On Thursday, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union hosted defence lawyer Dennis Edney as the keynote speaker for UTMSU’s Annual eXpression Against Oppression week. Edney, who has remained in the spotlight due to his role as Omar Khadr’s defence lawyer, has lectured extensively on the rule of law throughout North America.
An article published in January of 2009 on CBC news titled “Omar Khadr: Coming of age in a Guantanamo Bay jail cell,” describes Khadr’s detainment by American forces at the age of 15. Khadr was incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay for 10 years. The article mentions that in 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Canadian government’s interrogation of Khadr at Guantanamo Bay had violated the most basic norms of humane treatment of detainees.
The defence lawyer’s lecture was prefaced by a few important words from Gillary Massa, an Advocacy Coordinator with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, who was also the moderator for the night.
Edney began by saying that his wife asked him to “say something happy for a change” to which he replied, “I’m Scottish and we don’t do that,” but goes onto emphasize that he is a very positive person because of what he has encountered as Khadr’s defence lawyer.
Edney stood in front of a room of eager individuals and said: “You’ve got to get out there. You’ve got to make changes, because it’s your world and we’re messing it up.”
He promised that by the end of his lecture, he “will have challenged [us] to question both the concept of practice and justice that’s being carried out in [our] name.”
The lawyer mentioned that there were people who viewed the rule of law as a “set of rules designed to stifle initiative and enterprise.” They perceived law to be something that restrained freedom and creativity.
“That is not what the rule of law is about. [It] restrains and civilizes excessive power. The two pillars of promoting justice and civilizing excessive power are crucial for defending Canadian values and survival of our democracy,” Edney stated.
He acknowledged that it is difficult to keep perspective when everyday it seems like there is yet another thing going wrong. The world appears to “have lost all vestige of humanity.” We can be tempted to say that we want to “sit this one out,” but post 9/11, “distrust, bigotry and violence appears to dominate our everyday lives.”
“History does not end. It is a timeless repetition of human folly and correction. Nothing is inevitable, least of all liberal democracy.
We should be particularly weary of the silent song of history,” he said, adding “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Edney argued that the mortal threat to the Western ideal of progress comes from within: “We can no longer assume that our fellow citizens understand the importance of liberal democracy. Trump and his populous counterparts in Europe are but the symptoms of the crisis in our liberal democracy […]. The international order of the past quarter century rooted in principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law would give away to a world in which individual leaders and nations pursue their own narrow interests without meaningful constrains and without the regard for the sheer benefits of global peace, freedom and prosperity.”
Edney stated how it has been over 27 years since the fall of the Berlin wall and all the hope of freedom the fall brought with it. But today, the U.S. for example, has elected a man “who likes big walls and is an avid admirer of autocrats, such as Vladmir Putin.”
Omar Khadr’s lawyer went on to express that at some stage in every political generation, there are decisions that history goes on to reveal are “defining of that era.” The establishments and accepted legal principles put in place after World War II reflect the values of people at that time, where the efforts to “try and never see such a horror again are all under threat.” He gives the example of the European Union and how it is under threat from “ultra-nationalists and from people who wish to withdraw from the one shared vision of a global collective.”
“And then, there is the United Nations,” said Edney, “17 years ago, Kofi Annan stood before the UN general assembly for the failure of the international community to prevent the massacre of 10,000 Bosnians in Srebrenica. He called it a horror without parallel in the history of Europe since the Second World War. It was worse than just a repeat of history. He pledged to ensure the UN would never again fail to protect the civilian population from mass slaughter. We have seen this in action before with Rwanda, Cambodia, South Sudan and now, the tragedy of Aleppo and its peoples.”
He mentioned the videos of people from Aleppo that surfaced on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, “Pleading for our help and confused at our indifference […], now the city of Aleppo is no more. Buried under rubble, Aleppo weeps.”
“We are at a critical conjecture in world history,” Edney stated, “There are currently more people displaced by war, by persecution and conflict, than in any time since World War 2.” As Edney describes, “the desire to scapegoat and abuse newcomers has become a virus that has affected many countries […] even though the refugee crisis is […] the gravest humanitarian crisis in modern times.”
He described how 86 per cent of refugees are hosted by developing countries and more than half of those are children. One out of every 113 people is either a refugee, asylum seeker, or displaced. “Instead of us being defenders of human rights, of the rights of children and refugees, religious minorities and women, we simply stand by and watch passively as many lives are lost needlessly. Was it always that we lacked such compassion?” Edney asked.
He recalled that the current refugee situation is severely “reminiscent” of refugees fleeing the destruction of World War 2 and the Nazi onslaught. The reality is, he describes, is that most governments turn their backs on millions who were trapped just as they do today.
“Yes, immigration brings challenges […] but above all, immigrants bring hard work, diversity, and global connections. They strengthen this country. We may not have complete borders but neither should we vilify [immigrants] and scapegoat them particularly because we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants,” said Edney, “Yet, the recent presidential campaigns were built on fear bigotry and racism by proposing security policies that reminded me of Nazi Germany.”
“And what is concerning is the level of support for these policies,” Edney expressed. This is demonstrated by the fact that “Since 2013, the overall of number of hate crimes has increased by 44 per cent according to Statistics Canada.”
“We only have to consider Guantanamo Bay to understand how easy it is for a society to lose its way when we ignore the rule of law,” he said. Guantanamo, he continued, has been called everything from an offshore concentration camp to a legal black hole. Edney revealed how approximately 1,000 Muslim men have been held there from all over the world since 2002 by the U.S. government under “incredible inhumane conditions and incessant interrogation and all without any judicial oversight and without access to any properly constituted legal system.” No knowledge of humanitarian conventions is needed, Edney emphasized, to understand that what was being witnessed was unlawful.
Edney says he “never lost faith in justice,” and that was a major motif behind his continued defence for Khadr. “Despair and apathy is a luxury you cannot afford; you must speak out. You have an obligation to get up,” he said.
The event was held in collaboration with the UTM Muslim Students’ Association, Political Science and Pre-Law Association at UTM, Canadian Council of Muslim Women, and National Council of Canadian Muslims.