Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bad news for the government on Afghan torture issue

A number of developments this morning that are not good for the Conservatives....

1. There's a poll out indicating that Canadians are overwhelmingly buying Richard Colvin's side of the story:
Canadians aren't buying the Harper government's assertion that there's no credible evidence Afghan detainees were tortured, a new poll suggests.

Indeed, The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey indicates Canadians are twice as likely to believe whistleblower Richard Colvin's claim that all prisoners handed over by Canadian soldiers to Afghan authorities were likely abused and that government officials were well aware of the problem.
Brilliant, just brilliant choice to smear this man with obvious integrity. Two to one believing Colvin over the government. They've run into their worst nightmare in Colvin or the public is just on to their game at this point. Very heartening result.

2. Second item, news that some of Richard Colvin's reports from Afghanistan were indeed copied to the Foreign Affairs Minister's office:
The office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs was sent some of the reports on Afghan detainees written by diplomat Richard Colvin – the first evidence that his warnings about the torture of prisoners who left Canadian hands might have reached Ottawa's political desks.
It's not clear who the minister was at the time, MacKay or Bernier. But this news makes the repeated claims that Harper ministers - and Harper, for that matter - saw or heard nothing ring even more hollowly this morning.

There are also internal government emails from February 2007 cited in that Globe report that demonstrate "...the Canadian government was acutely aware that it was vulnerable on its record of monitoring prisoners handed over to possible torture by Afghan authorities." This too would seem to back up Colvin just on the heels of Harper suggesting yesterday that other foreign affairs persons did not agree with Colvin, i.e., David Mulroney. Looks like there is internal foreign affairs evidence stating otherwise.

3. Bringing us to the third item, a tough Globe editorial that seems like a bit of a throw down now, the strongest editorial of this past week on the issue by the Globe. The government is transparently "dissembling" they write and they ask a number of questions (see editorial for more details): What did the government know, and when? Who else inside the government was expressing concern? What was the extent and result of the investigations, once undertaken? How widespread is the culture of secrecy? The editorial calls for documentation and testimony from the government by way of explanation:
If the government wants to refute Mr. Colvin's testimony, it must release further documentation – Foreign Affairs' internal human rights reporting; Mr. Colvin's communications; responses from military officials and Mr. Colvin's civilian superiors. It must provide a credible, complete accounting of the investigations, and of who knew what, when: the version of events released on Monday was wholly inadequate. Testimony from the government itself – past and present Ministers of Foreign Affairs, National Defence, and Public Safety; and perhaps the Prime Minister himself – will be needed to complete the story.

If Canada knew about torture, and allowed it to continue, the government needs to say so, and say why. Instead of more attacks on public servants, Canadians deserve unconditioned and complete answers. (emphasis added)
This is good news, the reporting home of Graeme Smith is not taking kindly to the government's efforts to portray Colvin's allegations as those of a suspect lone ranger when Smith backed it all up with his own reporting in 2007. A very serious tone here, mirroring the serious tone of the opposition, that is good to see.

4. Fourth item, confirmation again that the Harper team's story to date on the international law front is not acceptable: "Ignorance is no defence when the subject is torture." From Professor Errol Mendes:
The standard that has been established is that persons in command must take all reasonable steps to acquire such knowledge and then to take all further necessary and reasonable steps to prevent the continuation of the war crime or to punish the perpetrators.

If credible reports from a senior officer in the field began to arrive in May of 2006, and if they detailed the substantial risk of torture to hundreds of detainees transferred to notorious Afghan authorities – who were well known by all of Canada's major allies for indulging in torture – would it be possible to not do anything until more than a year later?

Is 18 months a reasonable period for thinking about developing a new transfer agreement with greater monitoring and tracking of detainees who have been transferred? And do we need to take into consideration the fact that this seems to have happened only after a national newspaper published graphic details about Canadian-transferred detainees who were tortured?

It is almost certain that such a long delay, during which hundreds more may have been tortured, would not come anywhere close to the standard of taking all necessary and reasonable steps to prevent the continuation of the war crime.
Excellent piece covering the doctrine of command responsibility, the Harper government's arguments and our obligations under international humanitarian law all leading to the conclusion that a judicial inquiry is a legal obligation.

Must be quite the morning in the PMO.