Afghanistan: Canada complicit in torture and war crimes

Canada has been highly successful in projecting an image as a benign power doing good work around the world. It has built this reputation on the idea of peacekeeping rather than waging war. This image was acquired when a former Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson who later became prime minister, proposed at the United Nations in 1956 the idea of peacekeeping forces to separate the invading Israeli army from Egyptian forces in the Sinai. For this, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Canada’s peacekeeping image was further enhanced when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau not only kept Canada out of the Vietnam War (1964-1973) but also opened Canadian borders to American soldiers wishing to escape the draft. Defying the US was certainly a courageous act because Canada was and is totally dependent on its southern neighbour for trade.

Canada’s peacekeeping image, however, has been seriously dented in recent years. While it kept out of the US war on Iraq in 2003, it was not because Ottawa did not wish to join; hundreds of thousands of Canadians jammed the streets of major cities making it virtually impossible for the government to participate in America’s war launched on a pack of lies. Before Iraq, Canada had already sent troops to Afghanistan to assuage the anger of a superpower gone mad over the attacks of 9/11 and to convince Americans that Canada was not “soft on terror”. To this day, some American officials as well as Congressmen believe, quite wrongly, that some of the 9/11 hijackers had entered the US through Canada.

While Canada has used its “peacekeeper” image to wag fingers at others –” notably China and Iran for alleged human rights abuses while ignoring such egregious human rights abusers as the Zionist state of Israel –” it is in Afghanistan that Canada’s own reputation lies in tatters. Further blows were delivered during an explosive testimony by Richard Colvin, the second highest-ranking Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan when he testified on November 18 at a House of Commons committee on Afghan prisoner abuse. Colvin, a federal intelligence officer, served in Kabul during 2006 and 2007 and took over many of the responsibilities that Glen Barry, his senior was performing before he was killed in a roadside bomb near Qandahar, making him the highest ranking Canadian official to die in Afghanistan. Colvin is currently posted in Washington as a senior intelligence officer, clearly indicating his professionalism and competence.

In his sworn testimony Colvin told a special Commons committee that prisoners were turned over to Afghanistan’s notorious intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, by the Canadian military in 2006-2007 despite warnings that they would be tortured. He also suggested that the Conservative-led government may have tried to cover up what was happening. The Afghan intelligence service’s notoriety and torture practices were already widely known to senior officials in Ottawa. Between April 2006 and October 2007, Colvin had sent at least 17 secret cables to officials in Kabul, Qandahar and Ottawa warning about the possible torture of detainees.

His list included two of the highest-ranking Canadian military officers: Lieutenant General Michel Gauthier, then the head of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command, and General Rick Hillier, then the chief of defence staff. Other recipients of his cable messages were Colleen Swords, then the assistant deputy minister of foreign affairs; Margaret Bloodworth, then national security adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper; David Mulroney, then the head of the Afghanistan Task Force and now ambassador to China; and Arif Lalani, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan from April 2007 to September 2008.

Colvin had warned that the detainees were taxi drivers and farmers and had nothing to do with the Taliban. During his testimony, he said that the policy of transferring Afghan detainees to the National Directorate of Security was a major contributory factor in turning people against Canadian forces and led to more attacks.

There was also the case of the notorious governor of Qandahar, Asadullah Khalid, who maintained a torture dungeon in the basement of his guesthouse where he personally tortured prisoners suspected of being members of the Taliban movement or their sympathizers. Khalid’s notoriety was the subject of discussions among top Canadian officials as early as December 2006 before Colvin sent his explosive cables to Ottawa. That meeting in December was the culmination of months of pressure from foreign affairs officials on the ground that wanted Khalid removed. Both foreign and defence officials have confirmed that the meeting was held at the Privy Council Office, the highest decision-making body in Canada, and involved Prime Minister Harper’s then-national security adviser, Margaret Bloodworth.

Colvin testified that the former governor was “known to us very early on” and considered “an unusually bad actor on human rights issues.” Sources in Canada’s Department of Defence said there were some “pretty heated discussions” between diplomats and military officers, the latter supporting Khalid who in 2004 had operated a private prison in Ghanzi –” a province near Kabul –” where he was governor before being transferred to Qandahar in 2005. “He had people killed who got in his way and then in Qandahar we found out that he had indeed set up a similar dungeon under his guest house,” Colvin testified at the committee hearings. According to Colvin, “He [Khalid] acknowledged this when asked. He had sort of justifications for it, but he was known to personally torture people in that dungeon.” Khalid, a favourite of the Canadian military, once even paraded the bloodied body of a dead Taliban commander before the local media in Qandahar.

Despite such explosive revelations, government officials have attempted to rubbish Colvin’s testimony as “hear-say” and for being “duped by Taliban”. They also dismissed demands from opposition Members of Parliament for a public inquiry. Yet Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who at the time was Foreign Affairs Minister, while alleging Colvin’s “testimony is suspect,” conceded that the government had revised its prisoner transfer arrangement with the Karzai government in May 2007 partly because of Colvin’s warnings over the Afghan intelligence service. MacKay is a potato farmer from Nova Scotia. This is bad enough, but his attempt to discredit Colvin’s character reflects a new low in Canadian politics.

On November 24, reports emerged that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) had documented 400 cases of torture across Afghanistan. Its report prepared last April uncovered 47 cases of abuse in Qandahar, which was ranked third in terms of the number of abuse claims in Afghanistan. The AIHRC report said that iron rods, electric shocks and beatings constituted the preferred methods of torture and most often it was done to extract a confession. “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are common in the majority of law enforcement institutions, and at least 98.5 per cent of interviewed victims have been tortured,” said the report. The IAHRC study, which tracked abuse claims between 2001 and early 2008, shows most of the allegations –”243 –” were levelled in 2006 and 2007.

That is the time frame when Colvin was in Afghanistan and had sent warning cables to the federal government about torture. Opposition parties say claims by Prime Minister Harper and his senior ministers that they were unaware of Colvin’s reports cannot be believed. If officials were aware and did little or nothing to stop such abuse, they could implicate Canada in the war crime of complicity in torture.

Lawyers for human rights groups have also joined the debate. They say that government lawyers appear to have failed to heed judges’ orders to hand over documents that would have included Colvin’s warnings to senior officials, and they are looking at whether to reopen those cases. They have unsuccessfully challenged Canadian detainee policies for the past two years. They are also considering launching complaints against Canada before international tribunals that investigate violations of the Geneva Convention, including the United Nations Committee Against Torture, the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Rapporteur on Torture.

Next time Canadian officials at the UN or other international forums point fingers at others, they would now be in a position to return the favour by referring to the torture of innocent detainees in Afghanistan. Canada appears to be complicit in such acts. Its nice guy image may not be as deserved as it has been claimed for so many years.