On Friday, May 12th, the CUSJ topped off its AGM with a speech from Tim McSorley of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG). The topic of the speech was Our Rights! Our Freedoms!… Our National Security?
McSorley began by introducing himself and describing how the ICLMG came into being in 2001, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. He pointed out that there is some confusion surrounding the concept of ‘National Security’, and that the meaning can be obscured (as you can see from some of the examples that follow).
He said that non-governmental organizations such as the CUSJ give him hope that, working together, organizing events and campaigns, we will be able to confront the injustices that can arise when the concept of National Security is misused. McSorley reminded us that it is the 35th anniversary of the Charter of human rights and freedoms in Canada—we have to strive to achieve an equilibrium between human rights and security. Some of the most benign activities, such as a march for the environment, can be tainted with suspicion when they are framed as threats to national security. Yet, when we look at the most violent terrorist attacks, they are most often committed by white men who grew up in Canada—who sets the idea of security?
McSorley ’s speech highlights:
- CSIS is very secretive… we can’t know how they get their information—nonetheless, their reports are used as the basis for determining national security risks. There is a creep that happens when your whole focus is on finding threats—your view of what is a threat becomes broader and broader. Extremism can happen within politics, as we have seen in the Conservative leadership debates and in Motion M-103.
- In Edmonton an officer of the human rights commission who went to serve notice to a white supremacist was fatally shot, yet this was barely covered by the media. Why was the shooting of six men in Québec City less sensational than the killing of a soldier in Ottawa ? On Anti-Racism Day, there were anti-Muslim rallies(!) and counter-rallies.
- Are we addressing the root problems in our society, or are we becoming what Michael Moore described as a “Fear-based society”? McSorley noted a disturbing Islamophobic trend in Europe—for example, in the U.K., they renamed the Centre to combat radicalism to the Center to combat Islamic radicalism. He pointed out that gender-based violence is actually more of a problem than Islamic radicalism. We need to be looking at those issues. We have to be wary of ideas that look reasonable now, that could be twisted and misused later on. Lets focus on increasing safety and equality in society.
The powers that the government has given security agencies
There have always been instances when national security trumps our rights. During the 70s, we saw that in the FLQ crisis and the Oka crisis. This is not a new idea, but it has been ramped up in recent years. Nowadays we have Bill C-51. In Canada, we have the presumption of innocence—and yet, security laws tend to erode that principle, and lead to abusive government practices such as no-fly lists, secret trials, and so on. Any of us can be touched by the surveillance systems set up by CSIS.
How intelligence and evidence is used
Most of us would never expect to have to go through the ordeal to which Hassan Diab has been subjected. It is important to understand the difference between intelligence, which can be any information–including rumours–that has been gathered, and evidence, which is tangible and provable. ICLMG has lobbied to stop the sharing of intelligence gathered through human rights abuses such as torture.
McSorley described ‘No Fly’ lists (NFL), which allow the government to compile secret lists of citizens who are deemed to be security threats, based only on ‘intelligence’. Someone who is on a No Fly list would thus arrive at the airport, only to learn that he or she is not allowed to leave the country. He suggested that a possible solution would be to extend the special advocate program to those on the NFL, and to those facing criminal charges.
He also pointed out that, tellingly, things like the No Fly list don’t make the news, because most people are personally unaffected by such things. (This brings to mind the famous poem by Martin Niemöller.) Like surveillance, the NFL erodes our civil liberties.
Campaigns to improve the current situation
McSorley concluded his talk with a call to action, encouraging CUSJ to continue to participate in the campaign around Bill C-22, which ICLMG has been working on since the Maher Arar case. We need stringent oversight of our National Security bodies, and there are serious loopholes in this bill, so that agency activities lack transparency, and citizens’ rights to privacy are overlooked. Go to the ICLMG site to send letters.