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Canada's Omar Khadr Is No 'War Criminal'

He's a former child soldier and needs rehabilitation, not further punishment.

By Bill Tieleman 2 Oct 2012 |

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at or visit his blog.

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Khadr: Fighting at 15, he was a text book example of a child soldier under international law.

"Omar Khadr is a Canadian citizen and a child soldier whose rights have been summarily denied, despite international law." -- Dr. Samantha Nutt, War Child Canada

Omar Khadr has finally returned from the notorious Guantanamo Bay U.S. prison to Canada, where he needs to be rehabilitated as a former child soldier, not wrongly be called a "war criminal" and further punished.

This travesty of justice is the shameful responsibility of both Canadian and American governments, who used Khadr's tragic case for crass political purposes instead of treating him like other child soldiers around the world.

And yet despite being rightfully criticized by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, War Child Canada and other human rights organizations over this case, the Conservative government is still intent on making Khadr's miserable life even worse.

Toronto-born Khadr needs maximum rehabilitation, not maximum-security incarceration in Ontario's Millhaven prison.

So here are the facts, rather than ongoing Tory spin.

Khadr was a 15-year-old Canadian citizen pressed into the role of child soldier in Afghanistan by his father, al-Qaeda member Ahmed Said Khadr, to fight U.S., British Canadian and other nations' troops in Afghanistan after the Taliban were deposed in 2001.

Khadr was severely wounded and captured in a July 2002 firefight with U.S. troops, and held responsible for the death of U.S. Army Sgt. Christopher Speer.

Conservative Public Safety Minister Vic Toews described Khadr Saturday as a "known supporter of the al-Qaeda terrorist network and a convicted terrorist."

Regardless of Khadr's actions in battle, he meets all criteria to be recognized as a child soldier -- not a willing combatant or "terrorist."

Read the law

As Amnesty International states: "International law prohibits the participation in armed conflict of children aged under 18."

Both Canada and the United States have signed and ratified the "Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in armed conflict" which was adopted by the United Nations in 2000 and which prohibits children under the age of 18 from being used in hostilities for any purpose.

But while Khadr's case is a textbook example of a child soldier, both Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and before that former Liberal prime ministers Paul Martin and Jean Chretien refused to meet our international obligations.

Amnesty's Canadian secretary-general Alex Neve doesn't mince words about the role of the Canadian government.

"Canada's role has been a disgrace. Three prime ministers, representing two different political parties and presiding over five different governments, could have taken action," Neve wrote in July.

Retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, former commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, also denounced Khadr's treatment in prison in Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba:

"Despite being a juvenile, Khadr was incarcerated with adult inmates and subjected to unlawful interrogation techniques that created a serious risk of physical and psychological harm," Dallaire co-wrote in a 2010 article with Ishmael Beah, a UNICEF representative from Sierra Leone and himself a rehabilitated former child soldier.

"It was under these conditions, and with no legal representation, that his self-incriminatory confessions were elicited and will be used as evidence in his Guantanamo Bay trial," they said.

"In the past eight years of detention, he has faced cruel and inhumane treatment, including the threat of rape, physical and psychological abuse, possibly torture, and survived over three years of solitary confinement," Dallaire and Beah noted.

And an Amnesty report to the United Nations last month outlined Canada's sad role.

"Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have ruled that Canadian officials were complicit in the violation of Omar Khadr's rights by virtue of a number of interrogation sessions he was subjected to by Canadian officials at Guantánamo Bay in circumstances where the ongoing violation of his rights there were allegedly apparent," the report stated.

Closing time

Harper's government did everything it could to abandon Khadr in Guantanamo, accepting his repatriation to Canada only under U.S. pressure.

"Obviously the Americans are closing down the prison and wanted to send him back," Foreign Minister John Baird said Sunday on CTV. "He's a Canadian citizen, he has the right to come back. We didn't have much of a choice... and he's back."

Khadr's lawyer John Norris says his client is eligible for parole as soon as summer of 2013 and that Canadians should not be worried about his release.

"We're at a loss to understand why the government continues to demonize Omar and to stoke public opinion against him," said Norris.

That's easy -- demonizing appeals to some Conservative voters.

Tweeting hypocrisy

Ironically, while successive governments abandoned Khadr, Canadian politicians have been keen to be seen opposing the use of child soldiers.

When the "Kony 2012" video documenting the savage use of child soldiers in Uganda by Joseph Kony's Lord’s Resistance Army when viral, eventually attracting over 92 million views on YouTube, Baird was quick to hit Twitter with his support.

"I am deeply troubled by the LRA's systematic abduction of children to wage its campaign of terror. #stopkony," Baird tweeted in March of this year.

It appears that Baird's opposition to the use of child soldiers stops where his ministerial responsibility starts -- with Omar Khadr.

But the world has recognized that all child soldiers are the pawns of adults, evilly used to carry out terrible, often unthinkable atrocities that scar them forever.

Khadr may or may not still harbour views that are abhorrent to Canadians -- and having been confined and abused in Guantanamo prison would likely make anyone twisted.

But Canada's moral and legal obligation is to help Khadr leave his child soldier past behind and do its best to let this troubled young man have a chance to lead a peaceful, productive life.

Even war-torn countries in Africa have shown that child soldiers can be rehabilitated to lead normal lives. Why should Canada not be able do the same?  [Tyee]

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