However you look at it, Omar Khadr was a child (a person under the age of 18) at the time that US special forces soldier Christopher Speer was killed in Afghanistan in 2002. Khadr was 15 years old at the time of the firefight that killed Speer. The boy, who sustained serious injuries in the fighting, was transported from Afghanistan, eventually to Guantanamo Bay where he was charged with war crimes.
There is some question as to whether he committed the acts for which he was charged and pled guilty; with some arguing that “evidence surrounding his crime was questionable“. Nevertheless, even if he committed the act that killed the American soldier, the treatment of Omar Khadr has been harsh and inconsistent with human rights standards and the rights of the child.
Despite never being treated as such, Omar Khadr was a child soldier, an example of the great inconsistency of treatment of child soldiers around the world. The non-responsible child narrative (which claims that any child recruited to participate in war is a victim and not responsible for his or her actions) has been gaining great traction around the world, especially with the support of Western activists, including Western governments’ officials.
The victimhood of a child soldier, however, seems somewhat dependent on the conflict, and especially the victim(s) of the violence. Foreign children who commit ‘terrorist’ acts that harm Americans have been regarded not as innocent, manipulated children who deserve compassion, but as dangerous criminals.
Both Canada and the US demonstrate great contradiction by applying juvenile justice to most perpetrators of crimes under the age of 18 when the crimes are committed on North American soil while applying very different standards to some children who commit violent acts against American soldiers.
In 2010, Khadr ultimately pled guilty of five war crimes in the death of Speer and was sentenced to 8 years.
Even without arguing that all youths who participate in war-related violence ought to be treated as victims, or with compassion consistent with their age, we can argue that Khadr has been treated in ways inconsistent with his rights. In addition to being subjected to aspects of the documented unjust treatment of Guantanamo detainees, Khadr has also been treated very poorly by Canada, irrespective of his age, while incarcerated at Guantanamo and in regards to his repatriation. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled it factual that his constitutional rights were violated when he was questioned in Guantanamo by Canadian officials. And, despite his plea agreement which stipulated that Khadr would be repatriated after one year, it wasn’t until a year later that Canada accepted him home. The Canadian Department of Justice even took its position to the Supreme Court of Canada, hoping for a ruling that would keep Khadr from returning to Canada. The Supreme Court “ruled in Khadr’s favour, but the DOJ dragged its heels for a year before finally brining him north.“
Now in Canada – the last Western inmate to be repatriated, he was transferred in 2012 from Guantanamo – he has initiated a number of legal proceedings.
- He is appealing the Guantanamo war crime conviction, on the basis that it was elicited through torture.
- He is appealing the ruling that denied his transfer from a federal Canadian prison to a provincial jail.
- He is suing the Canadian government for violating his constitutional rights.
Despite the fact that Khadr was eligible for parole after serving one-third of his sentence, or 32 months (which would mean he could have been released as early as June 2013), the Canadian government insists that he is a “dangerous terrorist who deserves to be treated as such”. His 8-year sentence ends on October 30, 2018.
Khadr’s case and his treatment have been curious, highlighting the inconsistencies in theory and practice and Western advice to other nations about the rights and vulnerability of child soldiers and its treatment of juveniles who have likewise been inculcated and pressured to commit acts of great harm. The legal proceedings he initiated reflect Khadr’s anger and frustration. While we might or might not want to excuse his past actions, based on the environment he grew up in — with his father suspected of al-Qaeda activities and Khadr himself having likely met Osama bin Laden during his childhood — it is reasonable to argue that his treatment has been harsher than warranted and his anger with Canada (and the US) justified.
Not much has been heard about Khadr so far in the beginning of this year; late last year, however, when questions of his transference from one correctional facility to another were examined and when the spotlight was again pointed at his lawsuit suing the Canadian government, he was villainized for his greed and again characterized as a dangerous person not worthy of benefiting from being Canadian. As this treatment continues, one must wonder what his reintegration will be like when he is finally released from custody. Canada is violating its obligation to assist in his rehabilitation and reintegration, denying a citizen needed aid and compassion, and potentially denying the public a safeguard that could allow Khadr to reintegrate peacefully, with hope for a fulfilling future. As it stands, it is hard to imagine Khadr’s returning to society as a productive member of the country that has treated him so harshly, while it publicly promotes the protection of children involved in war through treaties elsewhere. But, this then seems to simply fuel, for some, arguments that, while we might have been able to save him, he is now damaged beyond repair and letting him loose in our great nation would be a risk he doesn’t deserve. A vicious circle and the case gets curiouser and curiouser. All the while, Omar Khadr is a real person, now 27 years old — having spent his childhood being indoctrinated by his father and other family members and friends of the family with influence over him, and formative years in isolation and a hostile and cruel environment — moving closer to an inevitable release.