Once again, and to no surprise, "gotcha" politics has reared its ugly head on Parliament Hill.
The evidence given by foreign service officer Richard Colvin to a House of Commons committee regarding alleged abuse and even torture of Canadian-captured detainees by Afghan prison authorities has consumed Question Period for days. Serious discussions of the mission in Afghanistan, long overdue, have been thwarted by questions regarding who knew what and when.
With due respect, a Commons committee is probably one of the worst forums to deal with the matter of prisoner abuse and potential Canadian complicity. Names of highly respected individuals have been dragged through the mud with no chance to defend themselves. Statements made by witnesses, including Mr. Colvin, are accepted by some and rejected by others, and the opinions of committee members are entirely predictable, depending on their political affiliation.
Unchallenged statements have made the headlines in the popular press. "Nearly 600 detainees may have been turned over to Afghan security forces." This fact, which should be a source of pride, is described as "six times as many detainees" as the British handed over in the same period.
There is a pretty good reason for the big difference. The British weren't in Taliban-dominated southern Afghanistan during a good deal of that same period. Parliamentary debate in Britain and the Netherlands delayed the troops' arrival by several months.
The tardy arrival of British and Dutch contingents also delayed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters, dictating that the Canadian battle group operate for the first half of 2006 as a component of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom.
Also contributing to the difference in the numbers of prisoners handed over, and contrary to many recent erroneous opinions on the subject, Helmand province was relatively quiet when the British contingent arrived. Meanwhile, the Canadian battle group had been fighting battles with the Taliban in Kandahar for more than four months, taking a lot of prisoners.
When the NATO headquarters assumed command in the south on July 31, 2006, surprisingly, there was no alliance policy for the handling of detainees other than holding them for no more than 96 hours before releasing them or handing them over to Afghan authorities. It was left to each of the member nations to decide on any follow-up action.
Turning prisoners over to the authorities of the sovereign nation that the United Nations and NATO had come to support was certainly not an unreasonable decision. After the suicide-bomber killing of diplomat Glyn Berry, there was a dearth of Canadian civilians serving in Afghanistan, particularly in the south. Canadians were fighting major battles and the objective was to remove as many Taliban from the Canadian area of responsibility as possible. After an initial interrogation, those who were captured were transferred to Afghan authorities.
As evidence surfaced suggesting that prisoners were being abused, Canada developed a new protocol, implemented in May of 2007, that included monitoring the location of detainees in the prison system, follow-up interviews with them and frequent visits to Afghan prisons (more than 180 in the past 18 months) by qualified personnel.
Returning to the issue of hope trumping common sense as we wait for the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan to treat the detainee matter in a non-partisan way, there is a much better solution staring us in the face.
In the wake of the Somalia inquiry and resulting reviews of Canadian Forces policy, the Military Police Complaints Commission, an independent, quasi-judicial agency, was established in 1998.
Two and a half years ago, two complaints regarding the very issue currently being debated in Parliament were filed with the MPCC. Its efforts to proceed in a timely manner have been thwarted as lawyers on both sides argued whether the MPCC's mandate permitted it to investigate the charges that the Canadian Military Police turned detainees over to Afghan authorities knowing they would be abused. It was judged that the issue was an operational matter and not within the commission's jurisdiction. The hearings were suspended a few weeks back.
A public inquiry would be a colossal waste of taxpayers' money. The government should put the file back into the MPCC's lap and direct all players to co-operate. The commission has the highly qualified staff necessary to get to the truth of the matter in the most cost-effective manner.
Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie was first commander of United Nations peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo.
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