The federal government has told United Nations officials that international human rights law does not oblige Canada to actively facilitate the return of its citizens detained in northern Syria.
Ottawa says instead, the duty to uphold international conventions falls largely on the foreign state that is holding people captive.
Canada sets out its views in an Aug. 24 response to UN officials who lobbied Ottawa over the Jack Letts case.
Letts, 26, is one of many Canadian citizens among many foreign nationals in Syrian camps run by Kurdish forces who have retaken the war-torn region from the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Letts was born in Oxford, England, but the British government stripped him of his citizenship three years ago.
He became a devout Muslim, vacationed in Jordan at 18, then studied in Kuwait before ending up in Syria and, according to his family, was captured by Kurdish forces as he fled the country with a group of refugees in 2017.
John Letts and his wife, Sally, say they have seen no evidence their son became a terrorist fighter, adding that Jack opposed ISIL and was even put on trial for publicly condemning the group.
“I don’t think he was one of those people who did horrible things,” John Letts told The Canadian Press last December. “I’m convinced.”
Canada has repeatedly said its ability to provide consular and other support throughout Syria is severely limited due to the lack of a physical presence in the country – a position civil society voices have challenged as a weak excuse. .
Lawyers from a London-based law firm have filed a complaint against the British and Canadian governments with the UN on behalf of Letts’ parents.
The complaint says the UK and Canada breached their obligations by failing to take necessary and reasonable steps to help the young man and breached international law by refusing consular assistance.
It also argues that both countries have a duty to protect vulnerable people outside their territory when they are at risk of serious human rights violations or abuses, and when actions – or failure to intervene – can affect human rights.
In a message to Canada on June 8, UN officials who monitor human rights and arbitrary detention said that while they did not wish to prejudge the accuracy of the allegations, they had “serious concerns “about Letts’ continued detention “and his rights to life, safety, and physical and mental health” due to the dire conditions in the camps.
UN officials have requested information from Canada on what it has done to ensure Letts’ well-being and preserve his rights.
In its response last month, Canada said that while it cannot discuss individual cases for confidentiality reasons, the safety and well-being of Canadians abroad is a priority and the government aims to provide consular services in a consistent, fair and non-discriminatory manner.
But he added that Canada believes that international human rights law “does not create a positive obligation for states to protect the rights of persons detained by foreign entities in the territory of another state.”
“These persons are entirely outside the territory and jurisdiction of Canada. Rather, the obligations apply to the state in whose territory the detentions take place,” the response reads.
“While this does not exclude the possibility that a State could be held responsible for having aided or abetted human rights abuses in another State, it would require that the aid or assistance be given with a view to facilitating these wrongful acts. This is clearly not the case here.”
Canada added that while it received updates on Canadian women and children in the camps, information on the men was scarce.
The federal government says it has been able to provide some assistance, such as verifying the whereabouts and well-being of Canadians, requesting available medical care and conveying expectations from Ottawa that Canadians will be treated humanely.
“The Government of Canada has also made general requests that relate to all Canadians repeatedly detained to Syrian Kurdish officials, such as an update on their current status, and to have phone/messaging access to Canadian detainees.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 14, 2022.