Open thread: Canada and Afghan detainees

As anyone who reads the news knows, it has been alleged that many detainees passed on by Canadian troops to elements of the government of Afghanistan were subsequently tortured, and that the government of Canada was aware of this likelihood. If true, that could represent a violation of Canadian and/or international law on the part of both those who gave the orders to continue making the transfers and those who actually carried them out. Knowingly passing along a prisoner to an authority that will torture and abuse them is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, but it is not yet fully known what Canadian troops and officials knew or believed prior to making these transfers.

The latest development is a reversal of position by Walter Natynczyk, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff. He now accepts that a man was taken into custody by Canadian soldiers in 2006 and subsequently severely beaten by Afghan interrogators.

Given that Canada cannot single-handedly reform the Afghan government and security services, this raises the question of how Canadian troops should be dealing with anyone who they capture during the course of Canada’s ongoing involvement in that country. Given that Afghanistan won’t be turning into a liberal-democratic state governed by the rule of law anytime soon, how should Canadian forces deployed there behave in the future?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

28 thoughts on “Open thread: Canada and Afghan detainees”

  1. MacKay may be indefensible, but his job is safe

    Harper would never fire his minister over the treatment of Afghan detainees, because it’s not a ballot question and never will be

    John Ibbitson

    Published on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009 4:00AM EST Last updated on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009 8:06AM EST

    In a different time, over a different issue, with a different minister, a resignation might be in the offing. But in these times, when the issue is Afghanistan, and when the minister is Peter MacKay – not likely.

    “Ministerial responsibility” is an anachronistic phrase that used to hold cabinet ministers responsible for whatever goes on in their department. It lost any meaning back in 1991, when then-foreign minister Joe Clark refused to resign over the al Mashat affair, blaming his staff for the arrival of Iraq’s former U.S. ambassador as an immigrant, with inside help.

    Today, a minister is as responsible as a prime minister says he is. Defence Minister Peter MacKay should never have openly attacked the credibility of a senior public servant, Richard Colvin, who had warned back in 2006 that Afghans captured by Canadian troops were being tortured by Afghan jailors.

  2. “First, Afghan detainees, even innocent ones, are not sympathetic people. And this government’s popularity hasn’t suffered even though there is compelling evidence that our mission in Afghanistan is a failure – for all the bravery of our troops, there were too few of them to secure their sector from Taliban infiltration, which is why the Americans now plan to flood that sector with their own forces.

    Most voters appear to have concluded that the effort was noble, even if the results have been disappointing. Detainee abuse is not, and never will be, a ballot question.

    Second, the timing is starting to work in the government’s favour. Parliament rises for its Christmas break at the end of the week, and doesn’t return until late January. Some convenient votes in the House short-circuited the efforts of a parliamentary committee to grill Mr. MacKay along with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. The opposition majority may be able to keep the committee functioning, but the truth is the holiday season and the January break are the government’s best friends right now.

    Third, and most important, Peter MacKay is a partner in the Conservative coalition. Don’t forget that this government is in office only because Mr. MacKay agreed to merge his Progressive Conservatives with Mr. Harper’s Canadian Alliance back in 2003. Firing Mr. MacKay would split the party. And with his deep Atlantic roots, the Conservatives wouldn’t have a safe seat in Atlantic Canada if the member for Central Nova were forced out of cabinet. “

  3. Opposition demands MacKay resign over detainees

    Updated: Thu Dec. 10 2009 14:49:00 News Staff

    Opposition MPs demanded the resignation of Defence Minister Peter MacKay and a public inquiry after new revelations that Canadian troops captured a man and handed him over to Afghan police, only to later see him being beaten.

    “It’s time for this government to take the step that’s required and that’s to ask the minister to step down and start the inquiry, independently,” said NDP Leader Jack Layton.

    Canadian Gen. Walt Natynczyk has called a military inquiry after revealing the information at a news conference Wednesday, but MPs said that launching an internal investigation is not enough, because the military would be equal to both the accused and the jury.

    Travers: Afghan torture backspin leaves Tories squirming
    Smear of whistleblower, general’s flip flop, has MacKay on defensive

    OTTAWA–Tug one thread, the worn adage advises, and the whole sweater unravels. Just weeks after Richard Colvin pulled the single strand of Afghan prisoner abuse, Peter MacKay’s defence is in tatters, torn apart by the admission that a Canada detainee was beaten.

    Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk’s stunning reversal Wednesday proves the wisdom of another political maxim: The cover-up is always more damaging than the original fault. By bobbing and weaving around torture allegations, Conservatives exposed the more threatening problem of the badly strained relationship between civil servants and their political masters.

    Colvin did his duty by speaking truth to power. MacKay responded by tarring the diplomat.

    Self-serving from the outset, that smear no longer hides that this government knew, or should have known, as early as June 2006 that continuing to transfer prisoners was wrong and potentially illegal. Still, in testifying before a Commons committee yesterday, MacKay clung to the shrinking fig leaf that Ottawa acted whenever action was required.

  4. I’m just thrilled that this issue is being paid the attention it deserves, which proves we haven’t fallen quite as far as the USA.

    Meanwhile, Omar Khadr is still in jail.

  5. Conservative boycott shuts down Afghan detainee hearing

    Chief of Defence Staff General Walt Natynczyk, right, and General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Tuesday December 15, 2009. The Canadian Press

    ‘It’s not the time to be having meetings that are implying … Canadians are somehow guilty of war crimes,’ Tory MP says in apparent bid to kill off thorny issue by attrition

    Steven Chase

    Ottawa — The Globe and Mail Published on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009 4:49PM EST Last updated on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009 5:41PM EST

    The Harper government has effectively shuttered a parliamentary committee probing the treatment of suspects rounded up by Canadian soldiers and handed over to Afghan interrogators.

    The fact that all Conservatives MPs boycotted today’s meeting means the Commons special committee cannot officially meet and investigate allegations that detainees were transferred to torture at the hands of Afghan’s notorious intelligence service.

    At least one government MP must be present for meeting and the absence of all Tory MPs prevents it.

    The Tories said there’s no urgency to hold more hearings before Christmas.

  6. Detainee whistleblower blasts back at Tories on torture

    Steven Chase

    Ottawa — The Globe and Mail Published on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009 11:07AM EST Last updated on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009 4:49PM EST

    Diplomat Richard Colvin has broken weeks of silence to refute government attacks on his allegations that Canada turned a blind eye to the torture of Afghan detainees, providing a point-by-point rebuttal that suggests Ottawa had ample warnings in 2006.

    The Canadian government was warned repeatedly – in six separate reports – of problems with the handling of Afghan prisoners, including the fact that “torture” is rife in Afghanistan jails, he writes in a 16-page letter sent to a parliamentary committee probing the matter.

    Mr. Colvin said Ottawa had no interest in what he had to say, recounting how the military even stopped recording his warnings about Afghanistan’s notorious National Directorate of Security (NDS) in a March 2007 meeting. He said he urged them to stop transfers.

    “I informed an interagency meeting … that ‘The NDS tortures people, that’s what they do, and if we don’t want our detainees tortured, we shouldn’t give them to the NDS,’” the letter says.

    The response, Mr. Colvin writes, was that the military note-taker proceeded to “stop writing and put down her pen.”

  7. A detainee inquiry would be the smart call

    As soon as Richard Colvin had finished testifying before a parliamentary committee, it was clear only a judicial inquiry could get to the bottom of allegations of Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan prisoners.

    As in the matter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber, an inquiry would provide the opportunity for rigorous cross-examination of all the key players. And after former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier appeared before the committee to paint Mr. Colvin as naive and his testimony as “ludicrous,” we were reminded that getting to the truth will also require unravelling interdepartmental and interpersonal rivalries.

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper is refusing to go this route – which suggests the Conservatives have something to hide. If Mr. Harper’s concern were truly the disclosure of sensitive material, he could give a broad mandate to someone with the highest security clearance to look into the allegations behind closed doors, following the model of Frank Iacobucci’s inquiry into the detention of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin.

  8. I am concerned that the Canadian media has recently become too closely aligned with the Canadian military and its mission in Afghanistan, especially in its coverage of the death of the Canadian journalist Michelle Lang. The Canadian media has given signifiant attention to this death. The Canadian government and military has treated Lang with the same procedure for repatriation as a soldier killed in the line of duty. The coverage of the repatriation was carried live on CBC Newsworld. Lang, amd through her the media, was treated as part of the military family.

    My concern is that when a journalist is provided such treatment, there is an unhealthy close link between the military and the media which is covering it. It may be come difficult for the media to provide scrutiny of the media.

    Is it a co-incidence that such attention was given by the Canadian government and military to the death of a journalist in Afghanistan at the same time that the media is in general is tasked with covering the story of Canadian treatment of Afghan detainees?

  9. That is a good point. There doesn’t seem to be much journalistic coverage on issues like past Afghan detainee abuse, or even what Canada now hopes to achieve in Afghanistan. The democratic unitary state with respect for human rights which we once hoped for now seems impossible. How flawed an outcome will be willing to accept, in order to withdraw?

  10. There are many reasons to be depressed and upset about the Afghanistan torture issue.

    One of them is that the opposition parties making all this stink don’t actually care about preventing detainees from being tortured. They aren’t putting forward motions to stop detainee transfers, or to do anything else that would actually help people who face an acute risk of being tortured by Afghan authorities today.

    Rather, they are trying to get their hands on whatever old documents they think will embarrass the government most. If they find some and get a bump in the polls, so much the better. What they certainly will not do – even if they do get documentary evidence that the government violated the international laws of war – is actually seek to have anyone prosecuted as a war criminal. Because that’s just too politically risky (as the behaviour of the Obama administration has shown).

    In short, the opposition parties don’t care about the welfare of detainees or the enforcement of international law. They just want to score cheap points.

    The same dynamic exists with climate change. They pass tough-looking laws when they aren’t actually in a position to have any effect. When they are actually in power, they are just as spineless in the face of opposition from status quo actors (oil sands companies, asbestos miners, etc) and just as happy to set targets for 2050 with no plan for serious implementation today.

  11. The only principle successful politicians live by is doing what it takes to win and maintain power (whether in democratic systems or in others where power is allocated differently).

    It’s akin to ‘fitness’ in an evolutionary context. Sure, organisms can devote themselves to purposes that do not increase their reproductive success, but they will soon be crowded out by another organisms who act as though their eye is unwaveringly on that target.

    In short, we cannot expect politicians to be genuinely principled – only to put on such a show of being principled as will impress the most voters.

  12. This is quite a good piece of analysis, Milan. Maybe more than usual, I agree with you. But what I don’t agree with is the neccesity of the truth of what you’ve said. Specifically:

    “only to put on such a show of being principled as will impress the most voters.”

    Today, being is characterized as “show”. Politics is not just representation – it is spectacle. The two main advancements in politics beginning in the 1980s have been the return to Carl Schmitt’s politics of the festival, and its improvement through the utilization of modern psychological research techniques (to determine what show turns people on).

    But, it needn’t be this way. There is no reason the media has to be a thin film on top of the world. We could have real reporting, and people are working on this, i.e. The Dominion media co-operative. You might like their special issue on the tar sands – if you like, you can download the PDF of the magazine on this page:

    We could have a citizenry that really engaged with the issues of the day. It would be easier than ever technically, since information flows so freely through ipads and other nearly-obsolete IT devices. But, no one’s going to do it for us, we have to become informed, and inform. And, we’re constantly working out how to do this – whether to be single issue, whether to advocate for political reform, etc… But I think one thing we can all agree on is that we’d rather have a genuine politics, a politics which lives up to its promise, than the crap we’re actually getting from the Government and Opposition.

    It’s actually important that you recognize that Opposition isn’t the “solution”. So long as one of the parties is a solution, the struggle remains within the system. But when we can recognize that it’s something about the system as such which has failed, we won’t put our political energy all into canvassing for the Green or NDP party. The hard part is to learn this and not turn off and become a pure cynic.

  13. “IN THE weeks between Barack Obama’s night-time stopover in Kabul and Hamid Karzai’s scheduled trip to Washington, DC, in May, American officials might have expected a patch of calm in the stormy relationship between the two countries. Not a bit of it. In the past week, the troublesome Afghan president has caused alarm and dismay among his allies with three extraordinary outbursts.

    First, in seemingly off-the-cuff remarks to election workers, he accused the allies of “massive fraud” during last year’s presidential poll, claiming America, Britain and the United Nations were all plotting to undermine him. That was, to say the least, a bold rewriting of history: the Election Complaints Commission, a hybrid Afghan-international watchdog that Mr Karzai has tried to seize control of, found evidence of industrial-scale fraud last year in the president’s favour.

    Next, after the American ambassador had demanded “clarification” of what on earth Mr Karzai was talking about, the president went further, telling a private meeting with members of Parliament that if foreign interference continued he would “join the Taliban”. Finally, in Kandahar for talks with elders about this summer’s military operations, he reaffirmed that he meant every word of his original outburst.

    Mr Karzai depends on international support for his survival, so is he going completely mad? Rumour in Kabul suggests that yes, he might be. Abdullah Abdullah, the opposition leader and an ophthalmologist by training, describes the president’s behaviour as “erratic” and says that “as a former colleague and doctor, I think this is beyond a normal attitude”. Peter Galbraith, the former deputy head of the UN mission in Kabul (who had been singled out by Mr Karzai for his role in the alleged plot), said the president’s tirades raised “questions about his mental stability” and that he had (according to palace insiders) “a certain fondness for some of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports”. Mr Karzai’s team promptly called Mr Galbraith a liar. The diplomat offered no evidence for his assertions, which were also dismissed by the White House.”

  14. “claiming America, Britain and the United Nations were all plotting to undermine him.”

    This is probably true. The rest is false and/or crazy, but it is almost certainly true that America, Britain and the UN are constantly trying to undermine Afghan sovereignty. He is in real danger of being pushed out whenever he deviates from the occupier’s “Party line”.

    This outburst to me seems like another example of real grievances being manifested as utter craziness.

  15. Afghan police ‘tortured prisoners after UK handover’

    The High Court has heard claims that suspected insurgents were seized by UK troops and handed over to the Afghan authorities, who then tortured them.

    At least eight men transferred by the Army to the Afghan Security Service, the NDS, say they were mistreated.

    One claims he was told he would be shot if he did not sign a confession; others say they were given electric shocks and were beaten with cables and sticks.

    The UK Government has denied there is evidence of widespread abuse.

    Between July 2006 – when they entered Helmand province – and September 2009, the British Army transferred more than 300 suspected insurgents to the NDS.

    This policy is unlawful, according to lawyers for the claimant – a peace activist from Sussex – who have called for transfers to the NDS to cease.

    Michael Fordham QC said this is “a very troubling picture of a clutch of cases from those who feel able to speak”.

  16. Monday, May 3, 2010 10:36 AM
    Detainee talks bear more fruit

    Steven Chase and Jane Taber

    Allowing a select group of MPs to look over between 20,000 and 40,000 pages of secret documents relating to Afghan detainees is one option now being considered under all-party talks in the dispute.

    Bloc Quebecois MP Pierre Paquette confirmed this option after the second such meeting broke up this morning on Parliament Hill.

    NDP defence critic Jack Harris said it is possible each party could submit one MP to such a committee. “We’re all on the same page. We’re all talking about the same thing,” he said.

    His colleague, justice critic Joe Comartin noted, however, that it could take months to read all of the documents.

  17. Memorandum of Understanding on the Afghan detainee documents

    This Memorandum of Understanding of the particulars of the Afghan detainee documents deal was tabled in the House of Commons today.

    While its title suggests that it’s an understanding between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton, it ends without a space for Layton’s signature. The NDP refused to endorse the deal.

  18. Amnesty International says Canada no longer leads on human rights
    OTTAWA— From Friday’s Globe and Mail
    Published Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011 11:18PM EDT
    Last updated Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011 11:24PM EDT

    Canada has lost its standing as a world leader in pressing for human rights, in part by taking a one-sided view on Middle East rights issues, Amnesty International says.

    That judgment, according to Amnesty’s global secretary-general Salil Shetty, is the cumulative effect of several moves in recent years, including a reluctance to sign new UN rights declarations, avoiding accountability for the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, and a failure to stand up for the rights of Canadians accused abroad, such as Omar Khadr, the Canadian detained in Guantanamo Bay.

  19. The two findings of contempt against the government this spring don’t bother me as much as the finding of contempt it managed to duck almost a year ago.

    Remember the detainee documents? The ones that might answer the question of whether Canadian officials knowingly sent Afghans to face a substantial risk of torture?

    A year is a long time in politics. Memories are short. That’s how politicians get away with stuff. Accountability delayed is accountability denied.

    Here’s a recap. In December 2009, after months of disturbing but incomplete information trickling out in a committee, the House of Commons passed a motion ordering the government to release uncensored documents pertaining to the handling of Afghan detainees. The government, arguing that releasing the documents would compromise national security, said no. When the Afghanistan committee met on Dec. 15, the Conservative members just chose not to go, arguing that the issue was not “urgent” enough to interfere with the Christmas season (a season that begins earlier for MPs than for most of us “hardworking Canadians,” apparently).

    At the end of that month, the prime minister prorogued Parliament for the second year in a row. MPs didn’t get back to work until March, ostensibly so they could all pay attention to the Olympics.

    In a privilege ruling once MPs finally got back to work, Speaker Peter Milliken said it would be a “signal failure” if the two sides of the House proved they lacked “the will or the wit to find a solution to this impasse.”

    So last May, the parties agreed to have a panel of three judges review the documents and advise a special committee, in secret, on how to disclose bits of them to the public. All involved agreed it was a great day for democracy. Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale called it “a victory for Parliament and Canadians” and Prime Minister Stephen Harper said “I think it serves everybody’s purposes and it’s a good day for Parliament.”

  20. Despite it all, the Conservatives either rose or held steady in the polls. Nothing, it appears, can stop their run to a big victory. In this campaign, they face only a couple of more big hurdles. One is the televised debates, in which Mr. Harper need only maintain his cool. The other is the scheduled release of potentially explosive documents related to the Afghan detainees affair.

    The issue, we recall, turns on whether Canadian officials knowingly handed over prisoners for torture by Afghan authorities, a potential violation of the Geneva Conventions. Mr. Harper’s government steadfastly refused to provide documents on the matter, but were ordered to do so a year ago by Speaker Peter Milliken. A special committee was then appointed to make sure any released materials wouldn’t compromise national security.

    Bryon Wilfert, a Liberal member of the committee, said Monday that a swath of documents are to be made public by mid-campaign. But he suspects Team Harper might pull a fast one, such as a court appeal to delay a process that has already been long delayed.

    In fact, the Conservatives have just done this very thing in a bid to thwart another avenue of disclosure. The Military Police Complaints Commission has been preparing a report on the detainees controversy. But last week, as reported by The Canadian Press, the government quietly went to the Federal Court to try and impose limits on what the military watchdog can say.

  21. Canada could face war crime hearing
    Michelle Shephard and Richard J. Brennan Toronto Star

    The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor says he will investigate war crime allegations against Canadians over the handling of Afghan detainees if Canada won’t.

    Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo says in a documentary soon to be aired on TVO that Canadian officials are not immune to prosecution if there is evidence that crimes were committed by handing over detainees to face torture.

    When Toronto filmmaker Barry Stevens asked Moreno-Ocampo in his film, Prosecutor, if the ICC would pursue a country such as Canada over its role in Afghanistan, he replied: “We’ll check if there are crimes and also we’ll check if a Canadian judge is doing a case or not … if they don’t, the court has to intervene. That’s the rule, that’s the system, one standard for everyone.”

    Moreno-Ocampo could not be reached for further comment about the case Thursday when attempts were made by the Star.

    Officials at the Department of Justice and Department of National Defence were unable to comment Thursday and said they had not seen the film.

    Some legal experts have suggested the Canadian government’s dismissal of calls to launch a judicial probe into the allegations has left the door open for outside scrutiny.

  22. 4,000 pages on Afghan detainees leave question of torture unanswered
    OTTAWA— From Thursday’s Globe and Mail
    Published Wednesday, Jun. 22, 2011 10:00PM EDT
    Last updated Thursday, Jun. 23, 2011 4:35PM EDT

    A year-long, multimillion-dollar probe has failed to resolve one of the most heated political questions ever to dog the Harper government: Did Canadian soldiers knowingly hand over Afghan prisoners to torture?
    The Conservatives had hoped a multi-partisan effort to sift through documents – which concluded Wednesday – would finally put to rest one of the most divisive subjects of their tenure.

  23. Liberal MP Stephane Dion, who was a member of the ad-hoc committee, said Thursday the documents disclosed this week are revealing.

    ”Transfer of notifications to the Red Cross took up to a month. We lost track of hundreds of detainees,” he told the House of Commons. ”When the Afghan authorities claimed detainees were released, we did not verify. Our own monitoring was erratic and allegations of torture were numerous.”

    Dion said one detainee sent for interrogation to the Afghan secret services was likely a victim of abuse and death threats.

    ”What will the government do to ensure that in the future our mechanism to protect detainees is transparent, effective and worthy of Canada?” asked Dion.

    Baird rejected Dion’s claim that the Canadian-transferred prisoner was likely abused.

    But records disclosed Wednesday show Canadian officials in Afghanistan who interviewed detainees transferred by Canadian Forces filed reports in 2007 noting allegations of beatings, sleep deprivation and verbal abuse.

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