Saturday, November 28, 2009

If We Don't do the Right Thing We Will Not be Forgiven by History

The story of our role in Afghanistan has taken on a new meaning, as we listened to military brass and government officials try to deny what they know is going on in that country.

What are we fighting for? If we can't do better than this than I think it's time we pulled out and will start pushing for that objective. That is my Afghan mission.

Our soldiers deserve better and the people of Afghanistan deserve better. As former Afghan member of Parliament and human rights activist Malalai Joya stated, we will not be forgiven by history, and this is how we risk being defined; as war criminals.

So, what kind of people are we?
By Thomas Walkom National Affairs Columnist
Toronto Star
November 28, 2009

The Afghan prisoner scandal is not just about politics. It is not just about the infuriating tendency of Canadian governments – and particularly Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government – to withhold politically harmful information. Nor it is just about the blatant misuse of national security laws to protect federal bureaucrats and their political masters from embarrassment.

The Afghan prisoner scandal encompasses all of these. But at bottom it is about who Canadians are. Are we the kind of people who don't care when people are tortured? Or are we the kind of people who do?

If we don't care about torture, then we should have no trouble agreeing with the Conservative government and its bureaucratic establishment. Their approach toward the parliamentary committee looking into this matter follows three somewhat contradictory lines.

First, they say that the government acted when it saw evidence that prisoners who had been captured by Canadian soldiers were being tortured in Afghan prisons.

Second, they say there was no evidence of anyone being tortured in Afghan prisons.

Third, they suggest that anyone detained by Canadian troops is almost certainly a Taliban killer who doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt. (Call this the scumbag argument.)

All government and military witnesses called to rebut the testimony of foreign service officer Richard Colvin, the diplomat who said his warnings of torture back in 2006 and 2007 were systematically ignored by Ottawa, have used one or more of these three lines of defence.

On Thursday, David Mulroney – at the time the senior civil servant in charge of the Afghan file – used the first two arguments (there was no evidence but we acted anyway).

On Wednesday, former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier emphasized the scumbag argument.

"We detained, under violent actions, people trying to kill our sons and daughters," he told the Commons special committee.

Added into the mix is a concerted and calculated attack by government figures on the credibility of whistleblower Colvin, now a senior Canadian intelligence official at Canada's embassy in Washington – an attack that implies he is a dupe, a naïf or worse.

At the committee, Hillier described as "ludicrous" Colvin's statement that all prisoners handed over to the Afghans by Canadian forces were likely to be tortured. "I have no idea what is motivating him (Colvin)," Conservative Senator Pam Wallin said this week on CBC Radio.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay makes the bizarre argument that unless Colvin had personally witnessed torture his claims should be discounted, dismissing the diplomat's concerns as "nothing short of hearsay, second- or third-hand information, or that which came directly from the Taliban."

In fact, what Colvin said – that in 2006 and 2007 torture was "standard operating procedure" in Afghan prisons – is far from ludicrous. Human Rights Watch came to a similar conclusion in its 2004 report. So did the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (which the Conservative government relied upon briefly to monitor the prison situation) in 2009.

Indeed, in countries like Syria, Egypt or Afghanistan, those arrested on security charges are usually tortured immediately, under the theory that this is the most efficient way to elicit information. That's what a 2006 judicial inquiry found happened to Canadian Maher Arar when he was jailed in Syria.

Yet though neither MacKay nor any other independent Canadian witness was present when Arar was beaten with electrical cables, the Harper government thought his story credible enough to award him $10.5 million in compensation.

In a country that didn't care about torture, none of this would matter. Nor would the inconsistencies in the government line. (Hillier, for instance, slammed Colvin for relying on second-hand evidence, yet cited "a comment I heard from somebody in the International Committee of the Red Cross or read somewhere saying that there's no problem whatsoever with respect to detainees" to contradict him.)

A country that didn't mind if people were tortured in its name would yawn and go back to business as usual. But a country that did view torture as a crime and abomination would not accept government stonewalling.

Such a country would insist that the memos on detainee ill-treatment that Colvin said he sent senior government officials be publicly and fully released.

And if these memos backed up his claims, then the voters of a country that refused to countenance torture would want those responsible to pay a political price.

It will be intriguing to find out which kind of country Canada chooses to be.

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