Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Diplomats ordered to hold back information on detainee torture

Apparently we have a government who hears reports of torture of Afghan detainees handed over by our military to the Afghans...and their response is stop sending us reports of torture: "Canadian diplomats ordered to hold back information on Afghan prison torture: sources."
Canadian diplomats in Afghanistan were ordered in 2007 to hold back information in their reports to Ottawa about the handling of the prisoners, say defence and foreign affairs sources.

The instruction - issued soon after allegations of torture by Afghan authorities began appearing in public - was aimed at defusing the explosive human-rights controversy, said sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

There was a fear that graphic reports, even in censored form, could be uncovered by opposition parties and the media through access-to-information laws, leading to revelations that would further erode already-tenuous public support.

The controversy was seen as "detracting from the narrative" the Harper government was trying to weave around the mission, said one official.

"It was meant to put on happy face," he added.

The instruction was passed over the telephone by senior officials in the Privy Council Office and reinforced in follow-up conferences between Ottawa and Kabul, as well Ottawa and Kandahar, sources said.
What to make of this direction? An affront to the government's human rights obligations. A desire to manage the information to protect the Harper government politically. Possible indifference to the allegations. The message on the issue was sent from the top, from the Privy Council Office too, i.e., hard to believe the Prime Minister didn't know about it.

Implicit in an order to hold back information on prisoner transfers is knowledge on the part of the higher ups that they were hearing something they didn't like and they didn't want to hear any more of it. This direction means somebody, in the Privy Council Office at least, knew there was harmful information being reported back to Ottawa and wanted it stopped. Yet Harper and his ministers deny having knowledge of the torture allegations.

To determine a correct response from the Canadian government, simply interchange "Canadian soldier" with "Afghan detainee" when you consider the issue. That is, ask yourself whether you would want Canadian soldiers handed over to prisons where they might be tortured. The answer is no. As a Geneva Convention respecting nation, that's what we should do with detainees under our control, not hand them over to tortuous jailers, as provided by the Third Geneva Convention, Article 12:
Prisoners of war may only be transferred by the Detaining Power to a Power which is a party to the Convention and after the Detaining Power has satisfied itself of the willingness and ability of such transferee Power to apply the Convention. When prisoners of war are transferred under such circumstances, responsibility for the application of the Convention rests on the Power accepting them while they are in its custody.

Nevertheless, if that Power fails to carry out the provisions of the Convention in any important respect, the Power by whom the prisoners of war were transferred shall, upon being notified by the Protecting Power, take effective measures to correct the situation or shall request the return of the prisoners of war. Such requests must be complied with. (emphasis added)
You can see the problem that would develop if the Harper government were to receive reports of torture and why they may have instituted this policy of please-send-us-no-more-torture-information. There is an obligation to take measures to correct the situation or request the return of the detainees upon being notified about it.

The Harper government may have stifled this story to date by essentially shutting down the Military Police Complaints Commission hearings on the issue, but clearly they only have so much control over the information. We have the above sources in the CP report exposing the Harper government's blackout on information involving detainee transfers. And later today, Richard Colvin, the Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan during 2006 and 2007 who wrote many reports sent back to top foreign affairs and defence department officials warning of torture in the Afghan jails will testify before the Commons committee on Afghanistan. A CBC report gives a preview:
A source familiar with the handling of detainees during the time Colvin was in Afghanistan, said the diplomat could reveal ugly information about the way the government responded to the reports.

The government could end up accused of being simply unwilling to deal with the torture claims or of "looking the other way," as the source put it.
Should be an interesting hearing today.