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No means no

Jim Bronskill is reporting today on a December 2010 directive recently obtained under the Access to Information Act, in which Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has apparently informed CSIS that the spy agency is expected to rely on information possibly obtained through torture in “exceptional circumstances.” As per Jim Bronskill:

The latest directive says in “exceptional circumstances” where there is a threat to human life or public safety, urgency may require CSIS to “share the most complete information available at the time with relevant authorities, including information based on intelligence provided by foreign agencies that may have been derived from the use of torture or mistreatment.”

In such rare circumstances, it may not always be possible to determine how a foreign agency obtained the information, and that ignoring such information solely because of its source would represent “an unacceptable risk to public safety.”

“Therefore, in situations where a serious risk to public safety exists, and where lives may be at stake, I expect and thus direct CSIS to make the protection of life and property its overriding priority, and share the necessary information – properly described and qualified – with appropriate authorities.”

We fear that we’re beginning to sound like a bit of a broken record here at the National Security Blog, but some things seem to need repeating: The prohibition against torture is absolute and non-derogable. That means it allows no exceptions, and there are no “extraordinary” circumstances under which torture is acceptable. The UN Convention Against Torture cannot be more clear on this point: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Like the prohibitions against slavery and genocide, the prohibition against torture is widely recognized as a peremptory norm of customary international law. Saying that there are exceptional circumstances where torture is acceptable is akin to saying that there are exceptional circumstances where slavery or genocide are acceptable. Under customary international law, Canada has an affirmative obligation to prevent torture. So it is not enough for Canada to say that it is not itself engaging in torture, because it has a legal responsibility to ensure that its actions don’t make it complicit in torture, or condoning of torture.

And using information derived from torture (or even potentially derived from torture) condones torture and abuse. As per usual, we can’t put it any better than Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada:

“The bottom line is that as long as torturers continue to find a market for the fruit of their crimes, torture will continue,” he said.

Canada cannot become a market for torturers and their information. While the government has at various times insisted that it does not rely on information obtained through torture, this most recent report does little to assuage concerns that Canada is running seriously afoul of its international obligations and its own commitment to the most basic of human rights.

As the Supreme Court of Canada has observed, “torture is an instrument of terror and not of justice.” There can be no place for torture in Canadian society.

No exceptions.