20 Nov Colvin torture testimony – editorial roundup
Here is a roundup of newspaper editorials about Richard Colvin’s tesimony about Canadian military and civilian complicity in torture.
If his account is correct, the federal government was so determined to turn a blind eye to the treatment of the detainees by the Afghan National Directorate of Security and police that it discouraged record-keeping and other documentation – highly uncharacteristic behaviour in any bureaucracy. On this, Mr. Colvin gave evidence from his own direct experience, not hearsay.
The word “cover-up,” which evokes the Watergate scandal and a concealment of wrongdoing within an institution, or even obstruction of justice, may be excessive in this context. Instead, there is reason to believe that several parts of Canadian government preferred to look the other way, when informed that the Afghan government was abusing detainees, far from adhering to its side of the agreement.
This week, the dismissive antagonism of some Conservative MPs, including Mr. MacKay’s parliamentary secretary, Laurie Hawn, in response to Mr. Colvin’s testimony, raises a disappointing inference that partisanism continues to prevail over a sense of common humanity.
[T]he reaction of the Harper government is not reassuring. First it claimed Colvin’s testimony would breach national security – a dodge used too often and too cynically, around the world, to cover up all manner of wrongdoing. By yesterday, the line was that Colvin is a dupe of the Taliban. This is preposterous.
Abuses are inevitable in wartime. But it’s not acceptable for our government to systematically undercut our national standards.
Ottawa must demonstrate its total opposition to torture, for the sake of Afghanistan and for the soldiers we send there.
[A]ll signs point to a culture of complicity at the highest levels of the Canadian Armed Forces and federal government, where the operative code was see no evil, hear no evil and write no evil in diplomatic cables home. That and never return calls from the Red Cross.
That pattern of damage control emerges from Colvin’s jarring testimony to a parliamentary committee probing the government’s handling of the issue… Conservatives remain in deep denial on the issue – and deeply partisan, including shots at the opposition for “accept(ing) the word of the Taliban.”
…When the first warnings of mistreatment arose in 2006, [Defence Minister Peter] MacKay’s predecessor, Gordon O’Connor, gave blithe assurances that the Red Cross was on top of things. Yet in Kandahar, the army was pointedly ignoring Red Cross phone calls, Colvin testified. He also suggested that the torture allegations inflicted grave damage on the army’s campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of increasingly alienated Afghans.
As for MacKay, he was foreign minister at the time his most senior officials insisted that torture allegations never be put in writing. Were they protecting MacKay, or was MacKay protecting himself?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s top officials were also part of what Colvin described as a conspiracy of silence. All along, Harper vigorously defended the government line that there was no cause for alarm. Now, the harm has been done – to innocent Afghans, our war effort, and Canada’s credibility in demanding that human rights and the rule of law be respected by other countries.
To be blunt, Mr. Colvin was our war crimes insurance. By digging into allegations that Afghan security forces were torturing prisoners we sent them, he was doing the right thing to ensure Canadians did not one day find themselves sitting in the dock before the Court of International Justice facing charges for being complicit in a war crime…
Did the government and military act on these alarms? Ministers denied evidence of torture and did nothing about detainee handovers until a newspaper reported allegations in the spring of 2007 – at which point Mr. Colvin says he was told by superiors to stop putting his concerns in writing. Even now, Tory MPs are portraying Mr. Colvin as a dupe of Taliban misinformation. Defence Minister Peter MacKay says there are no proven cases of abuse and the diplomat’s evidence “does not stand up.”
Really? Since the government didn’t follow up – a gross negligence – how would it know? If the senior intelligence officer on the scene (and now our senior intelligence officer in Washington) wasn’t worth listening to, who was? What could be a greater disaster for the mission and for Canada than being entangled in a war crime? In still failing to grasp the gravity of this warning, the government is losing Canadian hearts and minds, too.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, at President Hamid Karzai’s inauguration Thursday, noted that in 2007 strict conditions were imposed on transferring detainees, who are now visited by Canadian Corrections officials. But Mr. Colvin’s evidence suggests the early warnings of the Red Cross were right, yet ignored by official indifference.
Such information is critical to catching weaknesses that might undo Canada’s pledge to ensure the safety of detainees. Mr. Colvin’s evidence should not have become a bone in the partisan, parliamentary dog fight, but Ottawa fought to keep him, and others, from appearing at the military commission. The Harper government must let the independent inquiry to proceed unobstructed so the evidence can be tested vigorously under oath.
For MacKay and Cannon to attack Colvin as not credible is, itself, not credible. Why would Colvin, presumably credible enough to be posted to Washington, risk his career with baseless allegations? For MacKay and Cannon to demand absolute proof is also specious. Nobody goes to court with absolute, irrefutable proof, only strong evidence.