To: Left Hand, From: Right Hand,
Subject: What Are You Doing?

I have to say that I’m a little bit perplexed by this announcement, issued quietly, that Canadian Forces in Afghanistan stopped handing over prisoners to the Afghan government, due to concerns of torture and other mistreatment against these detainees after the transfer, back in November.

Credit to the Harper government for doing the right thing, taking a view of better-safe-than-sorry in respecting the Geneva Conventions and Canadian policy. Good work! But why the secrecy?

During the two-and-a-half months while this policy was quietly in place, the debate raged in the House of Commons about the policy of handing over prisoners into situations where they might experience things that would contravene what few rules of war we have. Tempers frayed, voices were raised, and ministers within this government lashed out at the opposition, impugning their patriotism, at the same time as they were doing the very thing the opposition was demanding.

Possibly the secrecy was due to security concerns, or possibly not to offend our Afghan allies in the War on Terror. I can sort of understand that. But there has to be better ways to keep a policy quiet, without engaging in the embarrassing activity of doing the right thing, while at the same time deriding the opposition for calling on the government to do the right thing.

Similar to the above, I’m reminded of the Canadian Caper back in 1979-80, when the Canadian Ambassador to Iran gave shelter to six diplomats from the American embassy in Tehran, after the new regime took hostages. Joe Clark was prime minister at the time, facing Pierre Trudeau in a minority parliament. The Canadian Foreign Ministry (headed by Flora MacDonald) was working quietly behind the scenes to deceive the Iranian government and smuggle the Americans out. At the time, the Conservatives were taking a hammering from the Liberal opposition for not speaking up louder in defense of their American allies, but they knew that any strong words could crumble the operation.

So what Clark and MacDonald did was contact Trudeau and other members in the shadow cabinet and alerted them to the operation. The Liberals kept the secret, and scaled back their attacks on the government, and the government was able to proceed and smuggle Americans out of Iran.

Admittedly the Canadian Caper was a lot more complicated than what we’re seeing today and required the government and the opposition to deceive a hostile foreign government, making for a greater incentive to work together. But it’s still interesting to note that, back then, the Conservatives and the Liberals were able to set partisanship aside on this foreign policy matter. It is a shame that something similar seems so much harder to achieve in this day and age.

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