Today the government of Canada issued a formal apology and provided compensation to Omar Khadr for Canada’s complicity in his abusive interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, where he was detained at the age of 15. For many Canadian Muslims, this represents not only necessary redress for Khadr’s mistreatment, but also an essential break with the past.
For Canada’s Muslims, the post 9/11 period, particularly the decade under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, represented an especially precarious time. Not only did his government often fail to protect Canadian Muslims’ rights at home and abroad, but Canadian officials actively cooperated with other governments to systematically violate them. It seemed that at every turn, the Harper government demonized Canadian Muslims, treating them as outsiders and security threats.
As a Canadian Muslim dual national, I began to question whether the government would provide much in the way of consular support if I were ever detained abroad while grappling with the risk of being stripped of my Canadian nationality if convicted on trumped-up charges of terrorism, treason, or espionage – charges that repressive governments around the world routinely use to crackdown on peaceful dissent. Would the government throw me to the wolves?
The Khadr apology comes on the heels of the Trudeau government’s settlement and apology to three other Canadian Muslims in March 2017 for the role Canadian law enforcement officials played in their torture in Syria and Egypt. And in 2007, the Harper government, to its credit, issued a formal apology and settlement to Canadian Maher Arar for its role in his deportation and detention in Syria.
What all these men have in common is that their religion allowed officials to deem them less entitled to the rights and protections that should be afforded to all Canadians. All these Canadian men were tortured, and in every case, Canadian officials were deemed complicit in the violation of their rights. This affront to human dignity can be difficult for many Canadians to stomach, but acknowledging the facts and accepting responsibility is a critical step forward.
While international law requires compensation but not apologies for serious human rights violations, an apology yields tremendous significance for victims nonetheless. They represent a formal attempt by the government to acknowledge the serious harm inflicted on an individual, their family, or an entire community. They send a strong message that the government acted unlawfully.
While an apology doesn’t guarantee that these abuses will never happen to anyone again, today many Canadian Muslims are breathing a small sigh of relief knowing that the country is moving to redress the wrongs committed.