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Torture Scandal's Message

Harper's sorry stance on human rights.

Murray Dobbin 3 May

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee. You can find previous ones here.

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PM in Afghanistan, March 2006.

Someone should ask Prime Minister Stephen Harper if he agrees with embattled U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the Geneva Convention and human rights. Gonzales is infamous for his chilling remark on January 25th, 2002: "The war on terrorism is a new kind of war, a new paradigm [that] renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders some of its provisions quaint."

Harper has dismissed complaints about the torture of Taliban prisoners as "baseless accusations" and claimed never to have seen any reports on the subject, despite a now published 2006 report from his own Foreign Affairs Department (and another from the U.S. State Department) that torture is common. Harper accuses critics of caring more about the Taliban than about Canadian soldiers. These comments would seem to demonstrate a contempt for the Geneva Convention similar to that shown by Gonzales.

Oh, it's true that when it suits him Harper will dissemble in favour of human rights -- when he thinks he has to or when he has a particular constituency to please. Thus he went through the motions of a diplomatic note over the American refusal to apologize to Maher Arar or to take him off their Orwellian watch list. But this was a wink and nod operation which caused the U.S. no embarrassment whatever. Harper had to do it -- the Yanks understood, just as they appreciated Harper's open-ended commitment to their "war on terrorism" in Afghanistan.

Silence speaks volumes

But when it comes to international human rights either enshrined in the UN Charter or the Geneva Convention, Harper has shown disdain. The Geneva Convention also states that it is illegal to target civilians in war. But this is precisely what Israel did in its catastrophic (for everyone) invasion of Lebanon. The rights of the Lebanese didn't count for anything as Harper stated that Israel's brutal assault on a defenceless Lebanese population was "a measured response." Measured by what standard? Certainly not by the standards set out by the Geneva Convention.

And what about the human rights of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip? Not a word here, either, even though UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said last year: "The violation of human rights I think in this territory is massive." She said that what she had seen in Beit Hanoun convinced her that Palestinians are suffering from "catastrophic human-rights violations" at the hands of Israel. But the Palestinians seem virtually not to exist in Harper's U.S.-designed foreign policy.

There are many other examples. Does Canada's new prime minister express concern over the hideous human rights record of Burma? In the fall, the UN added to the long list of condemnations, this time for the harassment and arrest of student leaders, and the continuing house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy. Nope, no problem here, if Mr. Harper's silence means anything.

Rights repressed at home

Harper is as dismissive of Canadians' human rights as he is of people's rights around the world. Harper's mean-spirited cancellation of the Court Challenges Program eliminated the instrument by which the rights of the disabled and gays and lesbians were established in this country. It cost a pittance but ensured that ordinary Canadians had access to the otherwise prohibitively expensive courts, turning theoretical rights into substantive ones.

This was not about saving money it was about revenge against the whole notion of "rights" -- a favourite target of all neo-cons. In addition, it was a gift to Harper's extremist right wing Christian constituency. He couldn't take gay and lesbian rights away but he could eliminate the program that helped provide them.

This nurturing of his key constituency also serves to explain the single real exception in Stephen Harper's human rights record. Regarding China, the government is making real noise about the appalling case of Huseyin Celil. Here Canada seems -- rightly so -- to be risking good relations with the Asian giant over the case of a single individual.

But why China? To answer that question you need to go back a ways in Stephen Harper's history and understand the perversity of the right wing of the anti-abortion movement. No country in the world is so hated by evangelical anti-abortionists as China because of its vigorous efforts at population control and the widespread availability of free abortion. Back in 1995 one of Stephen Harper's Reform Party colleagues issued a statement calling on the Canadian government to condemn China for policies she claimed endorsed the "consumption of human fetuses as health food." These people still populate Harper's caucus and form a critical part of his core base. And he is representing them.

More immediate in this unnerving record on human rights is Harper's cynicism regarding Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan (let alone Afghanis). Why did eight Canadian soldiers die in Afghanistan recently? Did they die for Canada? Was it for Afghan democracy? To save the world from terrorism? To ensure that little girls can go to school? Or did they die for Stephen Harper?

Our soldiers’ rights?

Do Canadian soldiers have the right to not be misled about their mission's prospects for success, to not be sent to war on false pretenses, to not kill innocent Afghan civilians as a result of an ill-considered military strategy, to not be ordered by their superiors to break the Geneva Convention by handing over prisoners to almost certain abuse? You won't find these rights in any charter and Stephen Harper does not seem about to recognize them any time soon.

For all his posturing about "supporting our troops" Prime Minister Harper shows disregard for them. Last September he implied the deaths of Canadian soldiers was good for the military, telling the CBC: "I can tell you [the Afghan mission] has certainly engaged our military. It's, I think, made them a better military notwithstanding -- and maybe in some way because of -- the casualties."

Of course, it's not just the soldiers who are treated with disdain by the Prime Minister. It is the First Nations who lost their Kelowna Accord, families who lost their national child care program, women who lost equality programs, victims of gun crimes who are seeing gun control measures weakened. It's just that soldiers pay the ultimate price. No prime minister in the history of Canada has sown such contempt for the people he is supposed to be representing and protecting. It makes him unfit to govern.

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