I interviewed Georgia Luyt, an organizer with Israeli Apartheid Week at York University. IAW, as she explains, is meant as an educational effort to inform Canadians on the plight of the Palestinians and the reality of how they are marginalized, humiliated, and denied basic human rights, in effect suffering the same effects as Blacks in South Africa during the Apartheid era. Since the interview, the MPPs in the Ontario legislature, including the NDP and with only 30 members of the entire legislature present, voted to condemn IAW for being tantamount to hate propaganda. Also, Michael Ignatieff also condemned the effort. There is a concerted effort to denounce any criticism of Israel in Canada and we must all speak out for the freedom to decry injustice wherever it may occur. Here is our conversation…Georgia Luyte of York University and Israeli Apartheid Week
Our in studio guest was Vito Signorile, retired academic and peace activist.
The following contain links and information on Israeli Apartheid Week.
Yves Engler Introduction: Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid
Most Canadians believe our country acts and has acted as an honest broker or peacekeeper on the world stage. While this belief may indicate a widespread desire for a democratic and humanistic foreign policy it often does not reflect reality. My Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy was a broad overview of the subject. This work, on the other hand, is an attempt to understand Canada’s role in one of the world’s longest standing conflicts. To develop a peace-promoting altruistic Canadian foreign policy, the first step is to understand the past and current reality. Only then can we demand change. The aim of this book is to educate Canadians about what has and is curently being done in our name in an important part of the world.
Thousands of books describe various aspects of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Only a handful detail Canada’s ties to the dispute and most do so from a pro-Israel perspective. This is the first book to focus on Canadian support for the dispossession of Palestinians, for a state building a nation in favour of one religion, and for the last major European colonial project.
I believe most Canadians want their government to uphold the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, support multiculturalism and oppose colonialism when determining our foreign policy. Yet, in many respects Israel represents the antithesis of these principles. It proclaims itself the nation of one religion. It controls millions of people lives without allowing them to vote. It refuses to allow hundreds of thousands of people born in the land of Israel and their descendents from becoming citizens or even visiting the country. In many ways Israel’s current reality resembles the worst of Canada’s colonial past.
Still, this book is not about Israel, or the nature of Zionism. It does, however, begin with the position that Israel is an “apartheid state”. [Israeli apartheid: a beginner’s guide, 4] In recognition that this analysis is controversial in some quarters, a short explanation is necessary.
In Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid former U.S. President Jimmy Carter argues that Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories constitute “a system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land, but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights.” [Palestine: peace not apartheid?, 215] On numerous occasions Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu has compared the treatment of Palestinians to Blacks under South African apartheid. The 1973 UN International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid described the “inhuman acts” of apartheid as:
- Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country … including the right to work, the right to form recognized trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence.
- Any measures, including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups … the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group. [Israeli apartheid: a beginner’s guide, 4]
Certain aspects of Israeli reality fit this definition. Israel’s laws are fundamentally racist, forcing citizens and institutions to make racist decisions. “Legal apartheid is regulated in Israel,” notes Uri Davis, by “ceding state sovereignty and investing its responsibilities in the critical area of immigration, settlement and land development with Zionist organizations constitutionally committed to the exclusive principle of ‘only for the Jews’.” [Apartheid Israel, 48] With quasi state status the World Zionist Organization, Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund are constitutionally committed to serving and promoting the interests of Jews and only Jews. [Apartheid Israel, 48]
Zionist forces expelled 87% of the Arab population from the soon-to-be Jewish state in 1947/48. [Israeli apartheid: a beginner’s guide, 33] This was the first major act of apartheid waged against Palestinians. Refusing to allow them to return is an ongoing form. Since its establishment Israel has been in a state of emergency to keep the properties of Palestinian refugees in the hands of the state and the Jewish National Fund. [Israeli apartheid, 126] This theft is sanctified by the Absentees’ Property Law of 1950. [http://www.fmep.org/analysis/analysis/israeli-attempt-to-impose-absentee-property-law-to-arab-property-in-east-jerusalem]
Most of the land Israel grabbed from Palestinians is off limits to the Arabs that remain in Israel. A fifth of the population, Arabs are legally excluded from owning 93% of Israel (not including the occupied territories). [Israeli apartheid: a beginner’s guide, 49] They are also politically disenfranchised. Between 1948 and 1966 the Arab sectors of Israel were under martial law and today political parties that oppose the Jewish supremacist character of the state are outlawed. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_citizens_of_Israel] 7 (a) of Israel’s Basic Law stipulates that “A candidates’ list shall not participate in the elections to the Knesset if its objects or actions, expressly or by implication, include… negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.” [http://www.counterpunch.org/neumann10142009.html]
In addition to legal structures that discriminate against the indigenous Arab population, government services prioritize Jews. Despite making up 18% of the population, Arab Israelis receive about 4% of public spending. [Israeli apartheid: a beginner’s guide, 53] A March 2009 report found that the “government invested [US] $1,100 in each Jewish pupil’s education compared to $190 for each Arab pupil. The gap is even wider when compared to the popular state-run religious schools, where Jewish pupils receive nine times more funding than Arab pupils.” [http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10701.shtml] According to Israel’s National Insurance Institute, half of all Arab Israeli families live in poverty compared to 14 percent of Jewish families. [The Electronic Intifada Nov 30 2009]
In the West Bank, Israeli apartheid should be obvious to even the most blind. The population has been pushed into bantustan-like enclaves, encircled by a massive wall, had their water and land appropriated, and are subjected to daily humiliation at military checkpoints. For more than four decades supposedly democratic Israel has dominated the West Bank population without allowing them to vote in national elections. In Gaza 1.5 million Palestinians — many of whom were forced from their homes in 1947/48 — live in a giant prison cut off from the world by the mighty Israeli military.
In fact, Zionism is an expansionist settler ideology. For more than a century the Zionist movement has steadily usurped Arab land. Many Zionists believe Eretz Israel (the land of Israel) includes the West Bank, Gaza and much more. The 450,000 state-supported settlers illegally installed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are an expression of this expansionism. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7692983.stm] So is Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in the 1967 war.
To achieve its aims this expansionist ideology requires military might. Israel has bombed Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq and threatens to bomb Iran. Israeli military historian Zeev Maoz explains: “Between 1948 and 2004, Israel fought six interstate wars, fought two (some say three) civil wars, and engaged in over 144 dyadic militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) that involved the threat, the display, or the use of military force against another state. Israel is by far the most conflict prone state in modern history. It has averaged nearly four MIDS every year. It has fought an interstate war every nine years. Israel appears on top of the list of the most intense international rivalries in the last 200-year period.” [Defending the holy land, 5] Later in Defending The Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security & Foreign Policy, Maoz notes: “There was only one year out of 56 years of history in which Israel did not engage in acts involving the threat, display, or limited use of force with its neighbors. The only year in which Israel did not engage in a militarized conflict was 1988, when Israel was deeply immersed in fighting the Palestinian uprising, the intifada. So it is fair to say that during each and every year of its history Israel was engaged in violent military actions of some magnitude.” [Defending the holy land, 231] Maoz concludes that, “None of the wars — with a possible exception of the 1948 war of Independence — was what Israel refers to as Milhemet Ein Brerah (‘war of necessity’). They were all wars of choice or wars of folly.” [Defending the holy land, 35]
This book will argue that, from the beginning, Israel was primarily the creation of European/North American sociopolitical forces, including Canadian ones. Ideologically, Zionism’s roots come from Biblical literalism and European nationalism. Both also played significant roles in Canadian history. Zionism can be described as the ideology of the last major European settler movement. Canada is also a “settler state”, which made Israel a familiar face and garnered it support.
This book will also describe the important role Canadian diplomats played in the 1947 UN negotiations to create a Jewish state on Palestinian land. Uninterested in the welfare of the indigenous population, Lester Pearson chaired two different UN bodies discussing the issue and Canada’s representative to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, Ivan C. Rand, pushed a partition plan bitterly resisted by Palestinians. After the UN-backed partition vote Canadians supported efforts to expel Palestine’s Arab population. Hundreds of Canadians fought in the 1947/48 war, while many more financed and procured weapons. During the war 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homeland and Israel conquered 24% more territory than it was allocated in the already generous partition plan.
This book will argue that, unmoved by Palestinian suffering, Canadian diplomacy continued its one-sided backing of Israel after the 1948 war. Ottawa actively supported Israel before, during and after the 1967 war, for instance. A number of studies in the 1980s found Canada to be among Israel’s best friends at the UN. While, on occasion, Canadian pronouncements and UN votes have supported Palestinian rights, rarely have the different arms of Canadian foreign policy provided concrete support. Canadian intelligence and military services have been one-sided advocates of Israel. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service works closely with Mossad and many Canadian weapons-makers ship their products to Israel. As well, private charities support Israeli militarism and every year Canadians send hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tax-deductible donations to Israeli universities, parks, immigration initiatives etc. More controversially, millions of dollars in private money, often subsidized by Canadian tax write-offs, is funnelled to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Ontario Legislature Hansard: Thursday Feb. 25 http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/house-proceedings/house_detail.do?Date=2010-02-25&Parl=39&Sess=1&locale=en#P609_160349
Mr. Peter Shurman: I move that in the opinion of this House, the term “Israeli Apartheid Week” is condemned as it serves to incite hatred against Israel, a democratic state that respects the rule of law and human rights, and the use of the word “apartheid” in this context diminishes the suffering of those who were victims of a true apartheid regime in South Africa.
Ms. Cheri DiNovo: Before I begin, I want to dedicate these comments to someone that many of us knew and loved: a campaign manager, union activist, social justice activist and my campaign manager, who passed away on February 4, Julius Deutsch.
Julius asked me to officiate at his funeral, a funeral attended by some 500 people. The mayor spoke, among many others. And one of the things that Julius said to me before he passed away was when I asked him if there were any regrets in his life-and he lived three lives, not one. He said, “I never got to go to Israel.”
I also want to dedicate these comments to my sister-in-law, who is Muslim and has travelled extensively in the Middle East, and to my church, because many of you know I was a United Church minister before I was elected to this position.
At Emmanuel Howard Park United Church, we did a number of firsts for a Christian church. The first thing we did was that on Holy Thursday-with many churches now, it’s a tradition to do a Christianized reproduction, if I can say that, of Seder supper. What we did was a really Jewish Seder supper. We invited a Rabbinic friend to come in and to really walk us through, to have us experience what Jesus experienced on Holy Thursday.
The very Sunday after 9/11, we were the first church outside of Riverside in New York to recognize that what happened in 9/11 was going to be problematic for our Islamic neighbours. We invited Jami Mosque, the oldest mosque in Toronto, to come and worship with us that Sunday, and they came-a whole busload of them came. It was the first time anything like that had ever happened. They sat in our pews, we worshiped together, and we started a fast and friendly dialogue.
What I think we want on this issue, my friends, what we want in the Middle East and what we want in the world is the same, independent of our religious stripe, and that is peace. We want peace. We don’t need inflammatory language on either side of this issue. We don’t want it. We don’t need it. We reject it.
Is “apartheid” an inflammatory term? Absolutely. There are lots of inflammatory terms flying around about the issue in the Middle East-lots of them on all sides of that issue. They are not helpful. They detract from the cause we’re all engaged in, and that is peace.
I spoke to a number of people about this very issue before I stood here today and how really to deal with it. I heard from many Muslims-Muslims who have lived in Israel and lived in other places in the Middle East-and many of them said the same thing to me: “We are not vested in that term. We don’t like that term. We’d like to talk about ending the occupation. We’d like to talk about the wall. We’d like to talk about substantive issues.” And these are both Jews and Muslims, both in and outside Israel. We don’t want to talk in inflammatory terms, and that’s what this motion speaks to.
It was interesting that one of the Muslims, a well-respected one, and I won’t drag his name out, said that, really, just like you heard from the member from Thornhill, Israel is one of the few if not the only real democracy in the Middle East. He said, having been a struggler for rights in Iran, “Certainly I’d rather live as a Muslim in Israel than in Iran at the moment.” And I think he speaks for many Muslims and certainly many of us-certainly as a woman.
As a woman who had the great good fortune of being the one to perform the first legalized same-sex marriage in North America, I know that the rights of LGBT people are important to me. They’re important to me, and they’re important to my constituents. So I look around the world as to where those rights are upheld, and it’s problematic. There are not too many places. We’re very much engaged, some of us, in the situation in Uganda right now. But I wouldn’t want to hold up any other place-I mean it’s a little freer in Israel than it is some of the places that surround Israel in that regard. This is problematic.
But one thing I will say, and I’ll say it to my friend from Thornhill, in terms of symbolism, one of the best things we can do in this House, dealing with a motion like this, is to reiterate what we all share, to reiterate the binds that bind us. I have to say, having been a studier of theology, having my doctorate in theology and having read all of the scriptural precedents, that there is nothing in any of our scripture-Muslim, Jew or Christian-that does not call on us all to treat our brothers and sisters, independent of their religious background, independent of where they come from, as just that, brothers and sisters, with love-to extend a handshake and to avoid anything that would cause us to learn to hate each other, to propagate hatred or to propagate anything that would add to the deaths of children, for example. That’s why, when I stand here, I do so with some trepidation.
I’ve also heard the discussion, and I don’t think there’s validity to it, that this sort of motion does not belong here. I think, in a sense, it does. We are a place that is symbolic, in part at least. I know I have motions on the order paper that talk about the rights of Tibetans. We, as provincial representatives, really don’t have a lot to say about the rights of Tibetans, but we should say something about the rights of Tibetans, just as we should say something about the rights of all people who have legitimate grievances in the world. We should say something about it as human beings, never mind as political representatives.
Some have talked about peace-but, yes, peace with justice, absolutely. There’s no true peace without justice for everyone.
Certainly our federal New Democrats have a policy, a pretty widely supported policy, and that is the two-state solution. I don’t differ from that policy as a member of provincial Parliament. I think a two-state solution is the way to go.
But more importantly than talking about the politics in this place, what we really need to do is to talk about how to move from here as brothers and sisters, particularly at this time.
So here’s the thing. Israeli Apartheid Week: Does this help advance any cause? Even some friends that I have-and I have many-on the far left who have experienced real life in their home countries in the Middle East, and again mainly and mostly Muslim friends in the organization I’m thinking of, are very skeptical about such a term as “apartheid” when applying it to Israel.
First of all, as the member from Thornhill has pointed out, it’s not historically accurate any more than it would be to call Canada an apartheid nation because of our history with our First Nations people, although people have, right? It doesn’t help further the conversation. It doesn’t help First Nations people. It doesn’t help Muslims or Palestinians to talk about Israel as an apartheid nation. It doesn’t help Jews. It certainly doesn’t help Christians to use that term, and they support that.
The movement, though, is what I’m concerned about. I almost thought as I stood here that we should really start in prayer, because when you talk about such divisive issues, what I’m used to doing, coming from my background, is you start with prayer even if it’s in a multi-faith context, because you start where you share, and that’s with prayer. Just like in the Seder supper, you always pray for your enemies first. You pray for the Egyptians in the Seder supper. You pray for those that you have a contention with.
What I would suggest to all those on campuses is that instead of engaging in inflammatory language, instead of using terms that divide, we perhaps begin the discussion somewhere else. Perhaps we talk about what we do agree on and how we can move forward so that people’s lives could be saved. That is what we all want. What we all want to reiterate, and to go back to where I started, is peace-peace with justice, but peace. What we all want is safety. What we all want is what the member from Thornhill has in his riding, which, if I remember correctly, is a synagogue next to a mosque next to a Tibetan temple next to a Christian church. We want what we model in Canada. We want this for our neighbours around the world, in part. Not that we’re perfect-far from it-but we want what is so graphically shown in our city.
We want all faiths to work together. We want all peoples to work together. We want to take the level of rhetoric down at least a notch or two and to start seeing each other the way we see ourselves. That is what the Torah calls us to do. That is what the Christian Bible calls us to do. That is what the Quran calls us to do. That is what my Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu neighbours call us to do. That is what we are called to do-dare I say it?-by God. That is what we are called to do.
Ontario MPPs Ignore International
Denounciations of Israeli Apartheid
On February 25, a group of Ontario Members of Provincial Parliament (MPP) voted unanimously on a motion to “denounce” this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). Claiming to send a message of so-called “moral suasion” to all “fair-minded Ontarians,” Peter Shurman, the MPP who tabled the motion, argued that the mere application of the phrase ‘Israeli apartheid’ is “about as close to hate speech as one can get without being arrested.” In what seemed a veiled threat of possible arrests in the future of those accusing Israel with the crime of apartheid, Shurman moved on to state that he was “not certain” that its use “doesn’t actually cross over that line.”
Israeli Apartheid Week, March 1-7, 2010 – apartheidweek.org.
To make the case for curtailing the use of this phrase, random online blogs not associated with IAW are quoted, after which a barrage of name-calling which vilify the organizers as “propagandists” and “liars,” and label IAW as “pure garbage” and “toxic” follow. Once tabled, a range of bizarre anecdotes of relatives, neighbours and friends who support the Zionist project were presented by various NDP, Liberal and Conservative MPPs as reasons for supporting this blatant censure of freedom of expression. Other than a letter written by Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, distancing the NDP from the motion, there was little disagreement.
Israeli Apartheid: Not an Analogy
Of course, campaigns to stifle criticism of Israeli crimes of apartheid are not new. A similar unity by senior Canadian Members of Parliament and university administrations surfaced during last year’s IAW with the financial blackmail of local community organizations and campus groups, bureaucratic harassment of trade unions supporting Palestine solidarity groups, vilification of respected community leaders, baseless accusations of anti-Semitism aimed at capturing and ending all criticism of Israel – an all-encompassing umbrella that would also capture dissenting Jewish and Israeli voices – and with elaborate attempts to stifle organizing on campuses by denying space for lectures and panel discussions, and banning the official poster of the initiative.
Evidenced by a series of academic lectures and presentations welcomed with packed rooms of students of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict during last year’s IAW, their united effort failed.
As a result, this year, Ontario MPPs are not interested in a political discussion. Realizing that public dissent and discourse in the face of continued infringements of human dignity and blatant violations of international law cannot be muted easily, the argument is now that there is no issue with debating the Israel-Palestine conflict, instead, “the problem is the name Israeli Apartheid Week.” The concern lies with the mere use of the word ‘apartheid’ to describe the Israeli system of occupation, expulsion, exclusion and exploitation.
So, what is the issue with the term ‘apartheid’? Ontario MPPs seem to argue that the term has an expiration date. Apartheid, Shurman says, “was only ever applied in one historical case and remains applicable only to that one period of South African history.” We cannot condemn the racial discrimination embedded in the system of laws, institutions, structures, policies and practices which regulate the relationship between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people until we invent another term. In other words, people of conscience are asked to ignore the elephant in the room.
On this note, the record is clear. Palestinian, Israeli, and international academics, legal scholars and solidarity activists are not arguing that apartheid South Africa is an exact replica of Israeli apartheid. In fact, it would do the MPPs and their supporters some good to read “Not an Analogy: Israel and the Crime of Apartheid” by Hazem Jamjoum of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. In this piece, Jamjoum argues that while points of similarity and difference between apartheid South Africa and Israeli apartheid are outlined with great detail by prominent scholars and solidarity activists, apartheid is a political and legal system that could be practiced by any state. He moves on to point out that even with regards to the legal definition of apartheid, the 1973 adoption of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid by the UN General Assembly explained that the definition of the crime of apartheid was not limited to the case and borders of South Africa. In other words, there is no basis for the argument that apartheid refers exclusively to a particular government, period of rule, or moment in history.
MPPs Malign the Work of
International Legal Figures, Academics
Charging Israel with the crime of apartheid was not concocted by the organizers of IAW. Defining Israel’s institutionalized domination and multifaceted system of control over the Palestinian people as apartheid is the result of an informed position held by a range of Palestinian, Israeli, and international academics, religious figures, journalists, politicians and other persons of conscience.
On numerous occasions, John Dugard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has asserted the fact that Israel’s ongoing military presence is not a ‘normal’ type of occupation; a controlling force over a territory after a period of violent conflict. Instead, Dugard points out that what Palestinians experience on a daily basis is described as “the regime of a colonizing power under the guise of occupation which includes many of the worst features of apartheid.”
Former President of the United Nations General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, compared Israeli violations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to “the apartheid of an earlier era,” urging the international community that “we must not be afraid to call something what it is.” Also, in a recent article, former national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America, Henry Siegman, argued that “Israel’s relentless drive to establish ‘facts on the ground’… have succeeded in locking in the irreversibility of its colonial project” and as a result “Israel has crossed the threshold from ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ to the only apartheid regime in the Western world.”
The extensive list of prominent Palestinian, Israeli and international intellectuals, politicians, academics, journalists, religious figures, and solidarity activists who have used the term apartheid to describe Israel and its policies of exclusion also includes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, British-Israeli Professor Avi Shlaim, Israeli Professor Oren Yiftachel, Palestinian-Jewish Professor Uri Davis among others.
If charging Israel with the crime of apartheid is the issue, then these Ontario MPPs would also advocate the silencing of these prominent figures along with the organizers of IAW.
The Suasion to Support Israeli Apartheid Week
Evident from the motion passed by this group of MPPs is their hypocrisy. There is complete neglect of Israel’s blatant disregard for Palestinian life, and its ongoing violations of international law, international humanitarian law and human rights – all of which has been thoroughly documented by several human rights organizations. Rather, these MPPs have decided to reward Israel for its belligerence by taking steps to censor informed criticisms of the Zionist project by human rights organizations and persons of conscience. No doubt, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s upcoming trade mission to Israel on May 23 is part of the reward-package.
And it does not stop here. Conservative Member of Parliament Tim Uppal, recently declared his intention to introduce a motion before the House of Commons condemning IAW, the planned series of informed lectures and panel discussions, and, by extension, the charge of Israeli violations with the crime of apartheid. In this context, supporters, participants and organizers of IAW will attempt to address Israel’s systematic violations of human dignity, which the Ontario Premier and this group of MPPs seem to have excused. Supporting IAW this year means continuing to assert the need to hold Israel accountable for its recalcitrance, its military adventurism, and refusing to yield to efforts by elected officials to intimidate and silence advocates of human rights. •
Shourideh Molavi is based in Toronto, and writes regularly on Israeli crimes of apartheid.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~(((( The B u l l e t ))))~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Detainee abuse will come back to bite Harperites
Minority parties could work together to hold MacKay and Cannon in contempt.
Dateline: Monday, March 01, 2010
by Stuart Thomson
OTTAWA, March 3, 2010 — Parliament is likely to pick up right where it left off, by demanding to know more about the role of senior ministers in the Afghan detainee scandal.
The House of Commons request for government memos regarding the transfer of Afghan detainees was temporarily stymied by prorogation. Now the issue will be at the forefront when the House reconvenes.
The Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan sees the documents as essential in establishing a timeline of who knew what, and when they knew it. If the Committee finds strong evidence that members of cabinet were aware that Canadian soldiers handed over prisoners to Afghan forces — knowing they would be tortured — it would have serious repercussions, possibly even a referral to the international war crimes tribunal.
There are essentially two options for action. In both, opposition MPs have one overarching tenet of parliamentary democracy on their side: the supremacy of Parliament.
“You can go the route of finding the cabinet minister[s] involved in refusing to disclose the documents in contempt of Parliament, which in a minority parliament the opposition parties could easily do because they’re a majority,” says Duff Conacher, the Director of Democracy Watch, a watchdog group advocating for democratic reform and accountability.
The cabinet ministers in question would be Peter MacKay, Minister of Defence, and Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
The consequences could be extreme as expelling a minister or asking the speaker to censure him, and would take a simple majority vote to pass.
“If the minister doesn’t [disclose the documents] expel the minister. If another minister doesn’t, you can expel him too,” says John Chenier, director of The Lobby Monitor, an Ottawa publication on lobbying and public policy.
Although expelling a minister is technically possible, Conacher doesn’t think it will accomplish anything except maybe to annoy the Canadian public.
“It’s a kangaroo court. It doesn’t resolve anything. And you’re not going to get the documents either,” he says.
Conacher says that the only real solution to the problem is to refer the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada. This would provide clarification on which documents, and how much of those documents, House committees can demand to see.
A Court decision would also solve the ongoing conflict between the parliamentary counsel, who advises that committee members should be allowed to see the memos but with greater precautions than normal, and the government’s lawyers, who say that the request can be denied on national security grounds.
The process of referring the issue to the Supreme Court could be expedited, because the arguments on both sides have already been written, and the Court is likely to recognize the urgency of the matter.
The case could reach the court in a matter of months, rather than years, and could be initiated by the government or, in a less direct way, by the opposition parties.
Paul Dewar, NDP Foreign Affairs critic and a member of the special committee, was averse to taking the issue to the courts.
“We shouldn’t have to [go to the courts]. We’ve seen this government use the courts to delay. We can’t delay on this question.,” he said at a press conference on Feb. 3.
Dewar was speaking to reporters after announcing that he had sent a letter to Attorney General and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson demanding that the committee be allowed access to the documents. Dewar believes that Nicholson, in his capacity as Attorney General, has a responsibility to Parliament that goes over and above his responsibility to Cabinet.
If Nicholson denies the request, Dewar says that the opposition parties will move to hold the government in contempt and censure the ministers responsible for withholding the documents.
“We need to hold the government to account and if they are not going to provide access to these documents, hold them in contempt because they clearly would be,” he said.
- May 2005: Canada begins negotiations of a detainee transfer deal with Afghanistan. Up to this point, detainees were passed on to American troops who then shipped them to Guantanamo Bay.
- December 2005: A transfer deal is signed by Rick Hillier while the federal government is embroiled in a federal election. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would defeat Paul Martin’s Liberals and go on to form a minority government.
- May 2007: The government signs a new detainee transfer deal, admitting that the old one was inadequate. The move comes in response to a growing scandal regarding Afghani detainees who claim they were tortured after being transferred by Canadian troops. The new agreement includes provisions such as follow-up visits to Afghani jails and better protections for detainees.
- November 2009: Richard Colvin, a former diplomat in Afghanistan testifies to the Military Police Complaints Commission with further allegations of torture by Afghani interrogators.
- February 3, 2010: Paul Dewar, MP-NDP, requests an unredacted copy of memos regarding treatment of detainees from Justice Minister and Attorney General Rob Nicholson. Dewar says that if Nicholson, as Attorney General, says no to the request then the government would indisputably be in contempt of parliament.
- March 3, 2010: Parliament to resume after a six week prorogation. Document requests, like Private Members’ Bills, survive prorogation and remain when parliament resumes.