Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to speak to this motion. I congratulate the member for Hamilton East—Stoney Creek on raising this matter for debate, as I believe it is very important to get the government moving on it.
The first two interventions—that of the member moving the motion and that of the member for Mount Royal—touched on a fundamental point in this file, which we will articulate. The government must recognize that mistakes can be made from time to time in life and correct them.
The position taken in the matter of Omar Khadr dates from a period in which the ties between the Bush administration and the administration of the present Prime Minister were exceedingly close. Major changes have, however, taken place in the meantime and are being promoted by both the new American president and international experts in the matter of Omar Khadr. The government should note that. I hope the debate in this House today will lead the government to change its position.
We will remember that Omar Khadr is a young man, a Canadian citizen, born in September 1986. He was taken to Afghanistan by his parents and was captured by American forces in July 2002. He was 15 at the time and was therefore a child soldier.
He was taken prisoner following a battle between American and insurgent forces. In the course of the battle, one soldier died, Sergeant Christopher J. Speer, as did two Pashto translators. The facts are not in dispute. It is not a matter of defending someone, of saying they committed no crime. That point is unknown, as he was never sentenced in court. He was imprisoned at Guantanamo, and, over a number of years, waited for legal proceedings pursuant to his arrest. In the end, the court proceedings were suspended by President Obama.
Let us come back to the situation. In its report, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development states that the Subcommittee on International Human Rights did not receive evidence on the precise circumstances of how Mr. Khadr came to be involved in the battle at which he was captured, or of how he came to be associated with al-Qaeda. There are no facts to confirm the connection with al-Qaeda and there never have been any.
In fact, there is no precise information on the context in which Mr. Khadr was taken prisoner. In the battle, Mr. Khadr was wounded and was subsequently treated at the military hospital. From there, he was transferred to prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, and detained at Delta camp.
Omar Khadr has been detained at Guantanamo since 2002. He waited five years for charges to be laid against him. He was arrested at age 15 and spent five years in prison, but there was no trial during that whole time.
If we had a young person in that situation here in Canada, someone who had been arrested and sat in prison for five years without a trial and was still in prison, I do not think that anyone in Canadian society would tolerate it. The Conservative government is alone in its stand and we cannot comprehend its stubborn refusal to change it.
In November 2005, Mr. Khadr was accused of war crimes by a military commission. In June 2006, the Supreme Court of the United States ended this commission because it had no legislative authority. In September 2006, Congress gave the commission the legislative tools it needed to address war crimes. Then the commissions were suspended once Mr. Obama was elected.
Omar Khadr was charged with the following: murder in violation of the law of war, attempted murder and conspiracy—all under circumstances where he was a child soldier. The convention on child soldiers clearly states that it is in order to manage this type of situation that the international convention was passed in the first place.
But the Prime Minister himself does not seem to know this international convention very well because he declared that Mr. Khadr could not be considered protected by the convention because he was not part of a regular army.
However, the convention is in place to ensure that any rebel military group perpetrating acts of violence cannot use child soldiers and that, if it does, these children will be given the maximum opportunity to be reintegrated into society once removed from these groups.
The Prime Minister has displayed crass ignorance with respect to this convention. If his personal knowledge was lacking, he should have sought information because he has shown by his ignorance that he was not up to his responsibilities in this context.
In May 2008, Omar Khadr's Canadian lawyers said their client needed medical attention and psychological support as a result of his detention. As I said, at the request of President Barack Obama, the military commission responsible for ruling on Omar Khadr's case has suspended its hearings for 120 days.
At the same time, the American president also declared that he would close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year. The Canadian government says it wants to establish a good relationship with the U.S. administration. It could have started by telling the American president that it was willing to repatriate Mr. Khadr, bring him back to Canada, and determine whether he should be put through the judicial process, in other words, charged, tried and convicted, if necessary. The United States would therefore have had one less prisoner at the Guantanamo facility, a Canadian citizen who has been detained there without charge for several years. Had the federal government done this, it would have been an excellent diplomatic gesture. It refused and has drawn criticism from the vast majority of Quebeckers and Canadians.
Three years ago, a survey showed that 47% of people were against the repatriation of Mr. Khadr. In 2009, more than 60% of people are in favour of his repatriation. With time, people have come to realize how inappropriate a place Guantanamo was and that something must be done. Mr. Obama's election clearly demonstrated that. Of all the choices the American people have made, their decision to return to the rule of law and to act as quickly as possible when prosecuting someone was certainly an important one. Past centuries have seen huge battles for habeas corpus, so that individuals would be brought before the court as soon as possible after their arrest, thereby preventing unjustified arrests.
In this case, in the 21st century, it is truly an aberration for an individual to be jailed for five years without any formal charges being brought against him. When there was a formal charge, the commission tasked with the investigation was suspended and there is still no possibility of Mr. Khadr going to trial in the short term. The opposition parties are not the only ones to ask the government to take action. Amnesty International and the Canadian Bar have also taken a stand: they are concerned about human rights, respect for the law and for the rule of law. The Conservative government continues to take a position opposed to that of the entire population, which wants the case to be heard as quickly as possible.
It is very difficult to understand why the Conservative government did not seize the opportunity provided. It could have decided to bring Omar Khadr back to Canada and to conduct a trial if necessary. He has been through quite the judicial process. There is nothing but stubbornness behind the Conservative position.
Does this also reflect the Conservative government's view on how to deal with young offenders? I have always believed that the international policies adopted by a country reflect its domestic policies. Canada has never managed to give 0.7% of its GDP to international aid and, similarly, has never been able to adequately reform employment insurance.
In this case, it is a matter of someone who can be accused of having been a young offender. Such a person would deserve to go before the court and be judged. We will see what the outcome is. Rehabilitation might prove necessary. A highly productive approach has been submitted by Mr. Khadr's counsels in conjunction with people from the surrounding community and family members in Ontario. Mr. Khadr himself has agreed to not necessarily being returned to his family but being instead taken in by other people and taking advantage of activities to reintegrate him with society. This young man has not had an easy time of it. If he came back to Canada tomorrow morning, if the federal government decided to repatriate him, he likely would not be able to re-enter society just like that, from one day to the next. Counsel for Mr. Khadr has foreseen this and they have informed Foreign Affairs authorities accordingly. They even wanted to meet with the Minister of Foreign Affairs but a meeting like that has been very hard to organize. Even today, however, we know that a hand has been outstretched and that, if the Canadian government did decide to repatriate Mr. Khadr, a reintegration plan is in place and he would be required to face charges if appropriate.
No one has ever wanted him to be absolved of his mistakes or for the situation to be treated as if it never happened. Everyone agrees on his return to Canada, with the exception of the Conservative government, and on his facing the appropriate legal procedures set out in our legislation. That is what we are calling for.
There is a basic legal principle that consists of allowing a person be tried as soon as possible. That principle has not been respected in this case. As I said, the majority of Canadians are now in favour of the repatriation of Omar Khadr. In an Ipsos Reid poll held in January 2009, 64% of respondents were in favour of his repatriation, while in an Angus Reid poll in June 2007, some 47% of Canadians were against it. The response to that might be that we cannot govern by polls alone, but if we talk to those who analyze case law, the Canadian Bar for instance, we realize that the Conservative government really has no reason to maintain its position.
The Conservatives' position is weak, because they do not recognize that Mr. Khadr is a child soldier. He was a child of 15 when he was captured by American troops. The Conservative government has always refused to recognize Omar Khadr as a child soldier. In January, the Prime Minister denied that he was. Canada has signed a number of international conventions on the rights of children and child soldiers. A child is defined as every human being under the age of 18. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that:
Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity...in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances.
Yet Omar Khadr has been held from the start in an adult prison.
The same convention also provides that states parties shall ensure that “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Mr. Khadr has alleged that he has been tortured, and Canadian courts have also recognized that.
We have a situation where there is a child soldier, but the federal government denies his status as a child soldier. We want today's motion for concurrence in the report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development and this debate in the House to prompt the government to change its position. There is still time to get the outcome the committee proposed.
There is no legislative provision that allows the special commission responsible for trying Mr. Khadr to distinguish between a normal soldier and a child soldier. President Obama will either suspend this military commission permanently or allow it to continue, but from what we know about this commission, the judges cannot make such a distinction, and that will have a significant impact on this young man's life.
Canada's position on Omar Khadr must comply with international law. We believe that the appeal made by the three opposition party leaders in a letter to the Prime Minister, the debate today, the report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, and the report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights all show that there is a consensus in Quebec in this regard. All that is missing is the government itself. The government should take a hard look at this. The Conservatives have already decided to make major changes to their way of doing things. They used to be totally ideological non-interventionists, but then they realized in view of the economic realities that they had to invest more and run deficits. The Conservative government changed direction on the economy, and we hope it will go much further and much faster.
When it comes to human rights, though, there has been no change. The message from all sides is clear, however, and change is what everyone wants.
Canada aspires to a seat on the UN Security Council. When the candidacies of the various countries are assessed, the quality of our democratic life in Canada will obviously be considered, as well as our actions on the international stage.
The way we are treating a child soldier will surely be a black mark on Canada’s record. The government has refused to repatriate him, obstinately hiding behind the pretext that he has been accused of serious crimes. Young people can be accused of serious crimes in Canada, but we have a method of dealing with them under young offenders legislation. The same applies internationally through the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines what a child soldier is. The Canadian government should have taken all this into account.
I will conclude with some comments on the position of the hon. member for Mount Royal. A little while ago, a Conservative member asked him whether he knew, when he was in government, that young Khadr was 15 years old. This was basically a trap to get him to say that his position was the same as theirs when he was in government. I quite liked the answer of the hon. member, who said he had expressed some reservations from the very beginning but, most of all, there are times in life when we have to be able to change our opinion. The Liberal Party has changed its opinion now and the NDP and the Bloc Québécois continue their defence of this case.
We are Quebec sovereignists. We are in the Canadian federal Parliament and we want to see the positive tradition of Canada's heritage respected, particularly where the defence of human rights and international presence are concerned. When Quebec becomes a sovereign country, we will be able to continue that tradition. While we remain here, we are defending the interests of Quebec, and defence of the interests of Quebec goes beyond what is happening in the rest of Canada. It is also linked to ensuring the quality of our reputation abroad and the way Canada's legislation and international commitments are respected. That respect is not evident in the present context.
Unfortunately, it is not simply a matter of economic issues or principles. This is about the quality of life of a person who has spent several years in prison without formal legal proceedings. When proceedings were held, they were not concluded. We are now faced with a situation in which a young person, whether found guilty or innocent, will need to be reintegrated into society in either case. A plan has been put forward by his lawyers. It involves a collaborative approach. The only collaboration missing is that of the Conservative government, and that is what we hope to see fall into place once all the representations have been made.
We will also probably see from the vote that will conclude this debate in the House that the majority of members of the House want to see Mr. Khadr repatriated as soon as possible. That way, a blot will be removed from Canada's international record. The Conservative government must come to realize that it needs to keep its word internationally and handle this case as the majority of Quebeckers and Canadians want to see it handled: repatriation of Mr. Khadr as promptly as possible. This will also help to gradually reduce the number of detainees in Guantanamo with a view to its total closure, the final chapter in this tragic story we have been witnessing in recent years. Terrorism increased and there was a reaction to it, but we have always said that the best reaction to terrorism is through the rule of law. As far as this situation is concerned, the Conservative government is doing nothing to defend that concept.
Obviously, the Bloc Québécois is in favour of the debate triggered by the report. We wish to see it concurred in so everyone can quickly grasp the necessity for the Conservative government to make a move and adopt a far more dynamic and progressive position. They need to accept, as the Liberals did, that their opinion and position need to change and that Mr. Khadr needs to be repatriated as soon as possible.