2009 May 6: Human rights auction and the reasons we should support it

Amnesty International Group 164 annual auction
Wednesday 2009 May 6, 5:30 pm
Granite Brewery
245 Eglinton Ave East
at Mount Pleasant
416 322-0723
$10, free beer, all proceeds to Amnesty International’s human rights work

My Amnesty International group, which meets on the first Tuesday evening of every month right on the Danforth in St. Barnabas’s Church, is holding its annual auction.  I invite everyone to come.

Over the last few days, my mind is turning heavily to a number of related human rights issues.  I’ve been involved with Amnesty International for most of my adult life.  Sometimes fairly intensely, at times not very much at all when my family was growing, and sometimes, like now, as a balanced part of my hectic life.  Over that period, I’ve witnessed a gradual improvement in global human rights.  The death penalty is being rejected in more and more countries, and in more and more states of the United States.  More countries sign on to human rights conventions.  Torture and disappearances have gradually decreased.

Human rights suffered a tremendous setback after the attacks of 9/11.  It is typical that in a crisis, lofty values are often chucked out the window.  Many of us who have tracked human rights for years dreaded the results because they were so predictable – people who are afraid act irrationally and angrily.  And so, we watched in frustration as western countries that had tended to lead in building a culture of rights, suddenly decided to abandon human rights protections that had been so difficult to establish.

Leaders in Canada, in the United States, in Britain and elsewhere stressed the importance of protecting a culture of liberty that they were, in fact, destroying.  And those of us who had lobbied for years on behalf of those who were tortured or silenced, knew very well how useless and even counterproductive the newly adopted methods would be.  Torture has been shown to have no utility in extracting valuable information, and it has been shown to strengthen opposition to those who use it.  Government secrecy and intrusion into people’s lives results in distrust and resentment of leaders.

But people were understandably fearful.  And toughness is comforting to people who are afraid.

Today, two results of this toughness are coming back to haunt leaders here in Canada and those south of the border.  The news is filled with Omar Khadr here, and torture memos there.

Our government looks increasingly insensitive as it repeatedly objects to legal demands that it offer protection to a Canadian boy who was forced into fighting at the age of 13.  It is increasingly difficult to overlook the likelihood that Omar Khadr was mistreated at Guantanamo, that he is almost certainly not guilty of the crimes he is accused of, that the United States covered up evidence that pointed to his innocence and that he may well have been almost fatally wounded by his captors after it was clear that he was no longer any threat to them at all.  The assertion by George W. Bush that the militias in Afghanistan did not deserve even the rights enshrined in the Geneva Convention specifically to protect even mortal enemies is increasingly recognized for what it is – illegal, unethical and dangerous.  But even if we manage to overlook all these inconvenient facts, Omar Khadr was still a child, captured at the age of 15.  For that reason alone, he deserves our compassion and protection.

Omar’s brief life is horrifying to contemplate.  He is almost certainly damaged by his experiences.  He is unlikely to be a pleasant addition to the Canadian fabric.  But to deny him compassion is to be inhuman.  And the longer this drags on, the more we continue to damage Mr. Khadr and to dehumanize ourselves.

Meanwhile, there is an unfolding drama which reveals high-level decisions to torture in the previous American administration.  Vice-president Cheney and Condolleeza Rice approved of interrogation methods for which Americans had executed Japanese prisoners.  There is a collective horror in the United States, even among many stallwart apologists for the Bush administration.  While no prosecutions may come of this, a lengthy, painful and divisive inquiry is very likely.

This process of opening up the past and understanding it is vital.  It’s critical for those countries with a history of strong rule of law to reestablish their commitment to human rights.  As long as we don’t, we give other nations an excuse to behave as badly or worse.  But there’s something even more important at stake.  There’s a question of what kind of nation we want to be.  Mr. Bush declared that the United States doesn’t torture and Mr. Harper asserted his support for child soldiers even as both men performed mental gymnastics to justify doing exactly the opposite of what they suggested.  When our leaders feel the need to reassure us of something, their words should mean something.  We deserve better.  We need to put the sorry chapter of the war on terror behind us, before we come to be viewed permanently as the terrorists ourselves.

One response to “Human rights auction and the reasons we should support it”

  1. Paul Trueman writes:

    There is one aspect of the Omar Khadar case which drives me crazy and I almost never see it mentioned — what is the big deal about killing an American soldier in the middle of a battle?? How is that murder? Its ok for American soldiers to kill people, but if those people shoot back and defend themselves this is murder??? Americans can kill people but no one can kill Americans! And if they do it, counts as murder?

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