Saturday, November 21, 2009

Voices rising for a public inquiry on Canadian complicity in torture

First up, Professor Errol Mendes powerfully sets out what is at stake for Canada as Richard Colvin's allegations of Afghan detainees handed over by Canada to a knowingly torturous regime have come to the fore. An important read for anyone wanting to understand the scope of the possible damage done here and the important implications for Canadian democracy and the rule of law that are embodied in the way the Harper government has chosen, from the start, to handle these allegations, by silencing and denying: "Grave allegations."
What Colvin has asserted raises the question of whether such complicity by Canadian officials and possibly their political masters (if further evidence is uncovered that they were informed), had already happened in the 17-month period during which he was sending his reports to the highest levels of government. This could be one of the gravest indictments against those who govern this country. Canada as a member state of the International Criminal Court could even be investigated for war crimes if the evidence mounts that there were credible reports of complicity with torture during the 17-month period of Colvin's reports.

These allegations, if proven, go beyond the detainee abuse. It goes to what is the most sacred in our constitutional and democratic society in Canada. The rule of law requires that no one is above the law and if there is any actual or potential evidence of wrongdoing or illegality, it must be brought to the attention of the appropriate authorities to either stop it or prevent any future occurrence. It should also be a cornerstone of responsible government in Canada that those who govern must be accountable to the Parliament of Canada, which means not misleading members of the House of Commons or Senate if they have information that potentially implicates wrongdoing or illegality by Canadian officials.

The duty to not seriously obstruct the work of critical Canadian institutions would also apply to any court or quasi-judicial commission such as the Military Police Complaints Commission, whose task is finding out if the military police, on orders from those higher up the chain of command, knew or ought to have known of the treatment of detainees once they transferred to the Afghan security organization. Colvin revealed that he was threatened by senior Department of Justice lawyers with prosecution for breaching national security if he co-operated and testified at the commission.

The seriousness of what Colvin has alleged, if proven and corroborated, indicates that where there is a political and accompanying bureaucratic will, the rule of law and democratic accountability can be endangered. This would jeopardize the present and future well being of Canada, and the legal obligations of its officials and institutions. This is something which should concern every Canadian who cares about these fundamental values on which this country has been built. A judicial public inquiry is urgently needed to protect the Rule of Law and democratic accountability in Canada.
A forceful reminder as these parliamentary hearings go forward about how significant the issue really is. This is clearly not just about the facts of torture on the ground in Afghanistan.

From the UK, Colin Horgan also weighs in, "Time for truth about torture." Lots of useful links in Horgan's piece.
A public inquiry is necessary. Taking this discussion outside of partisan bickering in the House seems essential to finding out what Colvin knew, who else might have known what he did, and what role - if any - Canada has played in the abuse of Afghan civilians. Colvin's allegations point to moral corruption - that's not what Canadians were told would be achieved in Afghanistan. As it does for Britain or the US, Canada's role in Afghanistan walks a fine line between defining who we want to be, and the kind of criminals we're supposed to be fighting against. We need to know which side we're walking on.
Further, from Amir Attaran's appearance on CBC the other day, here's an excerpt from a memo which was obtained in that Federal Court lawsuit against the government over the detainee issue. I believe it's dated November 2007, see notation at top of document and report here. It's a memo from a diplomat sending it to a host of individuals, including David Mulroney, former deputy minister of the federal government's Afghan Task Force, and Colleen Swords, former assistant deputy minister in the international security branch of Foreign Affairs or go here to download for your own viewing. We are to believe that these high ranking Harper government officials never discussed such matters with their superiors, apparently. Page 1 (click to enlarge):

Page 3:

"The rule of law requires that no one is above the law and if there is any actual or potential evidence of wrongdoing or illegality, it must be brought to the attention of the appropriate authorities to either stop it or prevent any future occurrence." Now did the Harper government do that?