From the Toronto Star's Thomas Walkom:
Prisoner abuse just part of the brutal landscape there
The only surprise about the Afghan prisoner controversy gripping Ottawa is that any of this comes as a surprise.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is reeling under allegations that prisoners captured by Canadian troops are being handed over to Afghan authorities who then torture and abuse them.
The opposition is in full cry. The newspapers are chock-a-block with references to the brutal abuse handed out by Afghan police to those unfortunate enough to be identified as Taliban suspects.
But what did we think would happen when, in 2001, we signed on to support a gang of brutal warlords trying to oust the gang of brutal clerics who were running this unhappy country?
Afghanistan today may have the trappings of democracy – a well-tailored president elected in a relatively fair vote, a parliament that includes women, even a constitution that promises full-blown political rights.
But underneath, not much has changed. As Canada's foreign affairs department notes in an internal report, the reality of Afghanistan remains bleak.
A censored version of that report, grudgingly released this week under access to information laws, talks of "political repression, human rights abuses and criminal activity by warlords, police, militia and remnants of past military forces."
Those unfortunate enough to end up in the Afghan justice system, the report says, find that bribes and connections are essential. "Those who have no money or power can remain in prison without trial for months, and possibly years." Violence against women is widespread "both at home and in public."
And that's the version Ottawa is willing to let the public see. The unexpurgated version is even blunter, noting that "extra-judicial executions, disappearances, torture and detention without trial are all too common."
Civil wars are rarely gentle. The Afghan conflict, which has been sputtering on for more than 27 years, is particularly brutal. Over time, the various sides have treated one another with unspeakable savagery.
For human rights groups, Afghanistan is a full-time job. Amnesty International slams the government of President Hamid Karzai ("barely functional"), the Taliban insurgents ("war crimes") as well as U.S. troops ("torture and ill-treatment").
In this context, Canadian soldiers – equipped with wallet-sized cards that list key elements of the Geneva Conventions on correct prisoner-of-war treatment – seem absurdly benign.
As far as anyone can tell, Canada's hands-on treatment of captured prisoners has been good. First, it seems that not many have been detained. Citing political sensitivity, the defence department won't release figures.
But Amnesty's John Tackaberry estimates the number arrested by Canadian troops since 2002 at about 40.
Second, prisoners themselves say the Canadians treat them well. The Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith recently interviewed 30 who had been detained. Most, he wrote, praised their Canadian captors fulsomely. Their troubles, it seems, began only when Canada handed them over to the Afghans who, among other things, whipped them with thick, electric cables, stripped them naked in freezing cells or left them hanging upside down for days.
Throughout all of this, the Canadian government has adopted the ostrich strategy of keeping its head firmly buried. Technically, it made sure its soldiers would be beyond reproach. In practice, it left glaring loopholes.
On paper, Canadian policy seems golden. The defence department's 2004 manual for handling detainees says all are to be accorded prisoner-of-war status "as this is the highest standard required under international humanitarian law."
Amnesty's Hilary Homes argues that it would be more appropriate to make reference to other elements of international law. Still, compared to the U.S., Canada's formal position has been positively enlightened. Detainees under Canadian control are not to be waterboarded, hung by their wrists, humiliated or threatened with sodomy. It's just name, rank and serial number as far as Canada is concerned.
Of course, it is easy to be Mr. Nice Guy when you don't want to bother imprisoning alleged insurgents yourself. And that seems to be Canada's view.
In the early days of the war, Canadian troops handed over their prisoners to the U.S. When it was pointed out that this could get them in trouble (the Geneva Conventions require that prisoners be transferred only to countries willing to observe basic human rights laws – which the Americans are not), Ottawa came up with another solution. It would hand them over as quickly as possible to the Afghans.
After all, the theory went, the Karzai regime is the legal government of Afghanistan. And Afghanistan is party to the Geneva Conventions. So, why not?
The problem is that this theory is at odds with everything the government knows about the Afghan authorities. The U.S. State Department has documented their brutal and corrupt practices; so has Amnesty International. As the public discovered this week, so, too, has Canada's foreign affairs department.
In its efforts to wash its hands of the problem, Ottawa has proved particularly inept. First, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor said he would send officials into Afghan prisons to make sure that those captured by our troops were well-treated. Then, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day insisted – incorrectly, according to those on the ground in Kandahar – that Canadian officials have already made such visits.
Meanwhile, Harper insists the abuse allegations are "baseless accusations," while Day labels them part of a Taliban disinformation campaign.
If there were not independent confirmation of Afghan interrogation techniques, this defence might have some validity. But in the context of Afghanistan today, the Harper-Day strategy veers perilously close to that used by Holocaust deniers, who insist that the murder of 6 million Jews during World War II was a fiction created by a powerful, international Zionist conspiracy.
Sadly, all of this is part of a familiar pattern. Hypocrisy has long been Canada's national vice. In the post-9/11 period, it has run rampant. We say we are firm believers in fair play and the rule of law. But it seems we are only willing to apply those standards when there is little cost.
We eagerly chastise Iran for its human rights abuses; Iran, after all, is regarded these days as an official pariah.
Yet, when it is politically convenient to ignore abuse, we happily do so.
Take the case of 20-year-old Omar Khadr. The Conservatives, like the Liberals before them, have made not a peep on behalf of this imprisoned Canadian child soldier, who has been held by the Americans against all international law at Guantanamo Bay for fully a quarter of his life and who now faces charges before a tribunal so blatantly stacked that even his U.S. military lawyer calls it a "kangaroo court."
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, we close our eyes and pledge allegiance to the grand principles of human rights. As the Star's Rosie DiManno reported from Kandahar this week, we may detain Afghans on the flimsiest of evidence. (In the case she witnessed, Canadian troops arrested a man they thought might be a bomber simply because he was bearded, dark and one-armed – a description that could fit thousands in a land of dark, bearded males, many of whom have had hands or limbs blown off by the mines that still pepper the countryside.)
Then, we hand these detainees over to the jailers with the thick, electric cables.
Don't ask. Don't tell. It is all very Canadian.