On Monday, Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire joined hundreds of human rights advocates in Washington, publicly urging President-Elect Barack Obama to return 22-year-old Omar Khadr to Canada. Khadr – the only Canadian imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay – has been held for six years, awaiting trial by military tribunal.
Dallaire is known at home and abroad for his humanitarian work. He has a long history of speaking out for what he believes in, even when his position is an unpopular one, as it was during the Rwandan genocide. But in this case, he may have gone too far.
Whether he likes it or not, Dallaire was in Washington acting as both a concerned citizen and a senator. Convention and courtesy require that Dallaire’s title precede his name whenever he is introduced. As a result, it’s hard to separate the individual from the government official.
The media doesn’t make it any easier. Journalists like to mention that Senator Dallaire is also a retired Canadian Forces Lieutenant-General. However, citing his rank is a double-edged sword: it can lend to Dallaire’s credibility but it can also reinforce the perception that he’s acting as a representative of the Canadian government, even when he’s not.
Considering that Dallaire’s position on Khadr is in stark contrast to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s view, this is problematic. Dallaire has argued that Khadr should be repatriated to Canada and that his status as a child soldier should be taken into account during his trial. Meanwhile Harper has consistently supported the Bush administration’s plan to try Khadr as an adult at Guantanamo.
This isn’t the first time that Dallaire has taken his campaign to free Khadr across the border. Last August, he journeyed to Washington to try and convince Congress to extradite Khadr to Canada.
But with the future of Canada’s Conservative government uncertain, and a new American administration set to take office next week, the timing of Dallaire’s latest visit could have been better. A Liberal senator traveling to Washington to make demands of a president-in-waiting, especially when those demands run counter to our Conservative prime minister’s own foreign policy goals, puts all three men in awkward positions.
Dallaire has left himself open to criticism that he’s more interested in playing politics and undermining the government than bringing Khadr home. This makes him the story and diverts attention from Khadr.
For his part, Harper is being forced to pick up the “hot potato” of Canadian politics – no politician wants to touch the Khadr issue for long in case they get burned by it. A recent poll conducted by Angus Reid and the Toronto Star found that, if Guantanamo Bay were closed, 47% of Canadians would want Khadr repatriated to Canada to face trial, while 38% would want him to remain in the US to face trial; 16% of Canadians were undecided. With his minority government already on shaky ground, now is not when Harper wants to be dealing with such a divisive issue.
South of the border, Obama must tread carefully. He and his advisors are already under pressure to make good on his pledge to shut down Guantanamo Bay. If heated debate between Dallaire and Harper flares up again, Obama may be forced into very publicly siding with either an elected prime minister or an appointed senator. Either way, his decision will impact the Canadian-American relationship.
All things considered, Khadr’s cause might be best served if Dallaire keeps his campaigning for the young man’s freedom out of the public eye. Allowing foreign policy makers and legal experts on both sides of the border to do their jobs without exacerbating existing tensions may do more good than stirring up heated debates. After all, debates haven’t made much difference in the last six years.