Long read: Omar Khadr to make public appearance in Nova Scotia as keynote speaker on child soldiers
Updated: Feb 8
Omar Khadr, a former child soldier who received $10.5-million and an apology from the Canadian government in 2017, is likely to return to the national conversation when he makes his first public appearance as a keynote speaker for a talk on child soldiers at Dalhousie University this month.
He’ll be joined by former Sierra Leonean child soldier, and acclaimed author of A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah, retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, and Dr. Shelly Whitman, of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.
Coinciding with Red Hand Day on February 12, the event, titled “Children’s rights upfront: Preventing the recruitment and use of children in violence,” marks the 10th anniversary of a partnership between the Dallaire Initiative and Dalhousie University. The event's goal is to “shape public discourse to better protect some of Canada’s, and the world’s, most vulnerable children,” through an exchange between Khadr and Beah, promotional material says.
Khadr's scheduled appearance has brought Dalhousie criticism over social media:
Erin O’Toole, leadership candidate for the Conservative Party of Canada, and Dalhousie alumni, took to Twitter to express his disappointment:
In a response to submitted questions, O’Toole said in an emailed statement, “Free speech is fundamental to our democracy and our universities should reflect that. I expressed my disappointment in the decision to invite Omar Khadr to speak because he brings immense pain to families who have suffered loss from terrorism. I would like to see an apology and compensation from Mr. Khadr to the family of Sgt. Christopher Speer before I ever see him speaking about his experience. I am a proud Dalhousie graduate and friend to Roméo Dallaire and he is quite familiar with my views on the matter.”
Khadr’s past is complex.
Born in Toronto in 1986, he spent most of his life abroad in Pakistan, occasionally returning to Canada before moving with his family to Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 1996. At the behest of his late father, Ahmed Khadr, who was also a close associate of Osama bin Laden, it’s understood Omar received training from al-Qaeda, and participated in modifying Italian TC-6 landmines into improvised explosive devices.
On July 27, 2002, U.S. special forces, along with Afghan Military Forces (AMF) were investigating a compound in the Afghan village of Ayub Kheyl, where Khadr was staying. During a four-hour firefight, gunfire was exchanged, grenades thrown and the U.S. dropped multiple 500-lb bombs on the compound. An explosion blinded Khadr’s left eye, two AMF members were killed, and multiple Americans were wounded from grenade explosions; notably Delta Force army medic, Sgt. Christopher Speer — who at 28 years-old, later succumbed to his head wounds — and the now retired, Sgt. Layne Morris, who is blinded in one eye from grenade shrapnel. Less than a minute after U.S. forces stormed the compound, Khadr was found alive in an alley and shot at least twice in the back. He would be the only survivor from the compound.
Several months after undergoing life-saving surgery and detention at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Khadr was transferred to Guantanamo Bay shortly after his 16th birthday. He would remain there for the next 10 years, subjected to solitary confinement, threats of rape, stress positioning, sleep deprivation and other abuses.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire have all advocated for Khadr over the years.
Retired Lt.-Gen. Dallaire continues to be a vocal advocate for Khadr, openly referring to him as a “victim” and a “child soldier.” He’s also criticized Canada’s lack of spine for failing to intervene on Khadr’s behalf while imprisoned at Guantanamo.
Both liberal and conservative governments in Canada had made little to no effort to advocate for Khadr’s repatriation throughout his detention, despite countries like the U.K. and Australia having successfully pressured the U.S. for the release of their nationals from Guantanamo.
Wanting out of Guantanamo, Khadr plead guilty to five war crimes charges, including the murder of Sgt. Speer, in a 2010 plea deal that would eventually see him repatriated to Canada. He was handed an eight-year sentence by a U.S. military commission in a process that has been widely critiqued as deeply flawed and illegal, drastically sidestepping due process and the rule of law. Dennis Edney, Khadr’s Canadian lawyer, has referred to the U.S. military commissions as “kangaroo courts.” Radhika Coomaraswamy, then the United Nation’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, said in a 2010 statement, “Since World War II, no child has been prosecuted for a war crime.” Coomaraswamy went on to stress that child soldiers should be treated as victims, with a focus on “rehabilitation or restorative justice.”
In 2012, Khadr returned to Canada to serve the remainder of his sentence. He has since recanted his confessions, saying they was made under duress, and has been trying to appeal his U.S. war crimes convictions since 2013. He was granted bail by an Alberta judge in 2015, pending the outcome of his U.S. appeal, but the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review has so far refused to hear Khadr’s case, leaving it perpetually in limbo.
In July 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the government’s $10.5-million payout along with an apology, settling a lawsuit originally launched in 2004. Khadr's lawsuit concerned a breach of his charter rights as a Canadian citizen, during multiple interrogations by agents of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, while detained at Guantanamo.
Omar Khadr is seen in still pictures taken from video while being interrogated by Canadian officials at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba . Images under public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: US Interrogation video by JTF GTMO.
Trudeau has acknowledged the lack of public support for the government’s decision, but said at the time, to continue fighting a case they would have “inevitably lost” would have run legal costs upwards of $40-million. Legal costs had already stacked up to $5-million.
“The measure of a just society is not whether we stand up for people’s rights when it’s easy or popular to do so, it’s whether we recognize rights when it’s difficult, when it’s unpopular,” Trudeau was quoted saying by the Globe and Mail.
It’s worth noting that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in Khadr’s favour three times. Arguably, the most damning condemnation was a 2010 ruling, in which the court determined Canada’s involvement had offended “the most basic standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.” It further concluded, “Canada actively participated in a process contrary to Canada’s international human rights obligations and contributed to Mr. Khadr’s ongoing detention so as to deprive him of his right to liberty and security … contrary to the principles of fundamental justice.”
It’s also not the first time the Canadian government has paid out a controversial settlement, along with an apology. In 2007, Canadian-Syrian citizen, Maher Arar, was paid an $11.5-million settlement by then conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper for Canada’s role in Arar’s detainment and torture in Syria in 2002.
The Khadr name has long driven a divide through Canadian public opinion. There are those who see Khadr as a convicted terrorist, enriched on the taxpayer's dime, and those who see him as a former child soldier, a victim, indoctrinated by adult Islamic fundamentalists.
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada and Dalhousie alumni, says the Canadian government has espoused a toxic narrative surrounding Khadr, publicly vilifying him for political gain.
Neve has interviewed child soldiers on the “front lines” in various countries and met with Khadr on numerous occasions over the years. He says what separates Khadr from other child soldiers, is the public’s reluctance to appreciate his lived experiences and extend the same compassion that other child soldiers often get.
“Everyone should give him the chance to demonstrate that he has proven the critics wrong, that he is not the easy caricature that they have constantly painted, and that he’s a remarkable young man wanting to get on with his life,” Neve said in a phone interview.
Khadr rarely does media interviews or public speaking. Neve says it’s a courageous step for Khadr to come forward and participate.
“Omar Khadr was a child soldier, that’s not a common experience for young Canadians, so he’s got a very powerful personal story to tell just for that perspective,” Neve said. “Who better to hear from, to truly understand who Omar Khadr is and what he stands for?”
The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative declined through email to provide responses to questions for this story, saying they were revisiting their media strategy in the lead up to the event. In another email, Aimée White, the Initiative’s chief of staff said, “There are many considerations at the moment in the decision to insert our voice (or not), all of which we are weighing carefully.”
In March 2019, an Alberta judge ruled Khadr’s sentence — interpreted as a youth sentence in Canada — had expired, and he was unconditionally released. But Khadr’s challenges are far from over. In 2015, a Utah judge awarded $134-million in damages to Sgt. Speer’s widow, Tabitha Speer, and retired Sgt. Layne Morris. Lawyers are still fighting to have the ruling enforced in Canada, but have so far been unsuccessful.
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