National Security Reform: Time to embrace human rights

By Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexNeveAmnesty

Want to feel more secure?  Bill C-51, which is being examined by a Parliamentary committee in  three weeks of truncated hearings, offers up criminal offences that infringe free expression, unprecedented intrusive intelligence powers, breathtakingly vast definitions of security, unbridled sharing of information and stunning levels of secrecy; all while doing nothing to enhance review, oversight and accountability of Canada’s national security agencies. 

The message is that human rights have to give way to keep terrorism at bay.  The relationship between the two is seen as a zero-sum game.  More safety means fewer rights.  Stronger regard for rights leads to greater insecurity.

It is time to turn that around.  Human rights do not stand in the way of security that is universal, durable and inclusive.  Human rights are in fact the very key.

In C-51 we are faced with a set of brand new and significantly revised national security laws that could undermine human rights more insidiously than at any time since the October 1970 invocation of the War Measures Act.

No surprise therefore that an impressive list of former Prime Ministers and other eminent politicians, intelligence experts, legal academics, human rights groups, commentators and editorials (including this paper) have raised the alarm that this Bill is bad news for human rights.

Prime Minister Harper disagrees.  He insists that freedom and security go “hand in hand”.  But his government’s actions fail to live up to his stirring rhetoric.

Nothing illustrates that better than CSIS’ new threat reduction powers.  Preventing terrorism before it happens is obviously a good thing.  But this is not the way to go about it. 

The Bill does not specify what CSIS agents are allowed to do in the name of reducing security threats (notably the definition of threats goes far beyond terrorism to include protests and blockades which are not considered lawful). 

We do know that CSIS agents can’t kill, commit bodily harm, pervert justice or violate sexual integrity.  That is reassuring, one supposes.  But what of all the human rights violations that aren’t on that no-go list? 

It doesn’t end there.  Bill C-51 authorizes Federal Court judges to approve, in secret hearings, CSIS threat reduction activities that would violate the Charter of Rights.  So much for the notion that the judiciary are to be the guardians of the constitution.

And these threat reduction powers can be carried out anywhere in the world.  If outside Canada, the Bill instructs judges to simply disregard foreign laws when issuing warrants.

This approach to national security has been discredited.  Allowing secretive human rights violations while fighting terrorism adds up to a heap of injustice.  It also generally does nothing to improve security and may, to the contrary, deepen insecurity.  More victims, grievances and divisions do not keep us safer in the end.  That is why, for example, the Director of the CIA and various retired US Admirals and Generals, among many others, have called for Guantánamo Bay to be shut down.

Also disappointing is the failure to learn from recent examples of the heavy toll of national security gone awry.  Two judicial inquiries have examined Canada’s complicity in the overseas torture of Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin.  Important court rulings have exposed Canada’s responsibility for national security-linked human rights violations, including two Supreme Court rulings dealing with Omar Khadr.  Numerous expert UN bodies have pressed Canada to make changes as well.

Rather than clean up that record; Bill C-51 adds to it.  As such, five years from now one can easily imagine some version of a Commission of Inquiry into Certain Human Rights Violations Associated with Covert CSIS Threat Reduction Activities Abroad. 

End runs around the ban on torture, prohibitions on unlawful arrest and imprisonment, fair trial guarantees and protection against discrimination haven’t delivered a safer world.

The best national security reforms would scrupulously comply with international human rights laws and would guard against complicity in abuses by other states.  They would be accompanied by a determined effort to remedy past human rights violations and tidy up existing laws and policies that fall short of international requirements. Reforms would be backed up by robust oversight and effective review to make sure obligations are met. 

Embracing, not ignoring, human rights is where we need to start — and where we need to end up.

This blog was originally published as an op-ed in the Toronto Star.