Thursday, December 10, 2009

Wednesday's Afghan detainee scandal developments

A few points on yesterday's developments, principally General Natynczyk's realization that yes, there was torture of a Canadian transferred detainee, undercutting Defence Minister MacKay's repeated assertions.

1. For General Natynczyk, who claims to be in the dark as to why he was missing the above, he might want to look into Rick Hillier's Strategic Joint Staff effort, that halted the flow of detainee information and controlled access to information requests on detainees. There might be some answers there. Why General Hillier was given authority to insert himself and this group into an Access to Information process is unclear. Did this Hillier group become a bottleneck of information on detainees?

2. This posture of total deference to the military we're hearing from these Harper Conservatives now, i.e., however the military story may shift on a certain day, that's how the Harper politicos therefore bend, as they did yesterday...the obvious point is that the buck stops with the government. And the PM controls everything in it. Remember that Star report that hasn't figured much yet in all of this, it still points a finger into the PMO with respect to control of information on detainees. Message management was also a theme echoed in the CP report yesterday on prioritization of that message management over actually doing something to prevent detainee handovers in this tenuous situation.

3. Craig Oliver was repeatedly floating an off base theory yesterday about the military now providing "cover" to the Harper government as a result of Natynczyk's correction. I.e., that they've been OK to rely on the military to date, because there haven't been any incidents of torture provided to the government by the military until Natynczyk's yesterday. That assumes that only the military has had control over information/reporting coming out of Afghanistan. We know that's not true (see Red Cross meetings with various Canadian officials, the Colvin reports that went to deputy ministers, for e.g.). And again, knowing this government, it's just not believable.

Oliver's "cover" theory only works, as well, if you mistakenly believe that you need proof of torture in order for the government to act. That's not right. If you are aware that there's a substantial risk that torture might be occurring, then you need to act to prevent it before it occurs, not after. Harper was getting that wrong again in the House of Commons yesterday on the applicable standard for a Geneva Convention respecting country in terms of their ongoing obligations: "Mr. Speaker, the facts of the case in question of course confirm what we have been saying all along, which is that when the Canadian Forces saw substantive evidence of any case of abuse, they have taken corrective action." He's wrong:

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.

Steps should have been taken so that the military would not have had to repeatedly be taking "corrective action," which implies action after the fact. (MacKay and his "willful" or intentional standard is wrong too.)

The Star furthers this point this morning, pointing out that the RCMP launched an investigation into Canadian officials and their actions in respect of the Maher Arar case and his torture abroad, citing Justice O'Connor's similar standard as above ("Canadian officials should not wait for 'verification' or unequivocal evidence of torture in a specific case before arriving at a conclusion of a likelihood of torture," O'Connor wrote.") The government needs to have done much more in the face of allegations and information it is now clear that they were getting in 2006. The very idea of the government obtaining "cover" from the military is ridiculous too in that the civilian leadership is in charge.

4. You have to wonder how that "board of inquiry" move by Natynczyk yesterday will affect the military/Harper government coziness. Will this inquiry just be limited to that particular incident? Doesn't this incident beg the question about whether other information might have been stifled? Isn't there a risk now for Harper that he's got an investigation going on by Natynczyk that he can't control?

5. The time was cut short yesterday at the Afghan Commons Committee and so Peter MacKay et al. faced limited time for questions, 20 minutes instead of 90 minutes.
The ministers had not even finished their opening statements when bells rang to call MPs for a vote – and they faced only 20 minutes of questions when they returned.
What to say about this, three Harper cabinet ministers are prevented from testifying on an urgent, significant and politically damaging matter due to procedural riggings by their own government. It's anti-democratic, it's repugnant. I hope the Canadian public is paying attention.