Guantanamo’s Child: How Accountable is Omar Khadr?

If a grenade is thrown at American forces that resulted in a fatality, is it an act of terror or an act of war? If it was in the Middle East, does it make a difference if it was thrown by an affiliate of a terrorist organisation? Does it make a difference if the person who threw the grenade was 15? Or… Canadian?

Image courtesy of Joshua Sherurcij, © 2008, some rights reserved.

The peculiar case of Omar Khadr has ignited an outcry from both human rights groups and proponents on the ‘War on Terror’ alike. At 15, Khadr was the youngest person since World War Two to be prosecuted in a war crimes tribunal for his actions committed as a juvenile. He pleaded guilty to the murder of a sergeant in the US Army, and with his guilty plea, he entered into a deal with the US government that his sentence would be no more than 40 years with a chance of parole and he would be able to go back to his native Canada to finish his sentence.

Having spent the last eight years in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, one can assume he did not spend his time learning the art of crafting macaroni sculptures, finger painting, or archery. What instead could be seen from his experience at Guantanamo is a unique insight in the transition of a teenager to a man while incarcerated. Khadr was born and educated in Canada, but his age at the time of detention provides some of the greatest arguments for or against the War on Terror. Human rights organisations argue that at 15, there is little possibility that Khadr would have so willingly committed the charges made against him, and even still, his time at Guantanamo would have had negative effects on his character. Those using Khadr as motive for the War on Terror resolve that Khadr is one of many cases in which young men and women are recruited voluntarily by various extremist groups to wage jihad, and that these children and teens are radicalised through a channel of groups, whether in the mosque or within their neighbourhoods where it is a common understanding that participation is an honour to the family.

What furthers the argument is that at 15, many organisations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch would consider him and the rest of these ‘radicalised’ youths as child soldiers. Although we are still in the year 2012 and LRA leader Joseph Kony is still in fact alive and roaming around, despite my many posts on Facebook about Kony2012 to try to prevent otherwise, the issue of child soldiers still captivated millions of people all around the world. They were all united against a man who was the cause for thousands of child abductions and the worst offender for the use of child soldiers since the conflict in Sri Lanka. But what may differentiate Khadr from the child soldiers found in Africa are his family involvement and a clear path of radicalisation through socialisation.

In many cases, someone who has become radicalised towards extremist thought has had a cognitive opening, a certain event that triggers a reaction with dangerous consequences. In the case of Khadr, his father maintained close ties with al Qaeda and eventually uprooted his family to Afghanistan, where Khadr was trained in IED making and the operation of RPG missiles. His training by al Qaeda substantiated the evidence that he was providing material support for terrorism that ultimately led to his guilty conviction. During his detainment, his mother and sister frequently received media attention in Canada for their support of jihad and how proud they were of Khadr for being actively involved. It is therefore difficult to differentiate Omar Khadr from a family-driven, socialised understanding of jihad versus a strict radicalisation that was a result of a self-achieved cognitive opening. His lawyers believe that his family and most notably his father were responsible for his choices, and that at fifteen, he was not accountable for his actions. Moreover, the Canadian government also failed to recognise his juvenile status and more importantly allowed illegal interrogation to take place on what the Canadian government would normally consider a minor.

Indeed the last decade has seen one of the greatest overhauls in international law interpretation since President Theodore Roosevelt created what is now known as the theory of inherent power. He declared that the presidency has a “residuum of powers” to do anything not specifically forbidden by the Constitution. Without asking Congress for its approval, Roosevelt launched the project to build the Panama Canal, sent the US Navy around the world, and sent US troops to the Dominican Republic. With what some consider an imperialist presidency, Roosevelt provided a precedent for future presidents to increase executive power, especially when they feel there is a threat to national security.

The reinterpretation of international law in the name of national security did not begin with President George W. Bush, but in an increasingly globalized world where one of the major focuses is international cooperation, I can imagine that various states are growing tired of the United States bending law to its will. The Geneva Conventions provides one of the most concrete examples of international law in the treatment of prisoners. With the help of Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee and Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, the Bush administration introduced a legal memorandum that focused on the use of torture on prisoners, which is strictly forbidden in the Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war. The argument defines itself as terrorists, or those who use acts of terror against the United States and its allies are not classified as prisoners of war but rather as enemy combatants. This legal precedent allowed for a loose interpretation of acts of war and further blurred the lines between an act of war versus and act of terror, leading to the detention of thousands of people around the world who might have had associations with terrorist networks.

In the case of Omar Khadr, his age did not prevent him from being exempt in terror charges, and in mid-2005, journalist Seymour M. Hersh reported that the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld received a report that revealed that there were ‘800-900 Pakistani boys 13-15 years of age in custody’. The last decade of asymmetric warfare has provided not only a unique interpretation of law but also of the ideas of accountability. His Canadian citizenship also brings to light the detention and treatment of citizens from Western countries.

Omar Khadr, often referred to as “Guantanamo’s Child” most likely took part in terrorist acts because of his family. It is apparent that if he acted out of family pressure rather than a radicalised belief, it could be that his time in Guantanamo Bay would have finished the job that his father set out to do in the first place.

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