What price Canadian citizenship?

In April, 2003, Colin Powell, then US secretary of state, wrote Donald Rumsfeld, then US secretary of defence, opposing the jailing of children,…

In April, 2003, Colin Powell, then US secretary of state, wrote Donald Rumsfeld, then US secretary of defence, opposing the jailing of children, elders and innocent men at the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay.

In the letter, Powell stated eight foreign governments friendly to the US had protested the illegal detention of their citizens.

Canada was not one of those countries, despite the fact that a young Canadian teenager was being held in Guantanamo in defiance of international law.

According to the 1977 Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, child soldiers who are taken prisoners of war are entitled to the same rights as any other children found in war zones. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as someone under the age of 18.

In Liberia, in Rwanda, in Kenya and in Haiti there are rehabilitation centres for former child soldiers.

Some of these have committed unthinkable war crimes, crimes for which an adult might face penalties from life in prison to death, depending on the law of the land.

As children, they were almost certainly coerced to fight, and because of that coercion they are entitled to be treated as victims, rather than as perpetrators, of war crimes.

Canadian Omar Khadr was captured by US forces in a suspected al-Qaida compound in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old, and after a term in hospital, was sent to Guantanamo, where he has remained without a word of protest from three successive Canadian prime ministers.

When picked up, Khadr was close to death from his wounds, inflicted by American bullets.

He’s alleged to have thrown the grenade that killed Christopher Speer, a sergeant in the US Special Forces.

American propagandists have succeeded in framing Sergeant Speer’s death as the murder of a medic.

Although he had taken a medical training course, Speer was in fact a combatant, armed with an M4 rifle, the kind of gun that almost killed Khadr.

American planes had just bombed the hell out of the compound, and the troops were apparently surprised to find anyone left alive.

Khadr was taken by the Americans in July of 2002, towards the end of an American bombing campaign that killed thousands of Afghan civilians.

He had been in Afghanistan with his family since the age of 10. 

Omar Khadr’s family members are in no sense of the term a public relations asset, at least here in Canada.

His father, who died in a shootout in Pakistan, is alleged to have been a founding member and monetary backer of al-Qaida.

His two older brothers have also been accused of terrorist activities, and his mother and sister have appeared on CBC TV speaking in favour of suicide bombing.

The desirability of Khadr’s family has no bearing whatsoever on his human rights, but it surely influences Stephen Harper’s willingness to protect them.

If Canadians don’t care enough to raise a fuss, George W. Bush’s cheerleader-in-chief certainly won’t do it for us.

Omar Khadr is the only citizen of a western nation still incarcerated at Guantanamo.

Britain insisted on trying its own citizens, Australia negotiated a deal to transfer its one detainee home to serve a nine-month sentence.

If Canada had stood up for Khadr he might have been home years ago.

Opposition leader Stephan Dion has called for Khadr to be tried in a civilian court saying, “When you have the last Western citizen in Guantanamo and the government is not intervening, then the question comes into our minds: why other countries did and not Canada?”

It’s unfortunate the question didn’t come into Dion’s mind when he was a cabinet minister in the Chretien and Martin governments.

At that time Khadr was a juvenile, and Canada could have made the commitment to keep him separate from his family, an offer that may have helped to secure his release.

Be that as it may, it falls to Stephen Harper now to defend the last Western citizen in Guantanamo.

More probably, he’ll continue to defend the right of his staunchest ally and role model to take child prisoners, to hold them in adult detention centres, to detain people indefinitely without due legal process, and to conduct kangaroo courts.

These are crimes against humanity, as defined by the Geneva Conventions, perpetrated on a Canadian citizen who was a juvenile at the time of his capture.

Between them, Liberal and Conservative governments have ignored or supported these crimes for more than five years, with no significant public outcry.

What does that make us?

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.