While mistreatment of Afghan detainees has made the news this week, a Toronto-born Canadian is about to be put on trial by a U.S. military kangaroo court at the notorious Guantanamo prison camp for “crimes” he committed as an “illegal combatant” between the ages of 10 and 15.
More and more citizens of the world’s democracies are speaking out loudly against the “Guantanamo gulag” and the so-called “military tribunals” as flagrant violations of international law, human rights, and the Convention on Torture. The U.S. Administration stubbornly flouts the rule of law in the name of the “war on terror” (grammatical aside: how do you make war on a noun?), and many human rights advocates are asking whether the war is not against terrorism but against justice.
But more compelling for the average Canadian are the brutal facts of one particular case, published this week by Amnesty International. Nineteen-year-old Mr. Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen born in Canada was captured by American Forces in Afghanistan in July 2002. Even though a child of 15 at the time, he was sent to Guantanamo, where he was held under appalling conditions. He was refused pain medications for his wounds. A bag was placed over his head and guard dogs let loose in his cell. He was immersed in ice water. His hands were tied above a door frame where he dangled for hours. His pleas to use the toilet were denied until he urinated on himself. He was frequently held in isolation for more than a month. He was beaten by guards and partially throttled by a hand on his neck, then lifted up by his neck while shacked and dropped to the ground. Still a child, he was threatened with rape and torture.
Conditions like this would, I think, reduce many of us to whimpering wrecks. But Omar didn’t break. He joined dozens of other prisoners in hunger strike. My physician friends tell me that a hunger strike is extremely dangerous for one so young. He lost 30 pounds, and was sent to the hospital only after he vomited blood, either from a stomach lesion or from the tube used to force feed him. No civilian doctors were allowed to examine or treat him, despite warning from experts that Khadr’s treatment could cause permanent harm and put him at severe risk for suicide.
And now he has been put on trial for crimes that may put him in a military prison for life. The main charge against him: that he threw a grenade at a US soldier when a group of fighters, including members of his own family, were being mowed down by American fire. Throwing a grenade was a futile gesture, at worst a really stupid move. But in all honesty, how many of us did not do at least one really stupid thing in our adolescence?
Even at the tender age of 15, Mr. Khadr believed himself to be a soldier of God fighting a godless enemy. He was, in effect, a child soldier. As such, his rights and safety are protected by a half dozen or more United Nations conventions and Security Council Resolutions. Every one of these was voted on and ratified by the United States.
And what was the Canadian government’s response? Not to send help, but to bring in interrogators from CSIS to assist the Americans. Mr. Kadr quotes one as saying, “I’m not here to help you. I’m not here to do anything for you. I’m just here to get information”. Only after Amnesty International turned its powerful spotlight on Omar Khadr’s plight did the Canadian government agree to raise the case with the US authorities and attempt to provide him with an independent medical evaluation. But at no time has our government publicly criticized the United States for such despicable treatment of a Canadian child.
In time, history will probably view the Guantanamo gulag as a blot on the American human rights record comparable to the American (and Canadian!) internment of their citizens of Japanese origin. But retrospective condemnation, while safe and comfortable, does not help those who suffer now. Edmund Burke (a conservative, like our Prime Minister) famously remarked that for evil to prevail it is only necessary that good men do nothing. Whatever else you may do, everyone who reads this can do one thing for Omar Khadr: email the Prime Minister and demand that his rights as a Canadian citizen be restored to him.
In her award-winning short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas“, the American writer Ursula K. LeGuin describes a utopian society whose happiness depends upon the abominable wretchedness of a single child. At the end, she writes of those who could not bear the Faustian bargain, and walk away. As I read the Amnesty report on Omar Khadr, her powerful words took on a prescient meaning: what does our well-being avail us, if it is bought with such misery?