National Security Reforms a Mix of Promise and Disappointment

Extensive national security reforms announced by the federal government today, in tabling Bill C-59, the National Security Act, 2017, represent a mix of welcome progress, disappointing tinkering, and lost opportunities.
Amnesty International had urged that the government use this lengthy and comprehensive review of Canada’s national security framework, including widespread public consultations, to explicitly confirm that Canada approach to national security is grounded in full respect for the Charter of Rights and binding international human rights standards. The organization had recommended that national security laws be amended to explicitly affirm and require that legislation would be interpreted and applied consistent with those obligations. Beyond a preambular reference to according with the rule of law and respecting the Charter, Bill C-59 contains no such provisions.
“Bill C-59 offered a timely and unparalleled opportunity for Canada to embed strong respect for human rights, including the country’s important international human rights obligations, directly in our national security laws, sending a strong signal that regard for human rights in national security is not just rhetoric but a clear operational requirement and expectation,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  “Explicit human rights measures in Canadian law would be good for justice, build more sustainable security and set a sorely-needed lead on the world stage.  Bill C-59 fails to go the distance on human rights. That is an opportunity that should not be squandered.”
Amnesty International welcomes the move towards an integrated, expert review body for Canada’s national security activities. The organization has been calling for such a body to be instituted since that was recommended by the Arar Inquiry in 2006.  The specific powers and structure of the proposed National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, and how it relates to other bodies, will require further analysis but this looks encouraging.  This has been a long time coming; this agency should play an important role in guarding against rights abuses in national security operations.
Amnesty International also generally welcomes measures dealing with concerns about the criminal offence of promoting the commission of terrorism offences in general, “recognizance with conditions” powers that allow detention without charge; as well as proposed abolition of investigatory hearing powers. Changes to CSIS threat reduction warrants, information-sharing and ‘no fly list’ regimes address some concerns, but others remain.
Amnesty International is disappointed that Bill C-59 does not deal with other human rights shortcomings in Canada’s national security laws, that pre-dated the controversial Bill C-51 adopted in 2015, including provisions allowing individuals to be deported to a risk of torture in exceptional circumstances and the unfair immigration security certificate system, which Amnesty International has urged be repealed.
Amnesty International had also hoped that the government would act to address longstanding concerns about the failure to fully reject torture in Canada’s intelligence sharing arrangements with other countries. Ministerial Directions in place for close to a decade allow for the use of intelligence from other countries as well as the sharing of intelligence with other countries, in exceptional circumstances, even if there is concern the information was obtained through or may lead to torture. The directions violate Canada’s international obligations with respect to the unconditional ban on torture and contravene a key recommendation from the Arar Inquiry.  Instead of dealing with that now, it has been put off for further consultation and consideration.  Taking action against torture should never be delayed.
Amnesty International welcomes the government’s commitment to greater transparency to Canada’s national security laws and activities, including through more frequent and meaningful public reports. National security in Canada has been shrouded in excessive secrecy – even when compared to our closest allies – for far too long.
The organization will offer further analysis when Bill C-59 comes before Parliament for review.
For further information, please contact Amnesty International Canada’s press officer Sue Montgomery at 613-744-7667 ext 236 or