MONTREAL - Hoping to give future Canadian torture victims a chance to seek redress on local soil, a Montreal MP will table a private member's bill Thursday that would make it possible for them to sue their ex-captors in Canadian civil courts.
In the past, attempts by torture victims such as Maher Arar and Houshang Bouzari have failed because Canadian courts have ruled they did not have the right to sue foreign states under the State Immunity Act.
The legislation to be introduced by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler in Ottawa seeks to amend the act to give that right to Canadian victims of torture, crimes against humanity, and genocidal governments.
While private member's bills rarely pass, Cotler says he is hopeful because his bill will be seconded by a member of each party in the House of Commons.
It's a move being welcomed by human-rights activists as long overdue.
"We need to make sure that as many survivors of torture and other atrocities can have some sort of access to some sort of justice, some sort of legal remedies for what happened to them," said Matt Eisenbrandt, of the Canadian Centre for International Justice.
Canada introduced its Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act in 2000, and two people have been charged since it was enacted, including the conviction this year of Rwandan man Desire Munyaneza.
But giving victims the ability to sue civilly would provide another option.
"Although we strongly support criminal prosecutions of human-rights abusers who might be in Canada, we know that there are limitations on how much the government can do in terms of its funding and its own resources," Eisenbrandt said.
"Civil lawsuits can be an important tool for survivors to seek justice and would give them more control over the process than in a criminal case."
The Conservatives introduced legislation in June that would allow Canadians to seek compensation for acts of terrorism in civil court against a pre-determined list of states that would be determined by the government.
But Cotler said it was important to introduce a bill separately, to explicitly address the issue of torture.
As it stands, the State Immunity Act prohibits taking sovereign states or individuals from abroad into court in Canada unless it's for commercial purposes.
"We have this absurd exception to the State Immunity Act, but it's an exception for commercial purposes," Cotler said.
"If you have a breach of contract, you can sue a foreign government but if you've been tortured, you can't."
Cotler said that December will mark the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, of which Canada is a signatory. One of the requirements included implementing provisions to seek legal remedies in one's own country.
"We have not done so, on the contrary," Cotler said.
It's not the first time someone has tried to amend the law. Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde introduced a bill in 2005 before an election shelved her attempt.
Two well-known attempts by Canadians to sue foreign states have failed because courts in this country ruled they had immunity.
Arar, a Syrian-Canadian engineer, was tortured in a Syrian prison for a year over false allegations of terrorist involvement. A Canadian inquiry ruled he had been tortured and the government awarded Arar a $10.5-million settlement.
But he was not successful in suing the Syrian and Jordanian governments in Canada.
Neither was Bouzari, an Iranian-Canadian man who attempted to sue the Iranian government for torture in that country.
Bouzari, who went on to found the Toronto-based International Committee against Torture, said he hoped the amendment would give torture victims a chance to fight the "ugliest and ancient form of human rights abuse."
"Everybody (that's a victim of torture) is looking for closure and this will help," Bouzari said.
"If you make it financially difficult for countries to torture people - say a slap to the face costs $10,000 - they won't do it, I can assure you."