Thursday, November 26, 2009

It's a Disgrace That Richard Colvin is Being Put on Trial

I think it's a blight on the character of Canada that not only did we ignore reports of torture, but that our government and military are now trying to discredit a career diplomat who brought this to our attention. They should be ashamed.

They are putting their own careers above the safety and honour of our soldiers, and that is unforgivable. If they did nothing wrong, then allow an independent public inquiry, before it is taken out of their hands and they drag the rest of us down with them.

Government hangs diplomat out to dry
Montreal Gazette
Colvin was only doing his job by reporting suspicions of torture
November 26, 2009

Canadian diplomats have a reputation for acting honourably, promoting human rights and international law.

Consequently, my colleagues and I counsel our best students to work for Canada's diplomatic service.

Last week, however, my confidence in the foreign-policy establishment was shaken by the testimony of Richard Colvin, a respected diplomat.

If his allegations are proven true, Canadian institutions and high- ranking officials are responsible for egregious policy and ethical failures. The shameful efforts to silence and discredit Colvin have only added insult.

In 2006 and 2007, hundreds of Afghans detained by Canadian Forces were transferred to local security forces under an agreement signed by both governments. Colvin says many of these were civilians wrongly detained.

Under the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions and Canadian law, prisoners must be treated humanely. Transfers are therefore to be stopped if there are credible allegations of abuse.

As one of Canada's senior civilian officials in Afghanistan, Colvin wrote multiple memos saying the transferred detainees were at risk of torture. His information came from standard sources in Kandahar and Kabul - the diplomatic missions of like-minded countries, human-rights organizations and intelligence sources.

This information convinced Colvin that abuse and torture in Afghan detention facilities was systematic, and that there were no effective mechanisms to monitor the transferred detainees' wellbeing.

Last week, Colvin testified that his reports were first ignored, then censored and finally suppressed.

It remains unclear if and when ministers were informed of Colvin's reports. The defence minister and others, however, say Colvin's conclusions were not supported by first-hand evidence.

Yet Colvin was a diplomat, not a forensic investigator. His job was to gather and evaluate information from standard sources, and to transmit those findings to Ottawa.

It was Ottawa's job to react appropriately by collecting more information, weighing the evidence and moving quickly to change policies, if necessary. Colvin fulfilled his job to the letter, but his superiors in Ottawa did not.

The policy and ethical failures are clear. Respect for international law is a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy. Yet despite international lawyers at the helm of Canada's policy in both Ottawa and Kabul, it took Ottawa almost a year to investigate.

Significant policy change, moreover, was caused not by Colvin's memos, but by Canadian press reports. Instead of moving quickly to investigate and act, it seems Colvin's superiors sat on his information until the scandal broke.

The implications of all this are devastating. Hundreds of men, many innocent of wrongdoing, were handed over and tortured. Their families were deeply affected, since torture's emotional scars endure long after the physical signs fade.

Finally, Colvin's testimony also suggests that Canadian policy in 2006 was both incoherent and hypocritical.

That year, Canadian officials at the United Nations proclaimed the sanctity of international law. In Afghanistan, Canadian forces were transferring detainees with little concern for their fate or violations of those same laws. A better example of hypocrisy would be hard to find.

In the classroom, we reinforce the importance of ethical standards in foreign-policy work, including the values and ethics code of the Canadian public service: "Public servants shall give honest and impartial advice and make all information relevant to a decision available to ministers."

In this case, however, the ethical code seems to have been badly broken.

Beginning in May 2006, Colvin sent multiple memos about detainee abuse and the difficulties faced by the International Committee of the Red Cross in its detainee-tracking efforts. Later that year, however, senior Canadian officials - including some on Colvin's email distribution list - told the House of Commons they didn't know about detainee abuse or the Red Cross's concerns.

If they were not lying, they were incompetent, forgetting - or not bothering - to read high-priority messages on that subject from one of their most senior people.

Relevant ministers say they were not informed of the potential for detainee abuse.

Here, if we accept Colvin's testimony, there are only three options: The ministers are lying; senior officials did not inform them; or the ministers didn't bother to read their ministerial memos.

This charade must stop.

If the government ignored, denied and suppressed reports of potential detainee torture, Colvin cannot be alone in this knowledge. Others should remember their ethical obligations, share his courage, and come forward.

(James Ron is associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.)

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