.

Anyone who claims to believe in human rights and who does not support the immediate return of Omar Khadr to Canada is a hypocrite.

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