Sunday, December 13, 2009

Confronting the War on Terror: a Canadian union leader speaks out

Annual commemorations of Human Rights Day, December 10, are often somewhat ritualized events to mark the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the public meeting held December 10 in my home city, Ottawa, was somewhat exceptional in that it was sponsored by the Justice for Mohamed Harkat Committee. Harkat is one of Canada’s security certificate detainees, all of whom have been arrested and jailed for years without charge because two federal cabinet ministers allege, with no reasons given publicly, that they are threats to “national security”. December 10, as it happens, was also the seventh anniversary of Mohamed Harkat’s arrest.

The Ottawa meeting, attended by about 60 persons, was cosponsored by the Ottawa Centre NDP (the riding is held by the NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, MP) and endorsed by local antiwar groups. Harkat spoke briefly, in one of his first public speeches since a court loosened some of the draconian conditions of his ongoing house arrest. (He still has to wear an ankle monitoring bracelet.) Other speakers, in addition to his wife Sophie Harkat — who has waged a valiant struggle on behalf of Mohamed and the other detainees over the years — were Roch Tassé of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group; Mike Larsen, a researcher with the York Centre for International and Security Studies; and Denis Lemelin, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). The panel was chaired by Hilary Homes of Amnesty International Canada.

A highlight of the evening, for me, was the speech by Denis Lemelin. His union, CUPW, has for many years been in the forefront of battles for labour and human rights and international solidarity. Here are his comments at the meeting, with thanks to Brother Lemelin for sending me the text. – Richard Fidler

“Confronting the War on Terror” – No security without human rights

Thank you to be here tonight. It is important to stand strong on human rights issues.

Thank you for inviting me here. But I want to say that I am the voice of all Canadian Union Postal Workers (CUPW) members who did work around human rights for the last 45 years. Our Union has always stood up to defend social justice and human rights. It is part of our History.

Our members know that we cannot have security if people who live amongst us are subject to arbitrary detention and arrest.

They know that we cannot have security if people who are arrested do not have the right to see the evidence against them.

They know that our security is not improved when people from countries with large Islamic populations are targeted and are subjected to Islamophobia.

For CUPW, the denial of human rights to any person leads to an environment where the human rights of all people are in jeopardy.

This is why we are standing in solidarity today with Mohamed and Sophie Harkat and with other security certificate detainees and their families.

At CUPW we believe that the basic principle of natural justice has to apply to everyone. Our Union and the entire labour movement have struggled for some level of fairness in the workplace. This means that when our members are subjected to discipline, their Union advocate has the right to see the information that the Employer has on them and their Union advocate has the right to show this and share this with the member involved.

The labour movement has fought for this right for years. And now to have the government of Canada say that it is legitimate to imprison people on the basis on unseen allegations is dangerous.

But as activists, we know that we are living in a capitalist world and we know that the system has put in place mechanisms to protect itself and the labour movement has a long experience of it.

Now, I want to share with you the experience of CUPW. In a very small way CUPW knows what it is like to be watched by the RCMP and their friends. We know that the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) spied on CUPW and CUPW activists for many years. The Vancouver Local of CUPW was under constant surveillance by the RCMP from 1965-1984. In 1987, CSIS bugged the telephone system at the CUPW National Office.

There is documented evidence that CSIS agent John Farrell looked into the banking records of union activists, illegally broke into cars of CUPW activists in Toronto and was authorized to intercept every piece of mail delivered to the homes of targeted union leaders. While most mail wasn't necessarily opened, photocopies were made of both side of each piece. Information from this was used to "mine contacts" at credit card agencies and banks. The garbage of targeted CUPW leaders was routinely stolen and inspected. CSIS even gave some of the targeted leaders special garbage bags on the pretence that they were part of a special recycling experiment.

The RCMP and CSIS viewed CUPW as a National Security threat. It was wrong to say CUPW was a national security threat and it is wrong to see Mohamed Harkat and the other security certificate detainees as threats.

20 years ago, the system did it to protect itself internally and it continues to do so. Now it is doing the same thing to protect itself from the outside, on an international basis.

For CUPW this security certificate regime represents several dangerous trends: I will talk about three of them.

  • The first one is about the criminalization of dissent. If you do not hold or do not appear to hold majority views, you and your ideas are criminalized. We are seeing this locally, nationally, and internationally. About a year ago CUPW had agreed to have the Justice for Mohamed Harkat committee uses our boardroom for a press conference. The day before the meeting, members of the Canada Border Services Agency visited our office. They were wearing bullet proof vests, and were armed. The message they were sending was that if you were a supporter of Mohamed Harkat, they were going to intimidate you.
  • The second one is about Islamophobia. The men who are or who have been held under these security certificates have all practiced the Muslim Faith. The Runnymede Trust in Britain defined Islamophobia as: “The unfounded hostility towards Islam. It refers also to the practical consequences of such hostility in unfair discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities, and to the exclusion of Muslims from mainstream political and social affairs. This practice builds inequality and discrimination, at a time when unity is needed.
  • The third one is about denial of human and civil rights. CUPW believes that the arrest of Mohamed Harkat, the torture of Maher Arar, the institution of the no-fly lists etc. serve to weaken our collective security.

For CUPW the issue is clear. Our security does not lie with measures that strip away our democratic and human rights. Our security is about solidarity and justice.

The arrest and jailing of Mohamed Harkat and the other security certificate detainees has not resulted in CUPW members feeling more secure.

Here are some items that would make CUPW members more secure:

  • an end to the security certificate regime
  • the unconditional freedom of Mohamed Harkat and all the other security certificate detainees
  • a strong emphasis on protecting human and civil rights locally, nationally and globally
  • the complete withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan

If the Federal Government was serious about a war on terror those would be some of the key elements.

Look toward future challenges.

We have to fight for a different society:

  • a foreign policy that puts justice, and dignity and fair trade above that of free trade. An example of the latter is the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Colombia.
  • an emphasis on a strong public sector, including universal services, both here and internationally.
  • a focus on job creation, not corporate greed.

We have to link the fight for security and human rights with the building of a new society.

In Closing

This so called “war on terror” which is really a war on Human Rights has reminded me about courage. It takes courage to withstand being arrested and jailed without charges and without knowing the allegations against you. It takes courage to stand up and say the security certificate regime is unjust and undemocratic. And, it takes courage to live every day under the harsh and invasive eyes of CSIS and Canada Border Services.

So on behalf the 54,000 members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers I want to thank Sophie and Mohamed Harkat for their courage.

We know that today, or next week or next year any of us here—trade unionists, Human Rights defenders, peace activists just to name a few—could all be threatened when human rights and natural justice are on the chopping block. Our own experiences with CSIS and the RCMP keeping CUPW and its activists under surveillance have led CUPW to recognize the need for solidarity with Mohamed Harkat and all those who become victims of secret security campaigns. We know that the best way to be part of the struggle against the secret information society is to make a new world possible.

Denis Lemelin, President, Canadian Union of Postal Workers

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