Why Omar Khadr still matters
Jul 16, 2012

Why Omar Khadr still matters


A decade after a wounded Omar Khadr, a then fifteen year old Canadian citizen, decided to lob a fatal grenade in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan, Ottawa is still dragging its feet on finally repatriating Khadr back to Canada from Guantanamo Bay where he is currently detained. Khadr's fate is ultimately set; he will finish out the rest of his eight year prison sentence and then return to whatever life he can make for himself in Canada. It is just a question of where he spends that prison sentence and a deal was already made that he would return to Canada before the end of one year of his sentence, something not yet done. However, the case still matters for it is instrumental in defining a US-Canada relationship with much larger ramifications. 

One of the most pernicious aspects of the US's war on terror in the last decade has been its consistent erosion of civil liberties that began under Bush and was entrenched and codified further under Obama. Blacksites, rendition, suspension of Habeas Corpus, and - most symbolically - the bases at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay where Omar Khadr has been incarcerated. Omar Khadr is an extreme case even within the extrajudicial Military Commissions Act. He is the first child soldier to be prosecuted since WWII, the only defendant tried under the act who did not boycott the Guantanamo proceedings, and the last inmate from Western origins still being held. 

When a middle power like Canada cooperates with the US in some aspect of its international engagements, the principle benefit that Canada is conferring on the US is that of legitimizing US actions.When the US engages in actions like Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, it tries to build a coalition of international partners that provide not just cost sharing in terms of troops and finances, but provide the basis for legitimizing US leadership and actions. When it comes to the extrajudicial network of dealing with militants that the US built up, most Western countries each only had a handful of relevant examples where it was their citizens being caught up in this erosion of civil liberties. There is thus incredible importance put on these small number of cases in terms of it defining the relationship between a country like Canada and the US. How a case like Omar Khadr's has been handled in no small way reflects Canada's tacit endorsement of Guantanamo Bay and the entire edifice by failing to appropriately criticize it and effectively demand to deal with a Canadian citizen in Canada. As citizens, we have an obligation to pressure our government to, in turn, pressure the US not to allow such an egregious program to exist.

Throughout Khadr's prolonged, punitive and abusive treatment in Guantanamo, numerous groups from Amnesty International to the Canadian Bar Association demanded that Khadr be repatriated to Canada; even the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledge that his constitutional rights had been violated. The Harper government has steadfastly refused to do so, bowing to American pressure. Ironically, now that the sham of a sentencing has indeed occurred, the Obama administration is trying to wind down the Guantanamo program but is having troubling getting rid of the inmates who remain there and would much rather Canada take Khadr off their hands. At this point, it is largely the bureaucratic problems of Canada trying to figure out what exactly do to with Khadr that remains the hold up. Nonetheless, despite the years of delays and the history of capitulation to American wishes, Canada should finally show a shred of initiative over the treatment of its own citizens and repatriate Khadr to Canada immediately instead of dragging their feet. 

Some may object that we should not care specifically about this one fighter in the Afghanistan war who seems so distant and un-Canadian. Does it really matter if his rights get trampled? I say yes. We either believe in the rule of law, in due process, in fundamental rights, and in the sense that being a citizen of Canada means something, or we do not. We don't get to temporarily set them aside whenever we find someone we don't like. Indeed, it is most important to defend these things in the extreme cases because these are precisely where they will be first eroded. An empathetic case can be made for Khadr (he was but a young boy defending himself in a war not of his making against a foreign occupier) which may engender the sense that he is deserving of fair and just treatment, but it should not matter. Omar Khadr is a Canadian and if that word is to mean anything at all, it should be a guarantee of precisely the dedication to a fair and just rule of law that we would expect - no, demand - for any other Canadian. 

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