Yesterday, the Canadian federal government confirmed that it has received a transfer application for Omar Khadr, the young Canadian currently in prison at Guantanamo Bay. Khadr’s fate in unknown as Canada, under Stephen Harper, has been reluctant to repatriate the 25 year old. In 2010, Khadr pled guilty to 5 charges of war crimes and terrorism before the Guantanamo military commission tribunal (including murder in violation of the law of war and providing material support for terrorism) for the death of American soldier Christopher Speer in Afghanistan in 2002. Khadr was 15 years old at the time of the firefight in which Speer was killed. Despite being eligible to return to Canada under the terms of his plea agreement, he has remained at Guantanamo and has just now resorted to an application for transfer to a Canadian prison.
Khadr’s case alone is an interesting one. What makes it all that much more remarkable is the stark contrast between Khadr’s treatment and the general presumption of innocence and careful handling of distant child soldiers, particularly in Africa. While Khadr languishes in shameful conditions at Guantanamo Bay, other youth who committed brutal killings, maiming and other human rights violation in civil conflicts are treated by the international community according to the non-responsible child narrative. They are treated as pitiful victims, whereas Khadr has been treated as a violent terrorist.
Compare Khadr’s story to that of Ishmael Beah’s. Beah was a child soldier in the government army in Sierra Leone. At age 16, Beah was rescued from the fighting by UNICEF and received aid and treatment at a rehabilitation centre. He has gone on to write a book about his experiences, in which he describes the repeated declaration that he is not at fault for his violent attacks on villages and rebel soldiers, and has become a spokesperson on the phenomenon of child soldiering, speaking before many high profile and public audiences, including the UN. Beah’s transition from child soldier to contributing member of the international community has been heralded as a great success story, a demonstration of how former child soldiers can reinvent themselves if given the opportunity to escape the environment, coercion and indoctrination that gave rise to their brutal acts. Khadr’s story, while different, also exhibits evidence of coercion and indoctrination. He had the misfortune of being born to Ahmed Said Khadr who had close ties to a number of anti-Western militant leaders, including Osama bin Laden, and was a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda.
Taken together, these two cases demonstrate a great inconsistency and hypocrisy in the treatment of young persons who are suspected of committing war crimes, treatment which is seemingly dependant not on the nature of the acts or character of the youth but on the conflict and the victims.
It seems that despite the Canadian public’s divided opinions of Khar, the Canadian government is moving to bring Khadr back, although questions of when and to where he’ll go are still to be answered. But the reasoning is not because, as his lawyer argues,
“Through no fault of his own, he has been at Guantanamo since he was a 15-year-old,” Norris said. “And he will benefit from a lot of support as he moves through the correctional system and returns to Canadian society — something that he is anxious to do — and to become a contributing member of our society.”
Rather it is because, as a Canadian government source claims,
“The fact of the matter is that if we don’t look at bringing Khadr back now, in eight years he would be able to walk onto Canadian streets a free man, able to continue to associate with radicals and terrorists.”
Khadr’s future is yet to be realized, and it remains to be seen what his experiences pre- and post- 2002 will generate.