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Canada must do more to stop torture

    May 17, 2012

    Canada risks complicity in torture because of action or inaction within the country and in relations with other nations, says Amnesty International. A briefing that outlines the organization’s concerns will be considered on 21 May as the United Nations Committee against Torture reviews Canada’s adherence to the Convention against Torture in Geneva.
    Inadequate efforts to protect Indigenous women from violence, prisoner transfers in Afghanistan, deportations, national security relationships with foreign governments and failure to ensure justice and accountability for torture are all problems with Canada’s record.

    “Canada has failed to ensure that all their actions are free of the taint of being implicated in torture,” says Alex Neve, Secretary General of the English branch of Amnesty International Canada. “The record is not clean and in some areas it is very disturbing”.

    Indigenous Peoples

    The impact of the disproportionate rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls have only been addressed in piecemeal initiatives. Data is needed and a coordinated, comprehensive, national plan of action to end violence must be developed.

    “Indigenous women in Canada face rates of violent assault three to five times higher than all other women. Hundreds of First Nations, Inuit and Metis families have experienced the murder or disappearance of their sisters and daughters,” says Beatrice Vaugrante, Director General of the francophone branch of Amnesty International Canada. “There must be a concerted government response in keeping with the severity of the problem.”

    The unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against Indigenous peoples asserting their land rights or taking part in public protests is also a concern. The deployment of 200 Ontario Provincial Police at Ipperwash in September 1995 led to the death of one Indigenous protester and an inquiry in 2003. But crucial recommendations have not been implemented. The incident and later actions in June 2007 and April 2008 in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory have led Amnesty International to call for binding policies that force will only be used as a last resort when it is necessary to protect life and safety.

    Justice and Accountability

    Territorial limits cannot be put on torture. The right of survivors to seek redress in Canadian courts must be established by Parliament allowing lawsuits against foreign governments for a crime that is banned under international law, says Amnesty International. Canada must drop the shield of state immunity that protects countries guilty of torture from action in our courts. Foreign governments cannot be allowed to escape their responsibility.

    The principle of “universal jurisdiction” over the crime of torture, wherever it occurs, means that individuals suspected of being criminally responsible for torture present in Canada must be brought to justice and not just deported. The government must use the powers of the Criminal Code and the Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act. Canada’s international obligation is to convict not to just evict.

    Torture and National Security Issues

    Amnesty International’s briefing also shows that the government has failed to adequately deal with the role of Canadian authorities in the torture and ill-treatment of Canadian nationals abroad. Maher Arar’s arrest by U.S. officials in September 2002 and extraordinary rendition and torture in Syria led to an inquiry after his release. The final reports were issued in the fall of 2006 and Arar received an official apology and compensation for the role played by Canadian officials in his ordeal. But more than five years later the important recommendation from the inquiry about oversight of the law enforcement and security agencies involved in national security issues has not been implemented.

    The actions of Canadian officials were found by another inquiry headed by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iaccobuci to have “resulted indirectly” in the torture and ill-treatment of three other Canadians Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin, in Syria and Egypt. Despite that finding the men have been forced into protracted litigation. Amnesty International says they must be immediately provided with adequate and appropriate redress.

    Since July 2002 another Canadian Omar Khadr, who was 15 at the time, has been held by US forces first in Afghanistan and then, from October 2002 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In October 2010 he was sentenced to an eight year prison term pursuant to a plea agreement. During his years of imprisonment and human rights violations the Canadian government refused to intervene. There were credible allegations that he was tortured and/or ill-treated during this time and the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canadian officials were complicit in the violations of his rights.

    “Canada should promptly approve the application of Omar Khadr to return to his country of citizenship,” says Vaugrante. “And the government should ensure that there is an adequate remedy for the human rights violations that he has endured.”

    In all these cases there was some sharing of intelligence by Canadian officials with agencies abroad. Disturbing information has come to light that suggests the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has been authorized to make use of information from others that is tainted by the possibility it was obtained as the result of torture. Amnesty International says there must be a clear policy barring the use of this information and not establishing a market for information acquired through torture.  Canadian officials must also be prohibited from sharing information with foreign governments when doing so gives rise to a substantial risk of torture.

    Transfers to Torture

    Canada cannot use information from or share it with torturers. And the government is under strict obligation not to remove (non-refoulement) any person to a country where he or she faces a real risk of torture. The Amnesty International brief notes that Canada must explicitly implement the unconditional nature of this principle in all relevant laws.

    Amnesty International Canada and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association since February 2007 have raised the issue of the transfer of prisoners taken by Canadian forces to Afghanistan authorities at a time when there was a substantial risk of torture. The case could not proceed in Canadian courts after a ruling that the Charter of Rights did not apply to the Canadian military outside Canada. The provisions of the Convention against Torture should be incorporated into national law so that the extraterritorial jurisdiction can be enforced by Canadian courts.

    Refugees and Migrants

    The treatment of refugees and migrants by Canada is a concern under the articles of the Convention. The proposed legislation to crack down on “human smuggling”, C- 31 Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, would impose mandatory detention on asylum seekers solely based on their manner of arrival in Canada. It violates international legal standards that refugee claimants should only be detained in exceptional circumstances. The Bill fails to provide any exemption from mandatory detention of individuals who are survivors of torture. The Bill also removes the right to appeal a negative refugee decision if the person is designated as an “irregular arrival” or comes from a country designated to be “safe” by the Minister.

    “The Bill is discriminatory in access to justice, removes safeguards against wrongful rejection of refugee claims and increases the risk of returning refugees to the danger of torture in violation of Canada’s obligations under the Convention against Torture,” asserts Neve. “These troubling provisions must be withdrawn.”


    Amnesty International has frequently expressed concern that the use of Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs) such as TASERs may, in some circumstances, be tantamount to torture or ill-treatment. There is concern that there are no consistent and coherent standards applicable to all policing forces across the country. 

    Federal Guidelines were developed in October 2010 but are not binding. Amnesty International is calling for these Guidelines to be amended to ensure that CEDs are only used in situations involving an imminent threat of death or serious (potentially life threatening) injury which cannot be contained by other means. There should be, notes Amnesty International, a legislative framework for testing and use that includes international human right standards including the Convention against Torture.

    Detailed and credible allegations of abuse and ill-treatment by police were also made after more than 1000 people were arrested in large scale public protests at the G8 and G20 Summits in Toronto in June 2010. Numerous internal and external reviews have been carried out. Some were by bodies not independent of the police. And many aspects of the policing operation were not reviewed at all.

    “Canada and the province of Ontario must convene a joint, comprehensive public inquiry into all aspects of the policing and security operations at the 2010 summits,” says Neve. “The stain of abuse and ill-treatment lingers and must be examined to be prevented from this happening again.”

    “The obligations Canada has under the Convention are clear,” noted Vaugrante. “Lives are being put in danger when Canada fails to stop torture and is complicit in the actions of others.”


    John Tackaberry,
    Media Relations,
    Amnesty International Canada
    613-744-7667, ext 236