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On the importance of apologies

June 23, 2011

Restraints used at Guantanamo. Photo: Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy

Nine years ago, US authorities sent Maher Arar to prison and torture in Syria. He was later released without charge.

The US government still hasn’t apologized for the grave mistreatment he suffered.

In 2002, acting upon information from the Canadian police, US authorities detained Canadian citizen Maher Arar at the JFK airport. Arar was then secretly transferred to Syria. There, he was not only held for a year without charge, but, according to Amnesty International, he was also tortured. Eventually, Arar was released without charge and allowed to return to Canada.

The Canadian government has since issued an apology for their role in Arar’s detention and subsequent suffering. The US government, however, has done no such thing, even though the USA are obliged by international human rights treaties to fulfill the right of torture victims to remedy and redress.

A small step for man…

Photo: Dani Simmonds

An apology might seem like a rather meaningless gesture for a man who was abducted, forcefully transported to another country and even tortured. However, an apology for the involvement of US authorities in this case, might actually mean a lot. Not, perhaps, to Arar and his family, but to everyone who sincerely believe that torture is evil and that human rights and international conventions should actually mean something. Even to the US of A.

As I’ve written earlier on this blog, history has an ugly tendency of repeating itself. By not acknowledging the mistakes of his predecessor – and his own administration – US President Barack Obama seems destined to repeat them. And completely innocent people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time will still run the risk of arbitrary detention and torture.

A good place to start

Apologizing to Maher Arar will of course not remove the ugly stain left on USA’s reputation by the horrible practice of outsourcing torture. Neither will it assure that such grave human rights violations won’t happen again. However, an official apology – including an acknowledgment of what happened to Arar and a formal recognition of USA’s responsibility for what he had to suffer – is a good place to start.

Therefore, I wholeheartedly support Amnesty International’s claims that president Obama

  • Issues an official apology to Maher Arar.
  • Makes sure that the proper authorities launch independent investigations capable of identifying those responsible and imposing criminal and disciplinary sanctions.
  • Ensures that the US government contributes to Arar’s full recovery, including his access to the necessary medical and psychological care as well as legal and social services.
  • Ensures that he receives full compensation for all economically assessable damage caused by the USA’s detention and transfer of him to face torture in Syria.

These are, of course, only the first steps. I also support Amnesty in urging Obama to

  • Ensure that no-one is transferred to the custody of another state without an opportunity to have an independent court assessment of the possible risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
  • Ensure that US authorities are not permitted to deprive alleged victims of torture or enforced disappearance of access to justice, whether by invoking secrecy or immunities or other obstacles to justice.

Last, but by no means least, I support the organization’s call on Obama to ensure full accountability for the many human rights violations committed by the U.S. government in the name of countering terrorism, including torture and enforced disappearance. That includes

  • Setting up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate
  • Prosecuting all who broke the law
  • Fulfilling the rights to remedy and redress of all victims
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