As Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper took part in a rather productive trade mission to China this month, reports emerged that his government had directed the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to use foreign intelligence information gathered on suspected terrorists that may have been acquired through torture.
The report stated that under extreme circumstances, CSIS may “includ[e] information based on intelligence provided by foreign agencies that may have been derived from the use of torture or mistreatment.” The irony, of course, is that this all emerged while the prime minister toured the very country his government had previously distanced itself from over endemic human rights violations.
Political opponents and civil society groups immediately condemned the government and questioned how such a directive impacts the overall quality of democracy in Canada. The official opposition critic for justice Jack Harris accused the government of “utter contempt” for the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yet Canada has a history of trading information with Asian governments often accused of using torture, including China, India and Thailand. Canada has signed official Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties with each country and has other treaties in the works. What isn’t common is how a reporter for the Canadian Press was able to acquire such knowledge without the veil of “nation security” blocking the access to information request.
Could this be sloppy politics, or perhaps an administrative oversight in the management of sensitive political directives? After all, it isn’t every day that an individual member of civil society can prove that a sitting government is actively defending an uninspiring argument for the use of torture – one the government surely learned from a Hollywood script.
Yet while trade with authoritarian and semi-authoritarian Asian governments may seem ethically questionable, there’s a strong case to be made that such engagement can benefit development and the overall international security order. After all, democratic peace theory suggests that liberal democracies that trade don’t go to war.
But trading with such regimes has risks. Officials often must turn a blind-eye to various illiberal governance tactics such as corruption, state-sanctioned violence through human rights violations and undemocratic political process, all of which are witnessed throughout Asia.
Canadians are now told that the trade in criminal intelligence also requires the same level of complicity. Rather than maintaining a covert policy of intelligence gathering protected by national security, the government has inflicted Canadians with a moral argument that they now must normalize or reject.
There is no longer any excuse; Canadians are complicit in torture abroad. Canada is signaling to Asia’s rulers that torture is acceptable, period. The question remains, how will Canada’s democratic system approach this truth?
For the most part, Canadian ideals are renowned for respecting human rights and promoting a strong rule of law. Canadians should remember that some of the most influential human rights mechanisms were fiercely championed by diverse governments including peacekeeping, multiculturalism, human security and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
Yet as Canada has subtly endorses the use of torture by foreign governments, proponents of sharing the information gathered by torture must consider how such a policy impacts illiberal Asia. After all, regimes that are responsible for brutalizing their citizens can now comfortably make the case that they are torturing prisoners to secure a safe and prosperous Canada.
Robert J. Hanlon is a former editor of the Asian Human Rights Commission and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia.