Human rights are important. The Geneva Convention is not just a piece of paper. The UN Declaration isn’t just something to make us feel good. The concept that the least of us deserve to live free of summary judgement, free from cruel and unusual punishment — even those who least deserve these concessions — is perhaps the one thing that separates us from the animals.
Certainly, this concept is supposed to be one thing which separates us from a group of people who would fly hijacked airplanes into skyscrapers, or throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls. This distinction is supposed to give us the moral high ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. The terrorists do not respect human rights; we do. That’s why we’re on the side of right.
Or, at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to go.
We have had to make compromises in our war against the Taliban. To win Afghanistan, we made deals with and even bought out various warlords, some of whose fighters could and did fight as dirty as the Taliban. This move probably helped us take the country far faster and with far fewer casualties than might have otherwise been required. Unfortunately, we then allowed these elements to influence the new government and its various institutions.
Our failure to stand up for human rights in Afghanistan; our failure to secure the peace, has created a reality where Afghanis in some of the liberated areas long for the security of the Taliban. Reports of torture and prisoner abuses, not to mention the re-election of Afghan President Harmid Karzai in an election tainted with fraud, has allowed some people to believe that the current western-supported government is no better than the brutal and backward regime it replaced. And for western troops on the ground — including Canadian men and women who have been involved in this campaign for years — the cost of this failure is coming back in lives.
This is why human rights are important, and why our failure to live up to our ideals must be investigated and, where necessary, punished.
Starting in 2006, and possibly before that, concerns that prisoners handed over to the Afghan government were being beaten and tortured started to carry up through diplomatic channels and various non-governmental agencies, including the International Red Cross. Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin has documented numerous attempts by himself to warn officials within the Canadian government about the mistreatment of prisoners. More evidence is coming forward from other sources to back Colvin’s claims. Such actions can be called war crimes, and the Geneva Convention holds that anybody who turns over a prisoner of war to a prison where he or she knows that said prisoner is likely to experience torture or other forms of abuse, is complicit in said war crime.
From the stories I’ve read, our Canadian soldiers and their officers have worked to respect the Geneva Convention — going so far as to remove prisoners from certain Afghan prisons rather than hand them over. Unfortunately, these acts don’t appear to have been matched by action from the Canadian government, which failed to respond to various warnings of prisoner abuse it has received since 2006, and even advocated for a quick transfer of detainees.
This failure to show leadership here in standing up for Canada’s principles of respecting human rights has marred our reputation abroad, particularly on the ground in Afghanistan. It has probably made the lives of our soldiers trying to bring peace to the troubled country much harder. And the government’s response since these allegations came to light has been even worse: Colvin’s integrity was impugned, critics were accused of sympathizing with the Taliban, and attempts to thoroughly investigate these serious charges have been obstructed at every turn. This government has changed its story each time its previous excuse has proven inadequate, and even conservative commentators have said that the government has acted as though they have something to hide.
A free and open inquiry which would do much to restore Canada’s credibility on the ground — and this is the sort of openness and accountability the Conservatives promised before they were elected — but this has been all but ruled out. Documents which would allow various oversight committees to properly investigate the allegations have been redacted for “national security” concerns — in spite of the fact that some of the investigators have the highest level security clearances. The government has called particular witnesses to support its own interpretation of events, but has blocked the release of documents to allow other committee members to prepare proper questions. And the harm to our international reputation continues.
At the centre of this controversy is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter MacKay. He initially claimed “Not a single Taliban prisoner turned over by Canadian Forces can be proven to have been abused.” He now acknowledges that “credible evidence” of such does exist. It would appear that he has been caught out in a lie.
While there is, as yet, no “absolute proof” of abuse, Minister MacKay and his colleagues should have known the effect even rumour would have had, on the morale of the troops, and on the reputation of our troops in the field. And yet, for three years, now, the Canadian government has done nothing to change the reality that produced these allegations. And meanwhile Afghan civilians and Canadian soldiers alike suffer as the west loses its moral high ground in this war.
Peter MacKay is the minister. He’s ultimately responsible for what goes on in his department. It appears he received warnings about the potential torture of detainees as early as 2006, and his ministry failed to provide the leadership to Canadian military brass and to the soldiers on the ground that we, as a country, opposed torture as a matter of principle. The tradition of ministerial responsibility demands nothing less than his resignation.
And yet his lackadaisical attitude to his portfolio is matched by other ministers in this government, on this and on other issues. These people seem to believe that the government that governs the best, governs the least, and they intend to live up to this adage by governing as little as possible. This is the sort of approach that has led to a shortage of medical isotopes, or the casual sale of taxpayer-developed Canadian technology to foreign interests at the expense of a major Canadian employer out to create jobs. It is this surly attitude that has made this parliament one of the most dysfunctional in recent memory, where the Conservatives even have a handbook on how to disrupt the business of parliamentary committees should the opposition members happen to outvote them.
MPs like Baird, Gallant and Foote have accused opposition members of “smearing the troops”, of pursuing this controversy for reasons of political expediency. It may or may not be politically expedient for Michael Ignatieff to use this to attack Stephen Harper, but it doesn’t make the issue less important. It’s worth noting that, had the tables been reversed — if this was a Liberal government with a Conservative opposition — Conservatives would be haranguing the Liberals for this sort of smoke screen, and they would be right to do so.
Because human rights are important, and the questions surrounding our actions in Afghanistan have certainly threatened our hold on the country, and risk allowing it to descend back into the mess it was when we first arrived. Trying to stifle the questions, though, won’t stop them. We don’t maintain the moral high ground by prevaricating. We maintain the moral high ground by taking responsibility, by acknowledging mistakes, and correcting them. Our government seems unwilling to do any of that.
Yes, managing a war is hard, but that’s no excuse for abandoning our principles. And if our governing members didn’t want to take on this responsibility, they shouldn’t have run for office in the first place. And if they still won’t accept this responsibility, now that the job of our soldiers has gotten a heck of a lot harder thanks to Ottawa’s negligence, then they should be removed from office at the earliest opportunity. It’s only right.