Some stories are so odd nobody knows how to handle them. I don’t know how else to explain why Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s extraordinary public feud with Amnesty International has attracted so little coverage.
Here’s a senior Conservative minister departing from the Conservatives’ normal bland talking points and unleashing a written broadside against a critic. And Kenney’s sparring partner wasn’t a predictable target. It was the Canadian branch of Amnesty, one of the most revered human rights organizations in the world. But that didn’t stop the minister from calling Amnesty’s concerns “poppycock,” “sloppy and irresponsible” and “self-congratulatory moral preening.”
Here’s what the fuss was about: last month, Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews released the names and photos of 30 fugitives who’d evaded immigration authorities since being found inadmissible because they’re believed to be complicit in genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. In short, the ministers were asking the public to help track down fleeing war crimes suspects. The public has stepped up: since the ministers’ announcements, six of the 30 men have been apprehended and three of those six deported.
Amnesty’s two Canadian heads, Alex Neve and Béatrice Vaugrante, wrote Kenney and Toews to “express their concern” about all this. Deporting the men—simply kicking them out of the country—“fails to ensure that such individuals will in fact face justice,” they wrote. “All the deportation guarantees is that the person concerned will be removed from Canada.” What’s worse, the deportees might face “torture, extrajudicial execution or enforced disappearance” if they went home. Finally, Neve and Vaugrante worried about “the fact that these individuals’ faces and names have been so widely publicized,” which could do them “reputational harm.”
Too bad, Kenney replied. Dripping with sarcasm, his letter wondered whether the despots in Iran and North Korea have so thoroughly cleaned up their acts that Amnesty has nobody left to criticize. Why is the NGO “squandering the moral authority accrued” in its campaigns against real tyrants, he wondered, and instead “targeting one of the most generous immigration systems in the world”?
The deportation orders against the 30 fugitives were issued “after formal proceedings during which these men had the right to be represented by counsel,” he wrote. There’s no way Canada could “conduct full-blown trials, at the cost of millions of taxpayer dollars, to prosecute every inadmissible individual for crimes committed in distant countries, often decades ago.” The government’s first duty is to ensure that these people can’t find a cozy haven in Canada. “Your calls for more time, more process, more deference and more protection for war criminals and serious human rights violators?.?.?.?come across as self-congratulatory moral preening,” Kenney concluded.
Neve and Vaugrante wrote another letter to Kenney, repeating the concerns raised in their first, a little more delicately this time. But Kenney had left his mark.
Obviously a few things are going on here. First, this is just Kenney’s style. He has almost always preferred attack to defence. And he’ll snap back at just about anybody. Last winter, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops sent him a letter criticizing a bill that set out new penalties for human smuggling. Now, Kenney’s a pretty Catholic guy. But instead of responding to the rebuke with silence or contrition, he gave an interview to the Catholic Register, calling the bishops’ letter the work of “ideological bureaucrats” who “cut and paste” the “ridiculous” arguments of “special interest groups” for the dubious benefit of “pastors who may not have specialized knowledge in certain areas of policy.”
There aren’t three other ministers in this government who could get away with that kind of language aimed at anyone except a Liberal. To stay on Harper’s good side, most would not dare attempt such a sortie. But Kenney is not just tolerated. It’s clear his periodic jabs at critics are valuable to the Conservatives.
The second thing that’s going on here is that Kenney has a substantive point. You don’t have to take my word for it. My colleague Michael Friscolanti has been writing for nearly a decade about Canada’s frustrating inability to keep members of murderous regimes out of Canada even after the authorities have determined they have no place here. In 2004, he and Stewart Bell wrote in the National Post about a federal report that said 125 such characters were still in Canada after they had been ordered removed, raising “new concerns about whether Canada has become a safe haven for perpetrators of crimes against humanity.”
I also found support for Kenney’s position from a surprising source: Payam Akhavan, a McGill University international law professor who resigned from Rights and Democracy in disgust over the way the Harper government stacked the board of that arm’s-length organization. “I read Jason Kenney’s letter,” Akhavan told me this week, “and you know, rhetoric and posturing aside, I kind of agree with what he’s saying.”
There is “nothing in human rights law which precludes publishing photos” of people who’ve been found to be staying in Canada in defiance of orders that they be removed, Akhavan said. On the larger point—is deportation both a necessary and sufficient remedy?—he said: “If anything, as a human rights lawyer, I for a long time have been lobbying Canada to clean up its own act” by working harder to find and remove the sort of people Kenney and Toews have now listed.
Canada’s record on this front has been lousy for a long time. In 1985, Brian Mulroney had to appoint a commission of inquiry under retired judge Jules Deschênes to investigate claims Canada had become a safe haven for Nazi war criminals. The legal regime for handling such cases was toughened up. Apparently not enough.
Should Canada prosecute suspected war criminals instead of kicking them out? Impractical, Akhavan said, for an embarrassing reason: there are simply too many of them. Our courts don’t have the resources. In any case, the events and evidence are too far away in most cases. But Akhavan does part company with Kenney long enough to argue that Canada should hold the occasional trial here, where the alleged offences are grave and the likelihood of conviction in suspects’ home countries is low.
The last element of this story is growing frustration in some circles with Amnesty’s current leadership. In 2005 Amnesty called the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay “the gulag of our times.” Christopher Hitchens responded that the NGO’s “moral compass has become disordered beyond repair.” Two years later The Economist ran an editorial decrying Amnesty’s “increasingly grandstanding and unfocussed approach.” Salman Rushdie has said Amnesty’s leadership “has lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.”
These critiques will be familiar to political conservatives and news to just about everyone else. It’s fair to suspect Kenney saw political advantage in choosing the tone he used. But on the substance he has a point.