Friday, January 8, 2010

A Country's Shame and a Nation's Heartache

I want to highlight one particularly serious aspect of our involvement in Afghanistan, namely our complicity in the torture of Afghans—a complicity that raises profound questions about our new, more aggressive role in the world.

As a signatory to international treaties and as a morally responsible nation, Canada has a duty to ensure that the Afghans we take into custody are not tortured or mistreated. It was ostensibly to meet this duty that Ottawa signed an arrangement with the Afghan government in December 2005, outlining conditions under which Canada would transfer detainees to the custody of the Afghan government. The arrangement, signed for Canada by General Rick Hillier, specified that the Afghan government would treat our detainees according to the Geneva Conventions and allow the Red Cross access to them.
But Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, notes that the arrangement actually envisages that some detainees will be transferred to the custody of other countries, and puts no restrictions on what these other countries do to them.

This means that detainees can end up in U.S. custody. Notes Byers: "Given what we now know about practices at Abu Ghraib [in Iraq] and elsewhere, the possibility that our detainees will be tortured in U.S. custody is real."

For that matter, the likelihood of torture is actually higher for detainees who are not transferred but who remain in the custody of Afghanistan, which has a notorious human rights record. Even the
Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission—an agency of the Afghan government—reports that Afghanistan routinely tortures its prisoners. There have been bone-chilling reports of Afghanistan housing prisoners in steel shipping containers, with only a hole cut in the bottom for them to defecate.

Yet, despite widespread reports of horrendous abuses in Afghan prisons, Ottawa's arrangement with the Afghan government contains only the most minimal protections—far fewer than a similar agreement between Afghanistan and the Netherlands, another contributor of troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The Dutch agreement requires that Dutch officials be permitted to visit its detainees, and to be notified in advance of any plans to transfer them. There are no such provisions in the Canadian agreement, even though Canadian authorities reviewed drafts of the Dutch agreement prior to signing theirs. Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, describes the Canadian arrangement as a "detainee laundering agreement" that "has no adequate safeguards to prevent torture from occurring.

In an interview, Lieutenant Carole Brown, a spokesperson for Canada's department of National Defence, acknowledged that Canada doesn't follow up on what happens to its detainees. "It would not be our mandate to track them in any way." She also refused to reveal any information about Canada's detainees, including even how many there have been.'

In fact, Canada has left its detainees in a particularly dangerous situation. Attaran notes that, by refusing to reveal any information about these people, Canada is actually making their situation even more perilous than those held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay. The Pentagon at least lists the names of Guantanamo prisoners on its website. By not revealing the names of those it hands over to Afghanistan, Ottawa makes it impossible for lawyers or human rights organizations to contact them or their relatives or to in any way take up their cause, thereby denying them any hope of access to the courts. They simply disappear into a black hole, beyond any possible legal protection. Says Attaran: -We are doing something [denying them access to the courts] that has not been done in the common law in centuries."

This alone should make our involvement in Afghanistan intolerable.
(HOLDING THE BULLY'S COAT, Canada and the U.S. Empire, Linda McQuaig, Doubleday Canada, ISBN 978-0-385-66012-9, Pg. 20-21)
McQuaig's book was published in 2007, just before the Globe and Mail leaked the story of prisoner abuse. We can see that alarms were being raised at the outset, and that the defense department had been informed.

When Rick Hillier was first given command of the mission in 2005 by Paul Martin, on the advice of his then defense minister, Bill Graham; he had almost complete control of every aspect of the Afghan file. The deal he signed was in December of 2005, in the middle of an election campaign, so no one was really paying attention, but they should have been.

And then of course when Stephen Harper gained power, it was a whole new ballgame. He had aligned himself with George Bush, who stated quite openly that he had no intention of following the Geneva Convention. This was the beginning of our fall from grace, and it would be a deep fall indeed.



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