Thursday, October 20, 2011

Taking Liberties: The Ever-Changing Imperatives of "National Security"

(This is the first in a series of columns at on “national security” and civil liberties in Canada and abroad that seeks to focus on specific cases as well as the overall framework in which serious human rights abuses have been justified in the name of security.)

By Matthew Behrens

Just after Thanksgiving, Montreal’s Westin Hotel played host to a gathering of high-powered Federal Court judges, NGO heads, lawyers, academics, and members of Canada’s torture-complicit spy service, CSIS. Coming together under the predictably dry title “Terrorism, Law and Democracy: 10 years after 9/11,” the conference sought to determine “whether Canadian law has successfully preserved fundamental rights and values of substantive and procedural justice while at the same time contributing to anti-terrorism.”
This collegial-sounding gathering – entrance to which was restricted to those who could shell out the $895 entrance fee – appears to have been one of those periodic gabfests where elite representatives determine the responsible manner in which the rest of us will perceive terms like “terrorism” and “national security”. Importantly, attendees were safely insulated from the most compelling voices of the past ten years: those who have been victimized by numerous conference participants. The latter included judges who have presided over secret hearings, spies whose organization falsely labels individuals security threats, and academics who produce papers defending arbitrary detention.
Indeed, Canadians Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin, who three years ago this month were found by a secretive federal inquiry to have been tortured with the complicity of Canadian government agencies, including CSIS, were not on any of the panels. Nor were Abousfian Abdelrazik and Omar Khadr, both tortured with CSIS complicity. Benamar Benatta, an Algerian refugee rendered to torture by Canadian hands on September 12, 2001, wasn’t there to talk about how his Charter rights had been violated either, nor were Adil Charkaoui and Hassan Almrei, whose bogus secret trial security certificates were finally quashed after a decade-long struggle. Mohammad Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah, and Mohamed Harkat, who are still facing deportation to torture without being able to see the secret “case” against them, were similarly absent.
Each of those individuals was more than capable of delivering an eloquent assessment of the conference theme – indeed, the names and stories of those who have suffered a fundamental denial of rights at the hands of Canadian authorities in the past decade could fill volumes. But conference organizers instead brought in CSIS Assistant Director of Intelligence Raymond Boisvert, and former CSIS Director Jim Judd (who in one Wikileaks-released document laments Canadians’ “paroxysms of moral outrage” over the human rights abuses committed by his organization).
It must have been an odd sight to witness those CSIS veterans sharing a polite panel discussion with critics of human rights abuses such as of Amnesty International Canada’s Alex Neve, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Nathalie des Rosiers. One wonders if either of them directly challenged the CSIS men, perhaps asking why there has been no apology, no compensation, and no systemic changes in CSIS to prevent the kind of torture suffered not only by the abovementioned men, but by numerous others. Equally important, did conference organizers and participants consider the manner in which the scandal-plagued CSIS is accorded a significant degree of legitimization and acceptance by having its heavyweights appearing at such a gathering? Or that those who have been targeted, such as Maher Arar or Adil Charkoui, suffer an equal degree of de-legitimization by not inviting them onto the agenda?
As with any important political issue, who sits at the table of such conferences generally determines the scope of the discussion. In this instance, the absence of key voices raises significant issues about how the never-defined term “national security” is framed, filtered, and ultimately understood in this country. Such a closed, circular world logically produces a Canadian military that names First Nations advocates threats to national security and explains why the Canadian financial intelligence unit FINTRAC was found recently to have tarred environmentalists and animal rights activists as terrorists in their online tutorials.
In a similar vein, it will come as no surprise to rabble readers that most mainstream media outlets buy into such narrow narratives. Most reporters assigned to the national security beat are not physically embedded within the RCMP and CSIS in the way those covering the occupation of Afghanistan seem to become stenographers for the Canadian military. But they tend to write as if they were, buying the assumptions created and sustained by those who benefit most from them while generally ignoring the fact that these agencies have a historical profile that reads “pathological liar”.