Not Optional Anymore
by Alex Neve
Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada
How is it that a government minister beat us to a perfect campaign slogan!
“The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture will not be optional anymore for Canada.”
It has always been an unwieldy name for a United Nations treaty that deals with something so incredibly important: preventing torture around the world. How fitting and powerful therefore to hear Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion use those very words to make it clear that Canada is now going to get on board and join the Optional Protocol. His tremendous announcement, at an Amnesty International parliamentary reception co-hosted by 10 Members of Parliament and Senators, elicited immediate and sustained applause.
It was a breathtaking beginning to a 24 hour blitz on the Hill by the English and Francophone branches of Amnesty International Canada; a blitz that ended with an energized #StopTorture rally on the steps of Parliament led by amazing youth activists from across Ontario and Quebec. You can see photos from the two days here.
This is an enormously important step forward for Canada. It tells the rest of the world that we are serious about stopping and preventing torture; so serious that we are prepared to open up our own jails and detention centres for regular inspections by national and UN teams. It is all the more important because now we can push and encourage other states, where torture is rampant and inspections non-existent, to follow our lead.
It has been a long road; much longer than we expected when the UN adopted this ground-breaking treaty in 2002. Preventing torture is clearly something Canadians support. We assumed Canada would join in almost immediately. But it did not happen. There were half-hearted, unfulfilled promises in UN settings in 2006 and 2009 to “consider ratifying”. But nothing happened. More recently, in 2013, the government simply said there was no intention to ratify at this time.
But here’s the rub. We never gave up.
We joined our voices with the powerful voices of men, women and young people in Canada who have known torture firsthand or have endured the agony of loved ones being tortured. Together, we met with MPs and Senators and appeared before parliamentary committees. We gained the support of numerous influential Canadians. We spoke to journalists. We raised it at the UN. We wrote letters. We wrote articles and gave speeches. We brought other organizations on board. We held events in schools. And so much more.
We kept on, year after year; even when it felt like few were listening. Even when the government watered down its position. We had to. At a time when the cruelty of torture continues to be rampant worldwide, no effort can be spared to bring it to an end. How could Canada not be on board?
When Amnesty International launched a global campaign to #StopTorture in 2014, we knew that we had to ramp up our efforts to press Canada to sign on. We made it one of our campaign priorities here in Canada. Amnesty supporters signed on to petitions like never before. Youth activists mobilized in their schools and communities. Torture survivors stepped up and shared their stories again.
All of that lay behind Minister Dion’s historic announcement. All of that courage, energy, determination and perseverance. Thirteen years of speaking out.
We have taken a moment today to celebrate.
We know that the work on this will continue tomorrow.
The federal government is on board, and is showing leadership. But the provinces and territories need to be convinced as well. Many of Canada’s prisons are run by them.
But we are everywhere in Canada and we will make sure that governments from Victoria to Iqaluit to St. John’s hear from us.
Thank you to everyone who has joined with us in this campaign. I rarely get to say this with as much absolute certainty as I can this time. This victory is all about you.
- Alex Neve, May 3, 2016