It is time for a human rights based approach to national security

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. 

Human rights or security?  In Canada and around the world the debate rages on; but it is an utterly false debate.  We must, finally and firmly, reject the assumption and assertion that more of one necessarily leads to less of the other.  There is no security without human rights.

A few years ago I was in West Africa with an Amnesty International research team looking into a range of human rights violations associated with counter-terrorism laws and operations in Mauritania.  The sister of an army officer who had “disappeared” while in prison summed up perfectly the absurdity of the notion that there is any sort of rights and security trade-off.  As she told me, “if they truly want us to feel more secure, they should start by stopping violating our rights.”

This week the federal government’s review of Canada’s national security framework has begun in earnest.  The House of Commons’ Public Safety Committee is holding hearings in five cities from coast-to-coast. Ministers Goodale and Wilson-Raybould are holding a roundtable in Ottawa with civil society groups.  Members of Parliament are conducting town-halls in their ridings.  And Canadians in all corners of the country are being encouraged to take part in on-line consultations.

Amnesty International has been researching, reporting and campaigning on the grim human rights toll of unjust national security practices around the world, including in Canada, for decades.  We have highlighted that without security, human rights remain precarious.  That is particularly so for individuals and communities who traditionally face greater levels of marginalization and inequality.  Situations of insecurity are so very often used by governments as an excuse to target political opponents, ethnic and religious minorities, human right defenders, journalists, refugees, migrants and others. 

At the same time we have demonstrated time after time that human rights violations stand to deepen insecurity.  Allowing torture, discrimination or unfair trials as part of a counter-terrorism strategy creates more victims, fosters resentment and deepens divisions.  There is no long-term security down that road.

Give up a bit on rights in hopes of finding a bit more safety?  Look around and all we see is a mountain of both injustice and insecurity that has resulted from decades of failed wars, laws and policies that have sacrificed rights in the name of security.

Canada can chart a different course, and that can start now by making a clear choice to develop and adopt a human rights-based approach to national security.  There are three main components.

First, say that we mean it.  Canada should unapologetically and unequivocally recognize regard for human rights as a foundational pillar to our national security framework.  It is not an afterthought.  It is where security begins. 

Second, show that we mean it.  It is time to embed effective human rights safeguards in our national security framework.  

That means explicit reference to national and international human rights provisions in laws such as the CSIS Act.  It means incorporating binding obligations to prohibit discrimination, ban torture, ensure fair trials and protect privacy across the full range of Canada’s national security laws. 

It has to involve expert, independent oversight of national security agencies, in addition to the committee of parliamentarians that has been proposed.  There should also be regular reviews of the human rights impact of national security laws. 

And there has to be a true commitment to providing redress to individuals who have experienced national security related human rights violations.  Top of that list would be compensation and apologies for violations going back more than fifteen years experienced by Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati, Muayyed Nureddin and Omar Khadr.   We do not build a stronger future without accounting for the past.

Third, demonstrate that we mean it.  This consultation must lead to a cleanup of the numerous Canadian national security laws and policies that currently stand in violation of our international human rights obligations.  That certainly does include the numerous problematic provisions enacted last year with Bill C-51, but also a number of other concerns, some of which have been unaddressed for decades.

Canadian immigration law should unconditionally prohibit deporting people to torture.

Immigration security proceedings must be fair and offer a real opportunity to people to respond to allegations and mount a meaningful defence.

Intelligence sharing with foreign agencies can never be allowed to benefit from or contribute to torture in other lands.

Terrorism-related offences in Canadian law must robustly protect protest and free expression rights.

The new threat reduction powers given to CSIS cannot in any way involve human rights violations and no judge should ever be asked to condone or authorize the contrary.

The new criminal offence of promoting the commission of terrorism “in general” is vague, undermines free expression, adds nothing to existing laws and should be repealed.

Bill C-51’s staggering expansion of virtually unbridled information-sharing must be scaled back so as to minimize the very real likelihood of human rights violations.

The new appeal provisions that are theoretically meant to offer wrongly-targeted people a fighting chance to get off the no-fly list must be reformed to meet the requirements of fairness.

And expanded ‘recognizance with conditions” provisions allowing lengthier periods of detention without charge or trial should be reversed.

These consultations and eventual reforms offer a tremendous opportunity for Canada to approach national security from a new perspective; one that puts human rights protection at the very core rather than treating it as an inconvenient limitation.  Because as those wise words from Mauritania remind us, true and sustainable security will come through human rights, not in spite of human rights.

**This blog was first published in The Huffingon Post Canada.