The government of Canada has apologized to Omar Khadr and awarded him $10.5 million in damages. Khadr is a Canadian citizen whose parents took him as a child to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fifteen years ago, on July 27, 2002, a firefight took place in which Khadr, then 15, was wounded and a U.S. soldier, Sgt. First Class Christopher Speer, was killed.
Khadr was arrested and incarcerated at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he pleaded guilty to throwing the grenade that killed Speer. Khadr later said he confessed falsely in the hope of returning to Canada. However, the facts of the firefight, whether Khadr was guilty or not guilty, whether he was a terrorist or a coerced child soldier-victim, are not relevant to the apology or the compensation.
The decision to apologize and pay Khadr millions of dollars is a result of a $20 million civil suit that Khadr launched after the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously determined that the Canadian government’s interrogation of Khadr while he was at Guantanamo “offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.” The civil suit claimed that Canadian officials violated his rights, interrogating him when he was a minor, in the absence of legal representation. He also claims to have been subjected to torture, which would be consistent with the history of Guantanamo and evidence in the public realm.
The decision to apologize and compensate turns on this point: even if Khadr were guilty, the government of Canada did not adequately protect the rights and well-being of one of its citizens; indeed, it was complicit in their violation and acted outside of the rule of our own nation’s laws.
We can all make our own assessment of right and wrong in this case. But the Supreme Court of Canada made the key judgment about the legal foundation of Khadr’s case and the federal government – facing the alternative of almost certain failure in defending itself in the civil case, resulting in a much greater cost to taxpayers – opted to pay Khadr $10.5 million.
Whether it is First Nations land claims and residential schools payouts, symbolic payment to the Chinese-Canadian community for the head tax on their ancestors or compensation to Japanese-Canadians who were deprived of their property and forcibly sent to internment camps during the Second World War, money and an apology are poor substitutes for justice.
Money and an apology will not return lost years or family members. They cannot heal physical or mental wounds, though the money can help pay for medical and psychological treatment. Apologies and reparations cannot undo the harm done. But they can help hold our government and society accountable and, ultimately, that serves us all well.