Saturday, February 24, 2007

UN Grills Canada

Lisa Schlein
Canadian Press

GENEVA (CP) - Canada has vigorously denied engaging in racial profiling in its fight against terrorism.

A Canadian delegation appearing this week before a UN anti-racism committee has also given assurances that there won't be a repeat of the Maher Arar case.

The Syrian-born Canadian software engineer was detained by U.S. authorities in 2002 during a stopver in New York and sent to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured on unsubstantiated allegations of terrorist ties. Arar was released without charge after almost a year and sent back to Canada.

A Canadian inquiry has since exonerated him and found that U.S. authorities acted on faulty information from Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has apologized and announced a C$10.5 million compensation package for Arar.

The 18-member UN panel of independent experts brought up the Arar case as it looked over a 79-page report submitted by Canada in a periodic review of whether the country is complying with the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial discrimination.

During its session on Canada Tuesday and Wednesday, the committee asked whether Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act could negatively affect ethnic groups and minorities, particularly with racial profiling.

"It is true that various members of Arab communities and Muslims have complained that the Anti-Terrorism Act has given operational agencies such as police licence to engage in racial profiling," said Glenn Gilmour of the Criminal Law Policy Division of the Department of Justice.

But nothing in the legislation "targets any specific ethno-target or religious group," Gilmour said.

The Anti-Terrorism Act is "a balanced package of measures carefully targeting people and activities that pose a threat to the security of Canadians while fully respecting the diversity that is essential to Canadian society."

"This is a struggle against terrorism and not against any community, group or faith."

The committee brought up the example of Arar and asked what steps have been taken to ensure that similar cases of "extraordinary rendition" would not occur again.

Gilmour assured the committee that nothing like this could happen again.

The Canadian delegation noted that Justice Dennis OConnor, who headed the two-year Canadian public inquiry into the Arar case, pointed out that "racial profiling had not been present" although Canada was "not immune from acts of racial discrimination."

But in a brief submitted to the committee, the Canadian branch of Amnesty International said that profiling is not an issue related only to Arar. It noted that the cases of three other Muslim men of Arab origin are under inquiry.

Amnesty International is urging the Canadian government "to rapidly implement the Arar Inquiry recommendations."

Turning to Aboriginal issues, Canada came under fire from the committee for the low quality of life among indigenous communities. Discrimination, poverty, poor health and inadequate education are common problems.

The committee was particularly critical of the discrimination and violence faced by indigenous women.

The Canadian delegation acknowledged the challenges but said the government was taking concrete action to make things better.

But, the most spirited debate was over Canada's decision not to vote for the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the UN Human Right Council.

British expert Patrick Thornberry noted that "Canada was only one of two countries that voted against" the declaration in the 47-member council.

Daniel Watson, a senior assistant deputy minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, retorted that the declaration contains flaws on provisions "dealing with issues such as land, territories and resources and self-government."

"Canada cannot support the declaration in its current form - It should be noted that no Canadian government ever accepted the text in its current form."

He said the draft declaration is now before the UN General Assembly where an African group's proposal to defer consideration passed with Canadian support in late 2006.

"Canada now has the opportunity to associate itself with other states and especially with other indigenous peoples in renegotiating this text," he said.

But Linos Alexander Sicilianos, the Greek committee member, didn't see it that way.

"This draft declaration has been before the sub-commission since 1994 - that's 13 years already."

"My personal view," he said, "is that perhaps your government can be a little bit more flexible in these negotiations so as not to block the adoption of the text which affects some 300 million people in the world."