Over the past week, there has been much discussion about the $10.5-million settlement paid to Omar Khadr by the federal government.
Debate still rages over what Khadr did in 2002, along with how he suffered during his decade-long detention in the United States’ Guantanamo Bay prison.
In 2002, Canadian-born Khadr was a 15-year-old child soldier, who was taken by his father to Afghanistan to fight for the al-Qaeda terrorist group. He was captured in July of that year after a firefight with American soldiers in which a medic was killed and a soldier injured. He was jailed in the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where he was tortured.
In 2010, Khadr pleaded guilty to five war-crime charges, including murder — a plea he later recanted, saying his confession was coerced. In 2013, he was transferred to an Edmonton jail. He was released on bail in 2015 while he appeals his conviction on the war-crimes charges.
However, through all the debate, there is one fact that we cannot deny: Omar Khadr was tortured in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international law, and Canada was complicit by interrogating him and passing him on to foreign jailers, instead of seeking his release.
The Supreme Court of Canada confirmed this truth, clearly ruling that Canada violated the rule of law under the Charter, and was complicit with the United States in breaking the rule of law internationally.
In fact, the Supreme Court made this ruling on this exact question three separate times!
In its 2010 ruling, the Court even went as far as saying that the conduct of Canadian officials “offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects” when they interrogated him for the purpose of passing on information to his jailers rather than seeking his release.
By awarding Khadr $10.5 million, the government made a strategic, risk-based decision. The question of whether Khadr’s rights had been violated has already been settled by the courts, only leaving the question of just what Canada would have to pay as compensation. This is what the lawsuit was all about. Not about what Khadr did, but what Canada would be paying for its violation of his rights.
At the time of the settlement, Khadr was asking for $20 million in damages. Furthermore, the government had already spent $5 million dollars in legal costs on this case. By settling with Khadr, the government avoided the very likely chance of having to pay far more by fighting this case in court.
This government’s decision to settle is also an important move to show that it respects the rule of law and the courts. When Canada sent its officials to Guantanamo Bay in 2003 and 2004, it should have worked to ensure that Khadr’s rights as a Canadian citizen were being respected. Instead, the officials tried to extract more evidence from Khadr for the same people who were violating his rights and torturing him.
To restore the rule of law, Canada had to pay for its failure to protect Khadr’s rights.
Critics of the settlement argue it was improper because Khadr had pleaded guilty to murder at his own trial, and a Utah court ruled that Khadr had to pay compensation to Speer’s widow. However, these detractors miss two important points. First, the Supreme Court ruled that Khadr’s trial was improper. In fact, experts believe that Khadr was coerced into pleading guilty because he believed it was the only way to avoid living in Guantanamo Bay, where he would face more torture, potentially for the rest of his life.
Khadr’s actions do not change the fact he is a Canadian citizen. Canada had an obligation to protect his rights under the Charter and international law. The rule of law does not mean that we get to pick and choose whose rights we protect. All Canadians have the right to due process and their human rights, regardless of who they are and what they have done.
My former Senate colleague, retired Lt-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, puts it well when he says that “we were — and still are — a country that has eloquently championed new global standards over the past 20 years that lay out protections for child soldiers, and we have led efforts to end the terrible worldwide practice of drawing children into war. Yet when faced with this first example of a Canadian, one of our own children, needing that help, we looked away and abandoned him.”
We must rise above the hateful rhetoric and recognize this settlement for what it is: a return to the rule of law in Canada, and a lesson teaching us to never violate it again.
This article appeared in the July 21, 2017 edition of the Vancouver Sun.