Tuesday marks the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, an internationally recognized commemoration that began in 1987 to mark the landmark passing of the UN Convention Against Torture. Every year since then, June 26 reminds us of the harrowing plight of survivors of atrocities and of the crucial need to promote accountability for these crimes.
There are many torture survivors in Canada, and with the arrival of new refugees fleeing violence, the number of individuals who have experienced such traumatic experiences is certain to rise. These individuals are our neighbours, our colleagues, and other members of our community.
In my line of work, I have met too many torture survivors, and yet, each time, I am surprised to learn the disturbing details of their ordeal and witness a deep trauma often masked behind charming smiles and humorous banter.
They come to me because they want justice; against their tormentor, but also against policies that enable torture and allow impunity for those at the helm. Unfortunately, I have to apologize and tell them that in Canada impunity persists for the perpetrators of these crimes.
As a state party to the Convention Against Torture, Canada is obligated to prohibit, prevent, and punish acts of torture, as well as to provide redress to survivors in Canada. In the past, the federal government has condemned torture “in the strongest possible terms” and has provided some minimal financial support to the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. However, it is not enough to merely denounce torture. Canada must also hold perpetrators accountable and provide legal avenues to survivors in Canada seeking reparations.
In Canada, a civil lawsuit allows individuals to seek compensation from people who have harmed them even, in some circumstances, when the harm occurred outside of Canada. Yet, this remedy remains unavailable to torture survivors in Canada who were harmed by foreign governments or their agents, because our State Immunity Act shields these governments with immunity. For many of my clients, justice means compensation for the harms and trauma they suffered, but because of this legislation justice is unattainable.
This denial of an effective remedy for survivors of torture was agonizingly illustrated in the case of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian citizen who was arrested and tortured by officials in Iran for taking photographs of protesters. During her detention, she was beaten, sexually assaulted, and tortured, and ultimately died of her injuries.
In 2006, her son, Stephan Hashemi, instituted civil proceedings in Quebec to hold accountable the Iranian government as well as three Iranian officials. In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the State Immunity Act prevented Kazemi’s son from suing Iran, adding that the responsibility for creating an exception to state immunity for torture falls to our legislators.
This is why it is so crucial to amend the State Immunity Act to allow an exception for gross human rights violations, such as torture. This legislation already provides exceptions to immunity for commercial activities, as well as for injury and property damage that occur in Canada.
In 2010, the legislation was further amended to include an exception for terrorism. However, other severe human rights abuses, such as torture, whose prohibition is universally accepted as a fundamental principle of international law, remain subject to state immunity. Survivors of atrocities who wish to pursue a civil suit for acts of torture committed abroad cannot seek redress in Canada until our government amends the law.
It is time for our legislators to take action and reaffirm their commitment to the Convention Against Torture. By amending the State Immunity Act, they will be sending a strong message that torture is unacceptable in Canada.
This is an opportunity for our legislators to confirm — through their actions, not just their words — that torture is an abhorrent breach of our fundamental human rights, so egregious that there can be no form of impunity, nor immunity from it.