Sympathy for the devils: Liveblogging the Subcommittee on International Human Rights

12:59:23 PM
From the ridiculous, to the—not sublime; sobering would probably be a more appropriate way to describe the testimony on Omar Khadr, and Canada’s policy on repatriating child soldiers from Guantanamo Bay. On the stand: Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire, and Professor David Crane from Syracuse University, who is an expert on child soldiers, particularly those who fought in Sierra Leone.

Crane is first up, in fact—he’s glad to be here, particularly with someone he admires as much as Romeo Dallaire; without further ado, he launches into his presentation. During his years in West Africa, he worked with child soldiers, and came to the conclusion that no child under the age of 15 should be charged with war crimes. He sidesteps the specifics of the Khadr case, but praises Canada’s support for his work in Sierra Leone—money, resources and manpower. He recalls exploring the killing fields with RCMP officers, tears streaming down their faces—Mounties included—at what was found. He recalls, two years after the conflict had ended, his encounter with a young boy—a 12-year-old, left deaf by the conflict—who told him, using sign language, that he was “sorry” for killing people, two years prior. “You do the math,” he says.

To conclude, he recalls children lining up in front of the revolutionaries, who asked them if they wanted to join or “go home.” Most said they wanted to go home; that, the professor notes, sadly, was the wrong answer: the shootings began, and continued until the answer changed to that which the gunmen wanted to hear.

A casting note: Jason Kenney just arrived, flanked by Rob Anders. He missed most of the presentation, but I’m sure David Smith—who apparently has access to a transporter, since he left the last committee after me, but arrived at nearly the same time—will fill him in.

1:10:38 PM

Romeo Dallaire doesn’t think much of the “due process” at Guantanamo; he, too, has dealt with child soldiers, and has “honed relative expertise” that allows him to comment, what with witnessing the Rwandan genocide and dedicating the rest of his life to making amends for a tragedy that he seemingly still believes, against all reason or common sense, was somehow due to his failure to act. He’s been to Sierra Leone as well, during the demobilization, his son is now involved in working with former child soldiers, and he’s currently researching ways to prevent adults from using children as weapons of war. He only found out about the Khadr case last year, and was immediately, and is still, appalled by the policy that allows a child soldier—any person under 18 used in hostilities, whether recruited via coercion or voluntarily—to rot in a secret prison of dubious international legality.

1:19:46 PM
Interesting: there are just three staffers on the opposition benches, although a full contingent of opposition members; but despite the fact that there are only two government MPs at the table, the Conservative side is completely full: ten staffers, total. I… have no idea what that means. But I find it intriguing.

Dallaire—who is still presenting, and may have to be cut off soon or there will be no time at all for questions—can’t see how anyone could argue for a moment that Khadr is not a child soldier. He points out that, actually, the Afghan mission has involved the capture of many child soldiers, who have not been tried, but rehabiliated. It makes no sense, Dallaire says, that Khadr would be treated so differently—except for the possibility that it is a political issue.

The US president wants to close the place down, he notes, as do all three of the people running to replace him. “The thing is flawed and illegal, and we’re letting it happen,” he concludes. Canada will soon be the only country on earth to allow a child soldier to be held in an illegal prison on illegal charges before being put on trial in an illegal court—and we are letting it happen. How proud we should be.

1:27:39 PM
Mario Silva is asking the longest question in the world, which seems to have something to do with 9/11, the War on Terror, international law and due process. Dallaire notes that this wasn’t, in fact, the first time that the United States was attacked on its own territory—”we attacked twice, and won”; burned down the White House even—although he points out that was in self defence. He then goes on to deplore the mentality that has led the US to establish a police state in order to feel more secure, and Silva wanders off to another issue; he wants confirmation that Canada has a “positiive obligation” to act on Khadr’s behalf.

Dallaire agrees, and reminds the committee of some of Canada’s obligations. Doing nothing “goes against every element of justice that we know”—and he blames the military tribunal, not the United States, for creating this “political institution.” The way you deal with that, he suggests, is for the Prime Minister to call President Bush and say, “I want my boy back; we’ll deal with the paperwork later.”

Anyone want to place a bet on that phone call happening any time soon?

1:36:22 PM
Vivian Barbot asks for more details on the process of handling child soldiers who were under eighteen at the time of the conflict; Crane had the discretion to charge 16-18 year olds with war crimes, but realized that there was simply no mens rea that would allow a child to commit a crime against humanity. Even if a child voluntarily joins the force, he says, they just don’t have the mental capability to choose that situation.

For the record, Crane believes Khadr is, in fact, a child soldier, and warns against letting his case become a slippery slope towards putting children on trial for war crimes.

1:42:27 PM
Wayne Marsden wonders how the Khadr case is affecting Canada’s reputation abroad, in terms of human rights support, and Dallaire laments the gradual erosion of the respect Canada once commanded. Human rights, he stresses, are rights for all humans—not just Canadians. Maybe we don’t like the politics of those people out “fighting our troops” in Afghanistan, or wherever, but that, he says, is irrelevant.

Dallaire believes that it would make Bush “the happiest man in the world” to get the call from Canada that would allow him to send Khadr home, and close Guantanamo down.

1:46:25 PM
Anyone 15 years or younger is a child, period, says Crane. David Sweet and Jason Kenney—yes, they’re still here, and are up next—don’t seem to even be listening to him at this point.

1:47:41 PM
There we go. Jason Kenney quotes Dallaire as having said that the US is “no better than the other guy,” AKA the terrorists, and Dallaire is only too happy to reaffirm that any country that infringes civil and human rights and the rule of law is no better than that which doesn’t recognize them.

Kenney is now asking whether, by terrorists, Dallaire means people who behead women, and who “kidnap people with Downs’ Syndrome” and who believe Israel should be destroyed, and—wait, what does this have to do with Omar Khadr? Dallaire tells him, point blank, you’re either with the law, or against it. You’re a child soldier, or you’re not. If Kenney wants to use extreme examples, fine, but if you go against those principles, you are going down “the same road.”

Kenney seems—nonplussed, but moves on. He asks if Dallaire raised the issue of the Khadr affair in 2005, and then gets into an odd bickerment with him over when he found out about Khadr. What Kenney doesn’t seem to get is that most senators—Liberal as well—are only too happy to savage former Liberal governments as current Conservative governments.

1:53:51 PM
And unfortunately, that’s it. An hour really, truly isn’t long enough for these hearings; hopefully, one thing that the subcommittee will report back is that a more extensive investigation be undertaken by the full committee.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.