This past week the House of Commons played host to the second round of public hearings regarding the Canadian Forces’ handling of prisoners in Afghanistan, where diplomat Richard Colvin accused the Federal government of complicity in the torture of innocent Afghan civilians. It seems American style government back pedalling and doublespeak, coined “tortured logic” by Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, has reared its ugly head in Canada.
Colvin stated that he began alerting the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade about concerns for the treatment of prisoners, as early as May 2006. He named retired army chief of staff, General Rick Hillier and Margaret Bloodworth, national security advisor to Stephen Harper, among those who received his reports. Hillier claims to have never seen the reports Colvin sent, although Gordon O’Connor, who served as Defence Minister during the period in question, admitted that the reports may have been read and ignored by government and military officials.
In a 2006 report to the federal government, Colvin and others stated that there were issues with prisoner transfer protocols that needed to be addressed. This was followed by oral reports in March and two reports sent by embassy officials on April 24 and 25 of 2007 that both outlined the situation and offered solutions. A new monitoring agreement was signed in early May, but it took until October 2007 for a DFAI monitor to arrive in Afghanistan, 17 months after Colvin and his colleagues first reported.
Equally disturbing are claims that the federal government actively disregarded reports coming out of Afghanistan. Colvin claims that senior government officials, such as David Mulroney former deputy minister for Canada’s Afghanistan Task Force, suggested that he and his colleagues “be quiet and do what [they] were told”. In May 2007, Canada appointed a new ambassador to Colvin’s office who took steps to reduce the “paper trail” of Canadian detainee records. Colvin said that by summer 2007, Canadian officials “could no longer write that the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating even though everyone knew that it was.”
More recently, upon being subpoenaed to appear at these hearings, Colvin was, and continues to be, barred from accessing his own reports from his time in Afghanistan. The DFAIT and Department of Justice have cited section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act which defines the Government’s ability to limit the release of what it calls “sensitive information.” The United States has controversially used similar legislation, entitled the States Secrets Privilege, to exclude evidence from cases that it feels would endanger national security.
Colvin has been harangued by the Conservatives, who have unleashed an offensive questioning Colvin’s credibility. Defence Minister Peter McKay has made it his own personal mission to defame Colvin, citing “incredible holes” in Colvin’s accounts. What McKay and the Conservatives have failed to mention is that Colvin is a highly trusted and respected member of the Canadian Foreign Service, having been promoted to a high level position in Washington, following his time in Afghanistan and has a long record of service in Sri Lanka, Moscow, Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories. McKay has also been caught back-tracking, admitting that it was Colvin’s work that led to the 2007 change in prisoner transfer protocols.
In Canada, torture falls under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act of 2000 as an “act or omission committed during an armed conflict that…constitutes a war crime according to customary international law or conventional international law.” In the act it states that if “the superior knows that the person is about to commit or is committing such an offence, or consciously disregards information that clearly indicates that such an offence is about to be committed or is being committed” that superior is guilty under Canadian law and subject to up to life imprisonment. Superior is defined as “a person in authority, other than a military commander” although a similar statute is true of military commanders. The act also contains a sub-section on conspiracy which states that any person that “is an accessory after the fact in relation to, or counsels in relation to, [war crimes] is guilty of an indictable offence.”
How far Colvin’s reports actually made it up the chain of command has yet to be determined. What is clear, is that if these claims are true, members of our current government are guilty of war crimes, and as the subsection on limitations of Canadian war crimes law states “an accused cannot base their defence … on a belief that an order was lawful,” or in the words of George W. Bush back in 2003, “it will be no defence to say “I was just following orders’.”