The Trudeau government is being urged to conduct an independent review into how Canadian citizens become military targets in conflict zones following a Global News report that revealed three Canadians were deliberately targeted by the coalition conducting airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State.
Human rights advocates were alarmed by the language used in a secret government document that exposed the legal justification for airstrikes killing Canadian foreign terrorist fighters in Iraq and Syria, saying their nationality was irrelevant and that each target of the coalition was “first and foremost, an enemy combatant.”
“There’s no determination made, in my view, by anyone who can say that you’re right to life as a Canadian citizen, even if you’re outside Canada, can be deprived by the government without any due process,” said Marlys Edwardh, a former defence attorney and expert in human rights law.
“What on earth is a Canadian state doing, getting involved in the extrajudicial killings of its citizens?”
Edwardh said the report raised several questions about whether the policy violates sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Who knows what evidence is being used to make a determination that you can be executed abroad and what’s the threshold? What is the meaning of the words that you directly participated in hostilities?” she said.
Amnesty International Canada’s secretary general Alex Neve said the federal government needs to be more open with the public on this issue and that attempts at greater transparency should be accompanied by an independent review or assessment.
“Hearing this report gives rise to a long list of questions,” Neve said. “Questions which we apparently don’t have ready answers to and at this point in time no indication our government is prepared to be forthcoming and offer those answers.”
“When we have indications that Canadian citizens have been targeted in some way in military operations that our own Canadian forces are a part of, we do need some assurance that international law is being scrupulously followed.”
A four-page briefing document prepared for the Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, and obtained under the Access to Information Act showed that three Canadians were believed to have been targeted by Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria.
The 2015 document did not indicate whether the targeted strikes were successful, but it’s believed to be the first official confirmation that the anti-ISIS military coalition has deliberately tried to kill Canadian citizens.
“As Canada is engaged in armed conflict with ISIS and associated armed groups, CAF operations under Op Impact include both direct and indirect support to, as well as participation in, strikes against target packages including enemy combatants,” it said. “On occasion, these target packages consist of specifically identified individuals, with nationalities in some cases known prior to engagement.”
“While the nationality of targeted individuals is, in the context of the Law of Armed Conflict, not an issue, domestic Canadian policy, political, and legal concerns may emerge.”
WATCH: ‘Nothing wrong’ legally with U.S.-led coalition airstrikes killing Canadians joining ISIS, says expert
International law experts have said that in the context of the Law of Armed Conflict, there was nothing illegal about the Canadian military participating in the killings of its citizen who have been declared. enemy combatants in an armed conflict.
“In armed conflict situations, you are allowed to target and to kill combatants. The law of armed conflict does acknowledge that it’s appropriate and proper to use lethal force,” said University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese. “The world of non-armed conflict greatly limits the capacity of states to kill people, so outside of an armed conflict it’s generally impermissible to kill people.”
The heavily redacted document did not elaborate on the “Canadian policy, political, and legal concerns” it said were raised by the federal government’s role in targeting Canadians.
WATCH: Civilian deaths in Mosul prompt calls for airstrike rethink
Yavar Hameed, a human rights lawyer based in Ottawa, said the Trudeau government should be more forthright with the public on how Canadians are targeted and is alarmed by the military’s vague use of language.
“We don’t know the extent to which Canada has been assisting, or providing information or cooperating with the U.S. specifically on this,” Hameed said. “The fact that this has come about through access to information also shows this isn’t being transparently relayed as information to the public.”
“Any time our government is killing its own citizens — in whatever context — it raises moral concerns.”
The United Kingdom and United States have both conducted airstrikes against their own citizens on the grounds they were threats. After two senior British ISIS members were killed in targeted airstrikes in 2015, the U.K. Intelligence and Security Committee conducted an investigation and published a public report.
Both Edwardh and Hameed said Canada should follow the U.K.’s lead to hold an inquiry into the policy of targeting citizens in conflict zones and carefully consider whether it violates the Canadian charter.
“Where has the discussion been?” she said. “It becomes essential to have the discussion that raises the issues. What’s the threshold? What’s the evidence? Do you appoint a person to represent the interests of those targeted in the process? There’s a wealth of kind of due process considerations that should go into this.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan did not answer questions about whether the federal government should conduct a public inquiry to examine Canada’s targeting of enemy combatants saying the military followed the Laws of Armed Conflict.
“Any operations we conduct we have the right rules of engagement to be making sure our personnel are well protected and that we can protect our partners as well,” Sajjan said in Ottawa. “Any operations we conduct we follow the Laws of Armed Conflict, but I can’t get into any more details for operational security reasons.”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he believes there is good reason why these individuals were targeted but thinks there needs to be openness from Ottawa. He noted there hasn’t been a briefing on Operation Impact – Canada’s contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve – in over a year.
“And that’s the perfect time where these questions would be asked and we don’t have that opportunity,” Bezan said. “Canadians deserve answers.”
NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière also called on the government to be more transparent about Canadians who have been declared enemy combatants by coalition forces.
“I think there should be an explanation from the government. Let’s see what the government comes up with and if there’s a need then for a formal inquiry,” Laverdière previously told Global News. “We have a government that talks a lot about transparency but when we compare it to other countries it has very little.”
“We don’t know the extent to which Canada has been assisting, or providing information or cooperating with the U.S. specifically on this. There definitely needs to be more transparency. The fact that this has come about through access to information also shows the isn’t being transparently relayed as information to the public.”