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Policy for military OK'd despite torture risk

OTTAWA - The Conservative government has secretly ordered the Canadian military to share information with allies even when there's a serious risk it could lead to torture.

The Defence Department was making good progress on developing a directive from the minister to put the policy into effect, a newly declassified memo shows.

The memo reveals Defence was slated to be the fifth and final federal agency to apply the Harper government's instruction to exchange information with a foreign agency when doing so may give rise to a "substantial risk" of torture.

The others are the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency and Communications Security Establishment Canada, the electronic eavesdropping agency known as CSE.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the November 2011 memo under the Access to Information Act.

National Defence cannot release a copy of the resulting directive on information sharing — nor say when it was completed and issued — because it's a classified document, said department spokeswoman Tina Crouse.

"We don't have any comment right now," she said.

The federal policy has drawn sharp criticism from human rights advocates and opposition MPs, who say it effectively condones torture, contrary to international law and Canada's United Nations commitments.

The war in Afghanistan is a stark illustration of the fact Canadian military forces can and do develop close relationships with foreign security forces that are unquestionably responsible for torture, said Alex Neve, secretary general for Amnesty Canada.

A policy that leaves the door open for the possibility of collaboration even if torture may result "is particularly troubling," Neve said in an interview.

The memo says the Defence directive was to flow from a federal framework that "establishes a consistent process of decision making" across departments and agencies when the exchange of national-security related information puts someone at serious risk of being tortured.

The four-page, 2010 framework document, previously released under the access law, says when there is a "substantial risk" that sending information to — or soliciting information from — a foreign agency would result in torture, the matter should be referred to the responsible deputy minister or agency head.

In deciding what to do, the agency head will consider various factors, including the threat to Canada's national security and the nature and imminence of the threat; the status of Canada's relationship with — and the human rights record of — the foreign agency; and the rationale for believing that sharing the information would lead to torture.

The framework says it applies primarily to sharing with foreign government agencies and militaries, but also with military coalitions, alliances and international organizations.

The newly released memo, prepared for Peter MacKay — defence minister at the time — says the directive for his department was being "tailored to recognize the unique operational needs of a military organization."

In 2011, then-public safety minister Vic Toews issued directives to CSIS, the RCMP and the federal border agency that closely followed the wording of the government-wide framework. That same year, MacKay issued a similar directive to CSE, which reports to the defence minister.

Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was detained in New York in September 2002 and deported soon after by U.S. authorities — ending up in a vile Damascus prison cell. Under torture, he gave false confessions to Syrian military intelligence officers about involvement with al-Qaida.

A federal commission of inquiry, led by Justice Dennis O'Connor, concluded that faulty information the RCMP passed to the Americans very likely led to the Ottawa telecommunications engineer's traumatic detention.

O'Connor recommended that information never be provided to a foreign country where there is a credible risk it will cause or contribute to the use of torture.

Critics say the recent federal directives on information sharing are squarely at odds with that recommendation.

It would have been easy to write a policy that conforms with it, Neve said.

"Analyze the situation. If you think that sharing this information is likely to contribute to torture abroad, don't do it."

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