Thursday, November 17, 2005

Canada's Retreat from Laws of War

Why do we still collude with torturers?
By Michael Byers
Published: November 15, 2005
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[Editor's note: UBC professor of international law Michael Byers, author of the new book War Law, was invited to deliver the F.C. Cronkite Lecture in the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon on November 14. What follows is taken from his address.]

The government of this country -- our country, our government -- has, since September 11, 2001, repeatedly and cynically disregarded fundamental rules of the laws of war.

The laws of war are also referred to as "international humanitarian law", since these rules are designed to prevent unnecessary suffering during armed conflict. They are paralleled, in times of peace, by international human rights. And they include the prohibition on the use of chemical or biological weapons, the prohibition on the intentional targeting of civilians and the prohibition on torture; cruel or inhuman treatment or punishment.

For decades, Canadians were at the forefront of efforts to protect human beings during times of both peace and war. In 1948, McGill law professor John Humphrey drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1956, then-Foreign Minister Lester B. Pearson pioneered the concept of UN peacekeeping-and won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1994, then-Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire served as force commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda and fought valiantly to convince the member states of the UN Security Council to enforce the prohibition on genocide. In the late 1990s, then-Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy threw his weight, first behind a new multilateral treaty banning anti-personnel landmines and then behind the creation of a permanent international criminal court. Today, a Canadian, Philippe Kirsch, serves as the first president of that judicial body. Another Canadian, Louise Arbour, is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Humphrey, Pearson, Dallaire, Axworthy, Kirsch, Arbour -- great names, Canadian names, that epitomize the pursuit of justice and dignity for all.

For decades, the Canadian government - or, rather, previous Canadian governments -- took international human rights and the laws of war seriously.

In 1976, Canada was one of the first countries to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 1977, Sandra Lovelace, a Maliseet woman from New Brunswick, used this mechanism to file a complaint against Canada with the UN Human Rights Committee. She alleged that the Canadian government had violated international law when it stripped her of her status and rights under the Indian Act after she married a non-native man.

The Human Rights Committee upheld her complaint. And the Canadian government responded by doing the right thing: amending the Indian Act to make it consistent with international human rights standards.

Today, Sandra Lovelace sits as a Senator in the Canadian Parliament.

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