Thursday, June 23, 2011

Is Afghan detainee issue over?

Pictures were taken Sept. 5, 2006, during Operation Medusa in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar Province,  Afghanistan. 
PHOTO BY Les Perreaux

One more of the scandals contrived by the opposition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, it seems, is without real substance. Or so early analyses of the 362 documents totaling some 4,000-plus pages of Afghan detainee-related documents released on Wednesday would suggest. If there is a smoking gun, the Liberals and the Dippers are being uncharacteristically quiet about showing it to us.

The release comes after the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc Québécois formed an ad hoc committee of MPs to review thousands of uncensored detainee-related documents in secret—a process set up after former speaker Peter Milliken ruled the government had breached the privileges of MPs by failing to release all un-redacted documents on this file. (The NDP had refused to participate, objecting to the lack of transparency.) A panel of three judges supervised the year-long process and decided which information should be kept from the public for various reasons, including national security concerns.

Sounds fair enough to me.

Much of the redaction was due, apparently, to the government’s need to keep secret the number of detainees taken by the Canadian military, the names of detainees and Afghan officials, and diplomatic dealings with the Afghan government or officials with the Red Cross and Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Only about 4,000 pages were released to the public, but some 25,000 pages of material were available to the multi-party committee. MPs had guided the judges as to the key documents on which to focus.

Apparently, we’ve now spent about $12-million on this file, including the document review process and the related work and legal expenses of the Military Police Complaints Commission. And what have we learned?

Back in 2007 a detainee alleged he’d been beaten with electrical cables and a rubber hose, which were later found in the interrogation room. Since then, there have been nine other allegations made by detainees who had once been in Canadian custody—three each in the years 2009, 2010 and 2011. All of these complaints involved slapping or verbal abuse. Finally, these 4,000 newly released documents reveal little in the way of specific new evidence.

So, did Canadian commanders knowingly pass on detainees to be tortured? Did they violate humanitarian law or laws of war? That’s the crux of the matter. They say the did not, and I believe them.

Should Ottawa have known there was a risk of mistreatment of detainees once the military had turned them over to Afghan authorities? Perhaps, but so what? We cannot be held responsible for how an independent government deals with its own citizens. That’s the reality of the world we live in. If Afghans had the same protections as we have under our Canadian justice system, we probably wouldn’t have to be in that country risking lives and treasure. So long as our soldiers treat detainees in a lawful manner, I’m satisfied.

From the start, members of the opposition parties have engaged in what amounts to puffery and hyperbole as they sought to sensationalize and politicize this issue. Thankfully, Liberal leader Bob Rae seems now to be taking a more thoughtful and responsible position.

Not so for Official Opposition Leader Jack Layton, who questions what the government is holding back, and why. “This is a secret government. It’s a government that doesn’t want to reveal any information, that’s well-known,” he said. And he’s calling for a public inquiry.

Layton will never be satisfied because he don’t really want the truth—he’s more interested in making partisan attacks and unsubstantiated accusations. The NDP did not bother to participate in the year-long screening process, and yet they complain the government is hiding something.

As Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said, “If they [NDP MPs] were that worried about Taliban prisoners… they would’ve shown up for work [on the screening committee].”

Listening to Jack Layton’s take on the detainee file, and hearing what our military leaders say, I must agree with National Post columnist, Christie Blatchford, who writes:

“Canadian soldiers are better, more reliable and infinitely more trustworthy bearers of what is good in this country, and of the public trust, than Canadian political leaders.”

One hopes this process is now over, and we can put this issue behind us.



© Russell G. Campbell, 2011.
All rights reserved.
The views I express on this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of political parties, institutions or organizations with which I am associated.

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