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Panel calls for more action on Afghan detainee issue

|Written By Matt Powell

A panel of experts on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan met at Osgoode Hall Law School’s senate chambers on Feb. 8 to debate Canada’s prisoner-transfer policies.

The forum of experts described the potential international legal violations by transferring prisoners to an Afghan government group known for having a controversial human rights record.

Panellists included professor Craig Scott, director of the Jack and Mae Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime, and Security; Bob Rae, MP for Toronto Centre and former Ontario premier; Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada; and Col. Michel Drapeau.

Last November, Richard Colvin, a former senior diplomat with Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, testified before a parliamentary committee that prisoners transferred by Canadian Forces to the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s domestic intelligence agency, had likely been tortured.

A month earlier, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the government had not seen any of the 2007 reports. Colvin’s allegations have led to speculation that the Afghan detainee inquiry was the chief reason for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s December prorogation of Parliament.

Neve said Canada’s affiliation with the NDS is a significant issue because of its sketchy human rights record.

“Canada could not have chosen a worse partner in Afghanistan,” he said. “The NDS is known for its terrible track record on human rights. Canada’s human rights reputation could be ruined for being associated with governments known for using torture.”

The issue became public in 2007, when Colvin returned from Afghanistan with testimony from Afghan prisoners saying they had been tortured after Canadian Forces turned them over to the NDS.

“I hope the committee here today can produce more focused answer seeking of the government and clearer ideas where the legal problems are, including the problems of the inadequate legal advice that appears to be lacking in the Department of Defence and Department of Foreign Affairs,” says Scott.

“I want to see more and more pressure on the government and learn how they are coming up with their current legal positions.”

Rae describes how necessary it is that Canada’s actions lie completely in line with the rule of law.

“Whatever we do with this issue has to be in line with the rule of law. We’re all officers of the court as lawyers, and as Canadians, and applying the highest standards of the rule of law to our own actions is very important,” says Rae.

“I hope very much that this issue will continue to animate the public debate in Canada.”

In regards to the federal government’s repeated denials that it knew of the torture allegations, Rae says he hopes the federal government will develop new legislation for the disclosure of sensitive information and call a full public inquiry.

Osgoode law professor Michael Mandel was quick to question Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan in the first place.

“We went to Afghanistan because Donald Rumsfeld told us too so the Americans could invade Iraq,” he says. “There is evidence that we have violated international rules of law, and once those rules are violated, it is a crime.”

He says western countries enjoy a sense of freedom from the International Criminal Court because of its focus on other less-developed countries around the world.

According to Mandel, both the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts were imperialist wars that violated basic human rights laws at an international level. He stresses that Canada’s involvement in prisoner policy in Afghanistan is a significant human rights issue.

“We’re in Afghanistan for imperialist reasons, and we’ll probably leave there without changing anything,” he says.

“The Liberals are guilty because they sent us there in the first place, and now the Conservatives won’t do anything to fix the problem. Both parties are responsible in this issue, and in the view of international law, I don’t think anyone has clean hands.

“If we wanted to prevent torture, we should have never gone there.”

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