Canadian anti-terror bill opens door for human rights abuses, law scholars argue

John Barber
The Guardian : February 27, 2015

More than 100 Canadian law professors have warned the prime minister, Stephen Harper, that a sweeping new anti-terror law introduced by his Conservative government is a “dangerous piece of legislation” that threatens to undermine the rule of law, human rights and democracy itself.

Although one poll showed that four out of five Canadians supported the proposed law shortly after it was tabled last month, criticisms that originated with scattered human-rights groups have since been amplified by a growing chorus of the nation’s leading jurists, academics, editorial-writers and opinion-makers.

The latest open letter follows an earlier plea to scrap the bill signed by four former Canadian prime ministers, five former supreme court justices and several cabinet ministers.

“Protecting human rights and protecting public safety are complementary objectives, but experience has shown that serious human rights abuses can occur in the name of maintaining national security,” the former prime ministers and supreme court jurists wrote. “Given the secrecy around national security activities, abuses can go undetected and without remedy. This results not only in devastating personal consequences for the individuals, but a profoundly negative impact on Canada’s reputation as a rights-respecting nation.”

The law professors present a close legal analysis of the proposed law, concluding with a sharp criticism of the government’s attempt to speed it through parliament.

“It is sadly ironic that democratic debate is being curtailed on a bill that vastly expands the scope of covert state activity when that activity will be subject to poor or even non-existent democratic oversight or review,” the experts wrote.

Amid growing criticism and a filibuster in parliament, the Conservatives reluctantly agreed late in the week to extend the previously abbreviated schedule for committee hearings on the bill, impeding what had hitherto been its fast track into law.

The move raised hope among opponents that the Harper government will ultimately be forced to accept amendments to curtail the sweeping new police and spy powers contained in the bill.

Drafted in response to two attacks by lone terrorists this year, including one that ended with a hail of bullets in the corridor of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Bill C-51 significantly loosens current restrictions on police and spies seeking to disrupt terrorist activity. But critics claim that it also opens the way for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to target legitimate dissent, making criminals of environmentalists, native people and other protesters hostile to the government.

Previously, the prime minister has derided the criticisms as “ridiculous” and critics as members of a conspiracy-addled “black helicopter fleet”. But the latest fusillade from some of the country’s leading legal scholars is the most forceful attack so far levelled against the increasingly controversial new bill.
‘Neither extremists, nor dismissive of threats’

In a letter running more than 4,000 words and covering “some (and only some)” of the terror bill’s alleged defects, the professors warn that the new law would not only do little to fight terrorism, it could actually set back the cause.

“In this respect,” they wrote, “we wish it to be clear that we are neither ‘extremists’ (as the Prime Minister has recently labelled the Official Opposition for its resistance to Bill C-51) nor dismissive of the real threats to Canadians’ security that government and Parliament have a duty to protect.

“Rather, we believe that terrorism must be countered in ways that are fully consistent with core values (that include liberty, non-discrimination, and the rule of law), that are evidence-based, and that are likely to be effective.”

The growing resistance to the new measures has eclipsed the popular approval that greeted the bill when the prime minister introduced it in January, vowing revenge against “violent jihadists” who “want to harm us because they hate our society and the values it represents”.

(read the full article at The Guardian)

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