Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Torture inquiry needed to get at truth

The federal Conservatives have crossed into a shameful place.
Career diplomat Richard Colvin came forward, at personal cost, to give evidence that Afghans detained by Canadian Forces and turned over to their own government were tortured.
The Conservatives' response was to attack him personally, rather than deal with the serious allegations.
Colvin is an unlikely whistleblower. He was the second most senior Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan, working there for 18 months as an intelligence officer. He was promoted to a similar post in Canada's Washington embassy. The man that Colvin replaced in Afghanistan was killed by a suicide bomber.
Based on his work in the country, Colvin concluded that Canada was handing over prisoners to the Afghan security forces knowing that they would almost certainly be tortured. He raised the threat of torture repeatedly with senior officials in government and the military.
That's the testimony he gave before the Commons Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
Colvin could be wrong. There might be good reasons to reject his assessment.
But the reaction of Conservative MPs was surreal. They rejected the need for an inquiry to get the facts.
And they attacked Colvin, claiming he was gullible, a dim dupe who didn't really have any idea about how to do his job, who was helping the Taliban and undermining Canada's troops. The MPs had no evidence to support their attacks and no firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
That did not stop them from denouncing Colvin and rejecting his testimony.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay set the depressingly low tone. "Hearsay," he complained. Anyone Canadian Forces picked up and handed over to Afgahn security forces could only be Taliban, and thus expected to lie about being tortured.
For MacKay, torture does not happen unless a Canadian diplomat is watching. Anyone who suggests otherwise is at worst an enemy sympathizer, at best a stupid dupe.
The premise is ridiculous. Afghan police aren't going to invite spectators to torture.
Worse, it has come out that MacKay and the government knew people were likely being tortured. Even in the last year, the government stopped transferring prisoners to Afghan authorities on three occasions because of concerns about torture and abuse.
Colvin's evidence suggests that for years - and indeed before the Conservatives were elected - Canadian forces were handing over prisoners knowing that, at least, they might be tortured.
Some people writing letters to the editor have suggested that it shouldn't matter if the people Canada's soldiers apprehend are tortured. They are probably guilty of something, the writers' suggest, and it's not our problem if they are beaten, face electric shocks or their families' lives are threatened.
Morally weak, I'd argue.
And pragmatically, a position with two very bad implications for Canadians.
First, there's the matter of war crimes. Torture, and handing people over to be tortured, are the kind of things that can land people in a courtroom in The Hague, answering for crimes against humanity.
Second, there is the increased risk for all Canadians - military, aid workers and diplomats - in Afghanistan. We are striving to win the support and trust of average Afghan citizens, considering it critical to progress.
If we hand over a son to be tortured - a person who has not been convicted of anything - then a family, or a village, become our enemies. Our soldiers are in greater danger.
Colvin said he had reported his concerns about torture as widely as he could, despite efforts to suppress them. His warnings began in May 2006 and continued for 18 months.
Through that period, former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, current Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted that they were confident none of the prisoners captured by Canadians were being tortured.
Canadians need to know if that was true. If information was being suppressed, they need to know why, and by whom.
And given the government's response to Colvin, only a public inquiry will provide the answers.
Footnote: Harper skipped question period on Monday, the first chance opposition MPs would have had to question him on Colvin's schedule. He gave priority to a photo op with Canada's lacrosse team.


DPL said...

The government is in denial mode. Lets have a real inquiry complete with all those documents, not just portions of some of them. The excuse that the documents would affect DND or government security is simply not credible. Too many people claim there was torture to try and say that Mr. Colvin is wrong. Maybe it's finally time for vote of no confdence to drop harper so folks can get to the bottom of this mess.

Anonymous said...

Republicans. Cheneyites. Karl-Rove-ians. That's all Harper's unappetizing band of nasty rightwing loons are. And he might get a majority? Those with dual citizenship in an EU country will be envied by those of us who have no option but to stay here.