Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Trapped in a bubble with Stephen Harper

The unsurprising news from the Harper government last night that it will appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada rather than seeking the repatriation of Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay demonstrates once again just how out of step this government is at the moment with the majority of the western world. Here is the report from CBC news which broke the story: "Ottawa takes Khadr ruling fight to Supreme Court." The move had been telegraphed by the Prime Minister almost immediately upon the release of the Federal Court of Appeal decision ordering Khadr's repatriation and now he's followed through. By appealing to the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister shows that he continues to live in that bubble of his, oblivious to how the world is entering a post-Guantanamo era.

What bad timing for this move. If the Prime Minister had noticed events out of Washington yesterday, he'd have seen that the U.S. has just announced a special prosecutor to investigate abuses at overseas prisons run by the CIA. The investigation is said to focus largely on cases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Khadr was held at Bagram prison in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay and alleges that he was tortured while there. His claims are bolstered by the fact that many interrogators at Bagram were charged for abuses they committed at Bagram at the same time Khadr was held there. We also know that Khadr was subjected to torture at Guantanamo Bay (e.g., the "frequent flyer programme" of sleep deprivation.)

The fact that such abuses are now being publicly investigated by the Americans, however, apparently does not register for the Harper government as something that should cause them to change their position. When a nation holding one of our citizens publicly declares it is investigating itself for torture, that's a big signal that it's time to stop bowing to the supposed integrity of that system. Guess the Prime Minister didn't notice the big special prosecutor development yesterday.

The Prime Minister might also have taken into account the growing movement among a host of nations around the world who have agreed to accept Guantanamo detainees in their countries. Recent reports show that the Obama administration has been quite successful in negotiating transfers of Guantanamo detainees to other countries. Those nations who have answered the call to help Obama to date include Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, who have accepted or agreed to take detainees. Four other EU nations have privately agreed to take detainees while five EU nations are considering it. Australia and Georgia are also talking to the Obama administration about it. Bermuda and Palau are resettling the Chinese Uighur detainees.

What would motivate these nations to accept detainees when our government continues to recoil? Strategic self-interest combined with good will:
"Obama has a lot of political capital. Countries want to do something for him, and that allows us to say, 'This is it, this is what we want you to do,' " said a senior administration official. "This is going a lot better than we might have thought."
The Harper government has probably not considered diplomatic horse-trading on this file, it's fair to say, for fear of offending its base. While our national interest might warrant a bit of pride-swallowing from the Harper crew on the Khadr case in order to achieve a breakthrough on something like the "buy American" issue, for example, they nevertheless allow Canada to remain hobbled by their own narrow domestic political considerations. Unfortunately it puts Canada on the outside looking in while other nations ally themselves helpfully with Obama on what is a very politically sensitive file for him in the U.S. But helping Obama on this file would mean alienating Republican sensibilities and that is likely a factor for the Harper government as well.

The decision to appeal the Khadr decision to the Supreme Court kicks the resolution of this case down the road. Maybe the Supreme Court will deal Mr. Harper a major embarrassment and refuse to hear the case, and quickly. But until a resolution comes, one way or another, Canada remains trapped in a bubble with Mr. Harper. We're missing the moment as the world works to get Guantanamo Bay closed.