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Loose cannon: Returning to the scene of the (war) crime

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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  • Allegations by a
senior diplomat alleging that Afghan prisoners handed over by Canadian soldiers
faced widespread torture are

    Allegations by a senior diplomat alleging that Afghan prisoners handed over by Canadian soldiers faced widespread torture are

Written by Greg Beneteau

Allegations by a senior diplomat alleging that Afghan prisoners handed over by Canadian soldiers faced widespread torture should not come as a surprise. Rather, they’re the culmination of a number of warnings that should have been acted upon long ago. Even thecannon has bones in its closet, rattling loudly to be heard.

In testimony under oath last week before a House of Commons special committee on the mission in Afghanistan, Richard Colvin said Canadian Forces in 2006 and early 2007 turned over hundreds of detainees to Afghan authorities.

Most of the detainees were innocent civilians, Colvin claimed, and all were likely tortured while in Afghan custody.

Colvin, the former No. 2 diplomat in Afghanistan who now works in Washington, also alleged that senior political and military leadership ignored his repeated warnings and even directed diplomats not to mention prisoner abuse allegations in writing.

He cited former Chief of Defense Staff Rick Hillier, who helped negotiate the 2005 prisoner transfer agreement between the Canadian Forces and Afghanistan, as one of the officials who failed to act despite evidence of widespread abuse by Afghan jailers.

Hillier has denied he saw Colvin’s reports, and at publication time was scheduled to appear before the committee Wednesday to refute the allegations.

Meanwhile, the Conservative government has been working overtime to undermine Colvin’s credibility, painting him as a rogue diplomat and claiming there was no solid evidence that prisoners handed over by Canadian soldiers were abused.

The government even blocked Colvin from appearing at a private inquiry for the Military Complaints Commission, which ironically led to his appearance before a much more public Committee hearing.

It defies belief that the Canada could have been blindsided by allegations of torture in Afghan jails when so many others plainly knew what was happening. Michael Semple, former deputy head of the European Union's mission in Afghanistan has been doing the interview circuit in Canada, calling his former colleague’s testimony “entirely credible.”

Numerous reports in Canada and abroad concluded that torture and abuse was routine in Afghan jails, including warnings from the U.S. State Department, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the United Nations.

Further, the original prisoner transfer agreement was heavily criticized for not giving Canadian officials the ability to track prisoners handed over to the Afghans or inspect jails, making the government’s claim of ignorance an example of hear no evil, see no evil.

Since the agreement was revised in 2007 to allow such follow ups, prisoner transfers were halted at least three times over torture fears – not exactly a rousing endorsement of the Afghan prison system.

The political fallout is proving difficult for the Conservatives to contain. There’s also the unsettling reality that, under Canada's Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, officials who sent Afghans to be tortured could be prosecuted, even if they were unaware of specific allegations.

On a side note, this must seem like déjà vu all over again to Scott Gilbert, a former Editor of thecannon, who has been furiously sending out emails to the University of Guelph administration and media since last week.

Last January, Gilbert was at the centre of a controversy for language he used in an opinion piece criticizing the university’s decision to honour General Hillier with its Lincoln Alexander Outstanding Leader Award.

In addition to calling Hillier a war criminal, Gilbert wrote that having U of G honour Canada’s top solider was akin to “giving an award to Paul Bernardo for his exceptional work with youth.” The piece was later edited to remove the most inflammatory remarks, but the original version lives on in discussion boards and blogs.

Now, Gilbert is claiming a certain vindication. One email, titled “UoG honours war criminal – epilogue” contained links to recent articles about Colvin’s allegations. In another, he demanded to know whether the university would rescind Hillier’s award if he’s found to be “complicit in the torture of civilians.”

“Grab a copy of the Toronto Star today to see the words "War Crimes" in huge letters. Was my use of the term months ago so unjustified and purely opinion?” he asked.

Individuals and groups have alleged for some time that Canada committed war crimes in Afghanistan. It still doesn’t make Hillier a war criminal, nor does it confirm the veracity of Colvin’s allegations. Such a determination can only be made by individuals with far more expertise than most journalists.

That being said, a full public inquiry into the allegations of an Afghan torture cover up is probably the only way to determine what happened and who’s responsible.

When that happens, we take the necessary steps to prosecute any guilty parties according to Canadian and international law.

And to answer Scott’s question: if Hillier is ever found guilty of war crimes, I think the university should absolutely revoke his award.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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