Discussing Canada’s role in torture

On Saturday afternoon, a small audience gathered in the Conrad Grebel Great Hall at the University of Waterloo for a panel discussion regarding Canada’s role in torture in Afghanistan.

The event, sponsored by the Kitchener-Waterloo Anti-Torture Coalition, brought together members from both universities and the community to hear experts speak on the topic of “Confronting the Darkness: Canadian Complicity in Torture in Afghanistan.”

This discussion followed a rally held March 3 on the steps of Kitchener-Waterloo MP Peter Braid’s office, which demanded “a full independent public inquiry into Canadian complicity in torture in Afghanistan,” said Luke Stuart, co-ordinator of both the protest and the panel discussion.

Regardless of the bleak subject matter, Andrew Thompson, program officer of the global governance programs at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and author of three books on torture, pointed to what he believes are hopeful signs in recent Canadian policy.

“[Human] rights are once again starting to limit the way in which the state can treat individuals,” said Thompson. He argued that this is evidenced in the way individuals like Omar Kadhr and Maher Arar incite Canadians to protest the conditions of persons detained by the U.S. government.

In spite of logistical and technological difficulties, the words and message of Amir Attaran, Canada research chair in law, population health and global development policy at the University of Ottawa, was clear to the audience, despite the fact that he was unable to attend the event personally.

“Torture has become part of our political culture,” he explained in a pre-recorded message. “Canada has not tortured anyone directly, what they have done is hand over detainees to known torturers.”

Attaran went on to claim that one is as bad as the other. “We are now in the ugly situation, fellow citizens, that our country has engaged in war crimes.”

The last speaker of the day, Aislinn Clancy from the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture in Toronto, spoke from the experience of having worked extensively with refugees who have escaped from countries where torture is common.

“A lot of the racism and post 9/11 mentalities in Canada can lead to abuses of people coming from war-torn countries,” said Clancy.

Throughout the discussion, the panellists stressed, particularly in response to audience questions, the importance of citizens speaking up and reaching out to their local politicians.

“When people become complacent about human rights, we invite the government to abuse them,” stated Thompson.

Clancy added that it was crucial for politicians to know that Canadians stand against torture because “it’s important for the Canadian government to be vocal [against torture abroad] because we’re seen as one of the leaders in this area globally.”