Mr. Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre, NDP)
|| That, in the opinion of the House, the government should, in accordance with Part I of the Inquiries Act, call a Public Inquiry into the transfer of detainees in Canadian custody to Afghan authorities from 2001 to 2009.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from St. John's East for seconding this motion.
On April 5, 2006, the following question was posed in this House to the then defence minister. It was posed by my colleague, Dawn Black, who was our defence critic at the time, and I will read it into the record. She said:
|| Mr. Speaker, on December 18, the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff signed an agreement with the Government of Afghanistan concerning the transfer of prisoners. My question is for the Minister of National Defence.
|| Was the previous Liberal government aware of this memorandum of understanding before it was signed? Why does a very similar agreement signed with the Netherlands allow its government to ensure full compliance with all international conventions while ours does not?
The reply by the then defence minister was:
|| Mr. Speaker, to my knowledge the previous government knew about the arrangement because it was done under its watch.
|| With respect to the second question, this is a more mature arrangement than the Netherlands has. Nothing in the agreement prevents the Canadian government from inquiring about prisoners. We are quite satisfied with the agreement. It protects prisoners under the Geneva agreement and all other war agreements.
The supplementary question by my colleague, Ms. Black, was:
|| Mr. Speaker, the agreement does nothing to stop prisoners from being transferred to a third party. Once Canadians hand a prisoner over to the Afghan government we wash our hands of the entire matter. This is simply not good enough.
|| Will the minister ensure that Canadian government officials have the same rights as Dutch officials when it comes to tracking, interviewing and ensuring that no human rights violations or torture will take place?
|| When will the minister redraft the agreement to better reflect our values as Canadians?
The then defence minister answered:
|| Mr. Speaker, we have no intention of redrafting the agreement. The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are charged with ensuring that prisoners are not abused. There is nothing in the agreement that prevents Canada from determining the fate of prisoners so there is no need to make any change in the agreement.
I begin with that because this is the beginning of what I think should be a study by an independent inquiry.
When we first took our place in this House in 2006, there was a transition in the military operations in Afghanistan. We were moving from Kabul to Kandahar, but we were also charged with different responsibilities. We had to take issue with the fact that we were handing over detainees and that there was much more activity in the field. That has been laid out, but we also had to take responsibilities that we all have as decision makers with regard to international law.
Obviously, we know what happened after what I just read into the record. There was an admission by the government that the transfer agreement was not as substantive as what it is claiming. The fact is that our agreement was not as robust as the Dutch agreement and we were not aware of what was happening to detainees once they were handed over.
In fact, at committee, we have heard from generals, both serving and past. We have heard from diplomats, serving and past. We have heard from those who were in the field, particularly Mr. Colvin. While there might be disputes with some of their testimony, there is one thing that is seamless and where there is a consensus, and that is that we knew of the allegations and reports of international groups who monitor human rights, such as the Red Cross and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, that there was abuse in Afghan jails. This is something everyone can agree on.
What we have had in front of committee is the statement of fact by Mr. Colvin that he was trying to bring forward to the chain of command, both military and through DFAIT, that there were problems and that we needed to rectify those problems. For over 15 months, his calls went unheeded.
In fact, there was still, by the government of the day, no formal acknowledge that there was a problem with the agreement. It was not until there was actual reporting from the field by a reporter, Graeme Smith. It was admitted at committee, after questions posed to the generals, that in fact when they had heard of the abuse as was noted in Mr. Smith's reports, there was a halting of that.
It is interesting to note that at the time when Mr. Colvin was writing his reports of concerns regarding detainee transfers, there were also, for the record, responses as of June 2006 from officials that there were no concerns.
Part of that is what is needed to be put on the record because our motion today calls for an independent lens, a judicial inquiry, to have documents put in front of someone who can sort out the contradictions, the contradictions that Mr. Colvin was stating in more than one report to over 70 people, that he had concerns about the handover of detainees from Canadians to Afghan prisons, to Afghan officials, and the generals' testimony that once they were handed over they were not the military's responsibility.
I will read from the Globe and Mail report written by Mr. Smith and referenced earlier. It was the cause for our halting of the transfer of detainees according to testimony at committee. It stated:
|| “Do you have facts?” he asked, in a June 2, 2006, interview with The Globe and Mail. The Canadian commander added that his soldiers had established close relationships with Afghan security services and only gave detainees to local officials who could be trusted to treat them properly. “We respect the rights of individuals,” Brig.-Gen. Fraser said. “We will make sure that those rights are maintained and nothing bad happens to those people”. Canada's appointed watchdog has always expressed less confidence in Afghan system. “The NDS is torturing detainees,” said Abdul Qadar Noorzai, the regional head of the AIHRC. “I've heard stories of blood on the walls. It's a terrifying place: dark, dirty, and bloody. When you hear about this place, no man feels comfortable with himself”.
We have in front of us a dilemma. On the one hand we have assurances from officials that are saying that they were not aware that there were concerns within the Afghan jails in particular to those detainees who were transferred by Canadians but we had concerns generally.
On the other hand we have Mr. Colvin, who was very clear in his testimony that he had tried to get the attention of his superiors. He was unequivocal in his statement at committee when he said that he had tried to get the attention of Canadian officials. He had underlined the insufficiency within our agreement. He had cited the Dutch agreement, as was mentioned by my colleague, Ms. Black, as being a preferred option. He had said that when we were handing over detainees, we had no way to monitor. We had no records.
The government's line to date has been the following. We cannot prove with absolute clarity that there was any torture of Afghan detainees that were handed over by the Canadian military to Afghan jails. Mr. Colvin's evidence is saying very clearly that there was no way to monitor and in fact the government was not following up on allegations, and it was not investigating until a new transfer agreement was signed off.
These are huge gaping holes. What we have in essence is a black hole for more than 15 months where we were handing over detainees. There was no follow-up in terms of monitoring. There was no follow-up in terms of allegations. Thus, there was no way to provide evidence. Therefore, the government's claims have absolutely no credibility. If we are not able to investigate, if we are not able to monitor, then we will not be able to find.
Mr. Colvin is not in my opinion a whistleblower. The government has conveniently tagged him with that moniker.
The reason Mr. Colvin appeared at committee and was able to give evidence was because he was asked to appear before the committee. Prior to that, he was to provide testimony to the Military Police Complaints Commission. We know the story there.
He was not able to give evidence. The commission was not functioning. I will not go through all of that. It is safe to say that the government did not want people to come forward. It did not want the commission to do its job. I do not think anyone would dispute that, save for the government of course.
We asked that Mr. Colvin come before committee so we could actually get to the bottom of what happened. Instead of listening to Mr. Colvin's testimony and taking that evidence in, the government's approach, and we have seen this time and time again, was to shoot the messenger, to attack his credibility.
Mr. Colvin came before the committee because he was asked. In the case of Mr. Mulroney, he was not invited to the committee until after Mr. Colvin attended and Mr. Mulroney asked to come before the committee.
It is interesting to note that prior to Mr. Colvin's testimony, the government was not interested in having this study done by the Afghanistan committee. It was very clear about that. It fought against Mr. Colvin appearing at committee and decided that it would support a study of sections 37 and 38 of the National Security Act but voted against Mr. Colvin coming before the committee.
Yet, after the motion passed in committee, it did not list Mr. Mulroney as a witness. All parties are able and encouraged to invite witnesses to the committee. Not once did the government say it wanted to hear from Mr. Mulroney until Mr. Colvin provided his testimony. That is interesting because it shows the government was not interested in the declaration from officials. What it was more interested in, after Mr. Colvin's testimony, was covering the trail.
I say that, sadly, because what the government should be acknowledging is what every single independent body that has looked at human rights in Afghan jails has observed, that there was and is abuse in them. That is obvious.
For some reason, the government has tried to deny that. I do not understand it. It is a well-known fact. In fact, one of the agencies Canada funds, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and its representatives, whom I previously brought to committee before the detainee issue was before committee, had written very clearly that there was widespread abuse.
It is interesting that when Canada's monitors and trainers for the Afghan army and the Afghan police and the deputy minister were asked if they had read the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission's most recent report, they said they had heard about it but never read it. The reason given was that it had not been translated.
I do not know about anyone else, but if I am involved in training police and corrections officers in Afghanistan, and I have given the authority and mandate to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to be an overseer and monitor what is going on in jails, I would want to read that. I would want my officials training the Afghan police and corrections officials to actually have read what is going on in the jails. They were not doing that. I brought that issue up months ago.
That report is now widespread. It has now been translated into English. It was curious that the government could not find anyone who read Dari in the monolith that is the bureaucracy, but the officials were finally availed of it. It was actually one of my staff who helped translate it.
The question in front of us is to take from the government and even the opposition the issue of the transfer of Afghan detainees and posit it before an independent inquiry.
Even with the government's hottest rhetoric, and we saw it all last week, how can the government deny what every single solitary editorial in this country and most people who look at this through an unbiased lens have said we need? We need an independent inquiry. What are the Conservatives afraid of?
The Minister of National Defence contradicted himself in the House. He said that he never read reports from Mr. Colvin and weeks later he said that he got an attachment on it. Last week the Minister of National Defence said that some of those reports came to him but they went through the generals and the bureaucrats first.
There is a lot of game playing going on, even with the one person who the government put forward as credible to attack Mr. Colvin. Members of the government did not say this when they quoted him in the House, but it is interesting to note what Paul Chapin, the third party validator for the government, did before he retired. The Minister of National Defence used his words in the House to defend the Conservatives' lack of action on the detainee issue and their denial. Before he retired, Mr. Chapin was actually the architect of the first detainee transfer. Now he works for a lobby group.
The one third party validator the government has is not even independent from all of this. He is entirely involved in the detainee transfer agreement. That is it. That is the government's credibility, one person, Mr. Paul Chapin. He is a fine gentleman, but let us be honest. He was the author of or was involved in writing the first detainee transfer agreement, which everyone agrees was insufficient.
Where is the credibility for the government? There is none. It is relying on hot rhetoric. I do not have to tell members that when the government starts calling people names and accusing people of being allied with the Taliban, it shows the merit of the government's arguments. If the government is not able to rely on fact, and if it is not able to make the argument, then there is the old parlour trick of attacking the messenger. We have seen this. Not only did the government attack us, and we on this side are used to the government attacking us, but it is so 2006, what we have seen this past couple of weeks. It is what we heard when we first debated this, that somehow we are aligned with the Taliban and we do not support the troops.
When the government starts to go after public servants who are not whistleblowers but who were actually called before the committee to provide evidence, then it has hit a new low. The limbo pole is almost on the ground and the government is trying to get under it.
If we are to get to the bottom of this issue and if, as the government claims, it wants to get to the truth, why is it the government has withheld documents? Why is it that certain journalists in this country have access to documents that a parliamentary committee does not have access to? Why is that certain people in this country are able to access information that a parliamentary committee cannot access?
If this were any other jurisdiction, for example the United States, and a congressional committee had asked for documents before witnesses testified, it would be given them in a second. However, not with the Conservative government. The government decides to attack the messenger. Never mind the facts. As I said, the facts that we have had in front of the committee demand further investigation. I say this as a member of the committee. I want this issue to be the subject of an independent inquiry. For the government to deny that makes its motive very clear.
The government does not want Canadians to hear the whole story. It wants to bury truth. It is going to take us down a path of poisoning an issue, politicizing an issue, instead of bringing light to an issue and instead of asking that someone who is unbiased, not the opposition, not the government, not any other third party, but someone unbiased look at this to get to the truth.
I call on the government not only to support this motion, but to announce its intent to call an inquiry. If the Conservatives deny a public inquiry, they will rue that day and history will not be favourable. They will wish they had gone down the path of transparency and called a public inquiry.
Hon. Peter MacKay (Minister of National Defence and Minister for the Atlantic Gateway, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate. We have just heard the hon. member for Ottawa Centre, who proposes that the Government of Canada call a public inquiry into the transfer of Taliban prisoners in Canadian custody to Afghan authorities from 2001 to 2009. This is the period in which Canada has been involved in the mission in Afghanistan.
Let us be perfectly clear. As we have heard from the introductory remarks to this debate by the member for Ottawa Centre, this is fuelled by partisan politics. This is fuelled by unfounded allegations. I heard the hon. member say not 30 seconds ago that the Afghan mission would cost $18 billion. He is pulling that figure out of the thin blue air. I can assure the House this is not the cost of the Afghan mission. I will now go through some of his other remarks and point out the truth.
This exercise would be unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money. It would be duplication of effort, as we currently have a number of investigations going on into the exact same subject matter. In fact, I can point to three areas of investigation that are either under way or completed.
First of all, the Canadian Forces convened a board of inquiry to investigate the treatment of persons detained by the Canadian Forces in April 2006. The board concluded that Canadian Forces members, without exception, treated prisoners professionally and humanely, and that all actions taken by Canadian Forces members in dealing with prisoners complied with directives in place at the time of capture and were consistently above reproach.
During the board's investigation, the Canadian Forces made significant changes to improve their reporting and registration system, as well as the time frame for and level of the directives provided to Canadian Forces members in the field.
Second, the Military Police Complaints Commission is investigating detainee transfers. The Government of Canada is co-operating fully with the commission, where it is operating within its mandate as set out by the National Defence Act and defined by the federal court.
The Military Police Complaints Commission itself has confirmed that the Department of National Defence has provided the commission with access to hundreds of documents and produced dozens of witnesses with respect to the MPCC matters relating to detainees. The work of the commission is currently suspended by the decision of the chair, who has chosen to appeal the federal court's decision affirming its mandate.
The third area of investigation into detainee transfers is the ongoing study by the special parliamentary committee on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. Here, again, the government is complying with the special committee's request for documents in a timely fashion.
However, there is another reason why an additional investigation is uncalled for.
Our implementation of the enhanced detainee arrangement has already had much of the intended effect. Upon taking office and discovering shortcomings in the arrangement and deficiencies signed by the previous government, we acted to improve it. This is the real issue.
As a government and upon taking office inheriting the mission, inheriting this topical issue, we acted. We acted decisively, we acted with resources and we acted responsibly. We started to invest in improving a difficult situation. I think even members of the opposition, if they could step back from their partisanship, would recognize that this was a particularly challenging issue, and I will come back to that. Therefore, we put a new arrangement in place.
I want to put on the record what the member for Vancouver South, who is one of the chief prosecutors in this matter, had to say about the arrangement that his government put in place. He was speaking to this matter on April 10, 2006, to a motion that was before the House. This is what he had to say then about his government's transfer arrangement:
|| I have had an opportunity to look at the agreement. I agree that it is an important agreement and it is one that is quite good in many respects. The involvement of the International Red Cross or the Red Crescent as an independent third party is very important because it can then follow the prisoners and ensure they are treated well and appropriately in accordance with the Geneva conventions. The agreement makes reference to the Geneva conventions and that is important for us to recognize.
We changed the arrangement to ensure that Canadian officials could have access to Afghan detention facilities for the purposes of monitoring those conditions and the well-being of Taliban prisoners turned over by the Canadian Forces.
Here again is an important distinction. We are talking not about general conditions within prisons. We are not talking about general treatment of all prisoners turned over to Afghan authorities. The primary responsibility in this entire debate is for prisoners taken captive by Canadian Forces and then turned over. We can be concerned, and should be concerned, about the general conditions, and we seek to improve them. However, our primary responsibility is for detainees captured and turned over by Canadian Forces.
With respect to detaining Taliban prisoners, and the word “detainees” will be heard often in this discussion, we are talking about individuals turned over who were captured in the heat of battle, captured while planting IEDs or making IEDs used to kill or maim Afghan citizens, allied forces or Canadian soldiers. We are not talking about individuals detained at the side of the road for speeding or picked up for shoplifting. We are not talking about nice people.
Canada has a responsibility with respect to allegations of abuse, and we take them seriously. We always do and we always will. When we have had specific allegations of abuse, we have acted quickly and responsibly. We now have a new arrangement that enhances our ability to do just that.
Our mission in Afghanistan to bring about stability and security, to allow us and enable us to do more in the area of reconstruction and development, to work on human rights and governance, to allow us to assist the Afghan people to build capacity so they can do many of these things for themselves is a noble cause to which all members I am sure would agree.
The Canadian Forces are critical to that exercise. The most important part of this mission is to bring about stability and security first, enabling us to do all of these other important initiatives.
The Canadian Forces treat Taliban prisoners humanely, in spite of the atrocities in which they may have committed or been involved. Our forces are trained to do so. They are professional in that regard. This is something that we do from the moment they are captured to the moment they are turned over to Afghan authorities, whether they are captured on the battlefield or in the process of committing some heinous crime.
I want to talk for a moment about the Canadian detainee handling process and how it has evolved since became involved in the Kandahar mission in 2005 under the previous government. I want to explain what it means to be a detainee, when an individual is captured while involved in armed conflict.
It is important to understand, first, that Afghan detainees are not prisoners of war. However, they are treated as if they were prisoners of war. We do not treat them differently, keeping in mind that they do not fit that definition. They do not wear uniforms. They do not adhere to international convention. They do not play by any rules of engagement. They engage in the most awful behaviour imaginable. They involve themselves in efforts to kill and maim their own citizens, allied forces that are there to protect Afghan citizens, and they use the most despicable tactics imaginable.
However, we take steps, as we are required to do and adhere to, to ensure that detainees, Taliban prisoners, are treated humanely. Our policy is to treat detainees, Taliban prisoners, regardless of their legal status under the laws of armed conflict and other international laws, humanely, in a manner consistent with the standard of prisoner of war treatment and certainly consistent with the values and principles that Canadians hold dear.
Who exactly are detainees? This seems to have been muddled somewhat, and I would suggest deliberately in the discussion in the past few weeks. Let me be clear. Detainees are persons who have been captured, who are being held against their will as they continue to wreak havoc in their own country. They came into custody and care of Canadian Forces under a wide variety of circumstances. I have mentioned already that they do not fight conventionally. They do not wear uniforms. They hide in civilian clothing. They often use tactics to deliberately disguise themselves or put themselves in the midst of innocent citizens. Generally, they have committed a hostile act or shown hostile intent toward Canadian Forces, allied forces or their own civilians.
Let us not forget, we are dealing with individuals who, as I said, are using the most heinous tactics. They are throwing acid in the faces of school children in some instances, children who are simply trying to get an education. This is the culture we are trying to change in Afghanistan, to give young people a future, hope, a chance.
Many of the Taliban prisoners have directly or indirectly threatened the lives of Canadians. Many, I hasten to add, have the blood of Canadian soldiers on their hands. These are not nice individuals. As soon as a person is detained, information is collected regarding the threat that individual poses. We question, collect and preserve evidence implicating or linking the person to a crime. We take gunshot residue. We check the individual for materials related to explosives or we have video surveillance that has caught the person in the act of either making or planting bombs.
Usually this information is then provided to Afghan authorities upon transfer so they can continue to detain the individual in accordance with Afghan criminal law. Let us not forget, we are there to help them build their capacity, their justice system, their prisons, their human rights.
Before I continue to speak to the process of Taliban capture and transfer, I want to explain why we transfer.
As was the case with the previous government, it is not the current government's policy in Afghanistan to transfer to third parties. That was the case when the mission began under the previous government. That process changed. To do so would not respect Afghan sovereignty and would potentially complicate our relationship with allies and undermine our ability to help Afghans build capacity and do things for themselves. Nor will Canada build or maintain permanent detention facilities in Afghanistan. Not only would this be costly, but it would also conflict with Afghan sovereignty. What would Canada do with detainees when the mission concluded? We do not bring detainees back to Canada, as some have suggested.
However, and this might be what is most important, none of these action plans would help Afghanistan restore its own judicial system. It is important that appropriate action be taken regarding the detainees, according to the Afghan judicial system. The authorities of that country need support to rebuild a fragile country, so that they can fulfill their detention responsibilities and, perhaps, bring individuals who try to destabilize the country to justice.
ISAF does not have a detention facility. The treatment and the transfer of detainees are national responsibilities. In general, our allies in ISAF have adopted a similar or identical approach to Canada's, which involves transferring detainees to the Afghan government for further legal action. This approach is not without its problems, but nothing is simple in a situation as complex as that in Afghanistan.
Canada has launched substantial capacity-building programs to ensure we are doing all we can to support the Afghan government and its own ownership in providing security and justice to its own people. This is the principal point. We are there to build their capacity, to invest in means, in training, in monitoring and, of course, in efforts to mentor Afghans to do these things for themselves.
These programs have contributed significant resources to improving detention facilities and correction practices;, $132 million overall in that judicial capacity-building, in that prison and penal system and judicial system building.
Our military and our officials are providing training for the Afghan army, police, corrections and other security personnel on human rights. The government has helped to provide much needed equipment and training and much needed investment in infrastructure. Canada is a substantial contributor to the human rights support unit in the Afghanistan ministry of justice.
Our government has made significant contributions to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to support its mandate to monitor, protect and promote human rights and to report violations to Afghan authorities. Canada has deployed personnel from Correctional Service Canada to assist, train and mentor Afghan prison personnel.
We do this for obvious reasons. As a government, we place a huge priority on human rights, just as the Canadian people. A huge priority on human rights and basic fairness is implicit in the approach that Canadians take. It is instinctive in all of us in this country that we support human rights and that we support a justice system that is fair, inclusive and listens to all perspectives.
As a lawyer and a former crown prosecutor, this is something that I personally believe in and that I have always personally committed myself to. It is something that I have worked in. It is a core belief that I believe I share with many in the House and certainly in the country.
The Canadian military and officials are working hard and working hand in hand with Afghans in their effort to ensure a fair and humane system is built in their country, a system that will continue to oversee fair treatment of Afghan prisoners and, whether they are captured by Afghan security forces, allies or Canadians, that they will receive fair treatment.
I come back to the point that our primary responsibility is for the detainees transferred by the Canadian Forces, Taliban prisoners for whom we have responsibility.
I want to speak about a system that is in place right now and then work back to the point that we have arrived at. I should add that Canada's efforts have been referred to as the golden standard among allies. The Canadian Forces routinely take Taliban prisoners in the course of their operations because they are active, engaged and outside the wire. The number varies largely dependent upon the insurgent activity; that is, the more they try to kill or attack civilians or our troops, the more contact that we have and the more detainees we capture.
Immediately after being captured, we ensure that the Taliban prisoner is fit to be moved. Our first concern is to provide necessary medical treatment. We also commence collecting information or evidence, forensic material or other physical evidence to substantiate the threat that the individual was posing, and then we turn that evidence over with that individual to the Afghans.
The Taliban prisoner is moved to the Kandahar airfield where our main operating base is located. At the KAF the Taliban prisoner is given further medical attention if needed and is questioned based upon why that individual was detained in the first instance and to properly assess whether they pose a continued threat.
The Taliban prisoner who is not deemed to be a further threat is released from Canadian custody, while those who our task force commander validates as a threat to Canadian Forces or allies or Afghan citizens is then transferred to Afghan authorities. We transfer Afghan prisoners as expeditiously as possible while ensuring due diligence in processing them. The ISAF guideline is to transfer them within 96 hours of capture. While our intent is to transfer within that timeframe, there are occasions where we may be compelled to keep a detainee for longer, such as the need to provide medical treatment or other logistic or operational reasons.
To better support the Afghan government in its justice system, we strive to provide a summary of evidence related to the threat of detainees and whether they can corroborate information to help Afghan authorities support a possible prosecution. They are also questioned with a purpose to gleaning from that interview whether we can prevent further attacks, whether we can interrupt further Taliban activities that are aimed at violence, aimed at threats toward Afghan citizens, communities or the allies.
Individuals are then transferred to Afghanistan's national directorate of security where we usually hand them over to the ministry of justice to await trial. Some are convicted and some are released. Capacity remains a big problem in the justice system there as it is in many departments of the Afghanistan government.
However, in keeping with the improved transfer arrangement and our international obligations, officials notify the ICRC and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Council upon taking a detainee and we now have a monitoring regime in place to help ensure that Canadian transferred detainees are treated appropriately.
Our obligation is to be satisfied that Afghanistan is willing and able to treat detainees humanely. We do a follow-up, we monitor and we ensure compliance. We have Canadians who go into the prisons to perform that task. Further, the Canadian task force commander must be satisfied that there is no substantial grounds for believing there exists a real risk that a detainee would be in danger of being subjected to torture or other forms of mistreatment at the hands of Afghan authorities.
Again, that is a critical point. We are talking about the abuse of Afghans on Afghans. There has never been any proof of wrongdoing by the Canadian Forces in this regard. As I mentioned, we do this through our formal arrangement and monitoring regime but also through the training, mentoring and capacity building that Canada is involved in. We can be proud of those improvements. We continue to seek improvements. That is the principle of the issue. We are there to help Afghans build that capacity and we have made great strides in that regard.
Hon. Ujjal Dosanjh (Vancouver South, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Toronto Centre.
I think the issue is whether or not the evidence on either side of this issue is conclusive. According to the Minister of National Defence, he has cast some doubt on the evidence produced by Mr. Colvin. Others have too. I believe inquiries are held, and trials are held in courts of law, to determine conclusively as to who is right and who is wrong on a particular issue.
This is not an issue of local concern. This is about the reputation of a country. This is about the values of our country. This is about a Canada that has been known for noble deeds internationally. This is about a Canada that is now becoming known for not wanting to look at torture, not wanting to know whether or not the government conducted itself in a way that may have violated international law.
Let me make two points before I begin with the body of my remarks. First, in any of what I say or my colleagues say in this House, we are not questioning the conduct of our soldiers on the ground. We are questioning the conduct of the government. It wilfully ignored the warnings for over 17 months. There is a huge body of compelling evidence it had those warnings, not just from Mr. Colvin but from respected international organizations. I want to put that on the table, so that we know it is about the government's conduct, it is about the politicians' conduct, and it is not about the conduct of our military on the ground.
Second, I believe there is a sentiment that exists on the government side of the House in the way it makes remarks about Taliban prisoners, that if one happens to a Taliban prisoner and is then sent to a risk of torture in an Afghan jail, then it may be somehow okay, that we should not really be looking at our own conduct as to what we are doing. We do not hang our scumbags and our murderers. If someone is shooting at us in the battlefield, that person is killed. That is legitimate. But once Canada arrests that person, we have an obligation under international law to behave with the best of standards that we have helped craft over the decades in this world. That is what Canada is known for.
Therefore, whether one is a Taliban prisoner or an ordinary Afghan prisoner, we have an obligation to treat them as we would treat prisoners of war. I believe that is a very important principle.
Let me just begin by saying that for the government, it is not about a search for truth, it has been a search for an alibi, essentially, for any manipulation of the facts that will get it off the hook for a mess of its own making. It has shown that it will go to any lengths, stoop to any tactic, smear any reputation or throw anyone under the bus in order to cobble one together.
Indeed, at its absolute lowest, we have seen the Prime Minister and the minister drape themselves in the mantle of protectors of the soldiers, whose very safety they may have themselves endangered with their callous disregard for the truth.
How has the government responded to this serious issue? Just as I have described, the way it responds to pretty much any issue. Canadians recognize this charade. They know the government. It denies, it stonewalls, and it obfuscates. It smears an experienced public servant. It leaks selective information to chosen journalists. It questions the patriotism of its critics. This is absolutely unacceptable.
There is such compelling evidence about the issues that we are talking about that in fact it would be a simple thing for the government to say, “We need an inquiry to resolve this issue. We need an inquiry to clear the air on this issue. We need an inquiry to remove this stain on Canada's reputation, this question mark on Canada's reputation, this question mark on Canada's moral leadership in the world”.
It is a very simple conclusion to come to, but the government will not come to it because it remains wilfully blind to the allegations of torture, to the warnings it received from not just Mr. Colvin but from the international organizations. It did nothing for 17 months.
I will put some facts on the table. These are excerpts. The Minister of National Defence, using the testimony of some others, has said there was no evidence in Colvin's documents, no mention of the word “torture” involved in Colvin's documents. I will read some of the memos from Afghanistan.
Memo 278, page 3, says that a particular detainee was “beaten with electrical cables while blindfolded”.
Memo 279, page 3, says:
|| During NDS interrogation had been kept awake for [section blacked out].... He also used the words beat and torture. ... When asked what was used he said a power cable or wire and pointed to his side and buttocks.
Memo 284, page 4, reads:
||[section blacked out] claimed to have been detained due to a tribal dispute - a rival tribe labelled him [section blacked out] and accused him of being a Taliban [section blacked out].... He asked that we tell NDS not to beat the detainees, and to treat them like human beings rather than like animals.
Memo 284, page 4, reads, “He said he had been punched in the mouth for no apparent reason”. He was hit twice on the buttocks. “
Memo 287, page 1, a detainee said that he had been whipped with cables, shocked with electricity and/or otherwise 'hurt' while in NDS custody...“.
Memo 287, page 5, reads:
|| When asked about his treatment [this particular detainee] said he had a “very bad time. They hit us with cables and wires.” He said they shocked him with electricity. He showed us a number of scars on his legs, which he said were caused by the beating.
Memo 287, page 5, another detainee, “...detainees had their fingers cut and burned with a lighter...he was hit on his feet with a cable or big wire and forced to stand for two days...”.
That is the evidence from the redacted, blacked out, blanked out documents that the government has released pursuant to ATIPs that are available on the Internet. The government is absolutely so shameful that it would provide documents to journalists of choice. Everyone else has documents that the government wants to have except that it believes the members of Parliament like myself and others are a bit of a security risk. Members of Parliament cannot see those documents in their original form without the documents being redacted.
The ultimate issue is that the government has known from Mr. Colvin and from others what has happened in this situation. I will quote some of the international organizations. In September 2005, Human Rights Watch said, “security forces arbitrarily detained civilians and committed cruel, inhumane, and degrading acts”.
March 2006, the UN reports on the situation in Afghanistan, “Complaints of serious human rights violations committed by representatives of national security institutions, including arbitrary arrest, illegal detention and torture are numerous”.
March 2006. U.S. state department stated:
|| There continued to be instances in which security and factional forces committed extrajudicial killings and torture.
||...local authorities in Herat, Helmand...and other locations...routinely torture and abuse detainees. Torture and abuse consisted of pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil...sexual humiliation, and sodomy.
Then we have the Afghan Human Rights Commission and also Amnesty International.
I agree with the minister that there are several sides to this, that there is a dispute as to the facts, but no one on the other side of the House can deny that this is a dispute that is worth resolving, because once it is resolved it will restore Canada's reputation in the world. It would be made whole again. Right now there is a stain, a question mark on Canada's reputation and there is a question mark on the conduct, on the acts and on the omissions of the current government. To resolve all of that for the Canadian people and for the sake of our country we need to have a public inquiry.
Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, as I understand the terms of the motion that has been proposed by my friend from Ottawa Centre, it refers to the years 2001 to 2009. It is not confined to the period after the Conservatives took office.
On behalf of our party, I want to make it clear that we support the motion. We understand that the implications of the motion are that the conduct of the previous government will be equally subject to scrutiny as the conduct of the current government. It is important for people to understand that. When I say this is not simply a partisan issue, I know there will be chuckles on the other side of the House. However, the fact is that we in this party are supporting a motion that refers to a public inquiry that would look at the conduct of governments with respect to the question of the transfer of detainees.
The minister and others have risen over and over again to say that the agreement that was negotiated prior to 2006 and signed by General Hillier during the election campaign of 2005-06 on behalf of the Government of Canada, was a flawed agreement. If we listened to the comments that were made by Mr. Colvin, we would certainly come to that conclusion.
As a result of that agreement, we discovered, and over time it was found out, that the Red Cross could not report instances of abuse to Canadian authorities. It could only raise them with Afghan authorities. The Red Cross repeated again over the weekend its very strong view that it retains its credibility and its deep neutrality as an organization because it does not engage in political conversations. It has insisted on that. We also found that there was no ability on the part of Canadian authorities to investigate any issues that have taken place.
My simple point would be that the government cannot really have it both ways. The government cannot say, absolutely convinced, 100% certified and guaranteed, that nothing happened untoward with respect to any detainee who was transferred to Afghan authorities, and then say that the agreement was deeply inadequate and that it spent a year and a half in trying to fix it and make it better, and then reached the conclusion that a whole series of steps needed to be taken to ensure that “problems” were dealt with.
Questions arise. What were the problems? What was it that made the Conservative government decide that there needed to be a change in the agreement? What was it that made the government finally led them to realize that it had to make substantial investments with respect to reviewing, inspecting and investigating the whole structure? What was it that made the government do that?
Mr. Ed Fast: Liberal bungling. That was the Liberal flawed agreement.
Hon. Bob Rae: Mr. Speaker, the answer my friend is shouting across the way is “a flawed agreement”. There is no question that it was a flawed agreement. It was an imperfect agreement arrived at by people who were doing their best in the circumstances and who did not fully realize its inadequacies.
I can say to the hon. member, who continues to shake his head because I can hear him doing so, that what he is saying is that it was the government's fault.
I will make it clear. We know how these policies get developed. They get developed by people on the ground and by lawyers who review material which ultimately gets approved or not by cabinet. That is how it works.
Mr. Ed Fast: A Liberal cabinet.
Hon. Bob Rae: A Liberal cabinet, yes, and it is the decision of that cabinet that will be reviewed by the inquiry. If it were a wrong decision, that is what it would be.
I do not think the Conservative members are hearing what I am telling them. The conduct of the Liberal government is every bit as much the subject of the inquiry as the conduct of the Conservative government.
That is the reality of this war. The reality of the war is that it was a war that was entered into by a Liberal government on behalf of the people of Canada because of the nature of the attack on 9/11. Further steps were taken by this Parliament, in which we agreed that we would continue and maintain our support for the troops.
Let there be no question, we are supportive of our troops. We are supportive of the efforts that have been made. We are supportive of the determination shown. There is absolutely no allegation, none whatsoever, that any Canadian officer or Canadian soldier was ever involved in the mistreatment of Afghan detainees. That is not the question.
The question before us is, did we take full note of the information, not the evidence but the information, and I stress this word to the minister, the prosecutor for Manitoba who sits across from me, that was reported to the government by a range of sources, not just Mr. Colvin? The emphasis on it all being about Mr. Colvin versus the three generals, and it all being about Mr. Colvin versus Mr. Mulroney, I say with great respect is not the issue. The issue is what information did the Government of Canada have? What did it do with that information and how did it process that information, and why did it take so long to go from hearing the information with respect to the conditions in Afghan prisons and the treatment of prisoners and the decisions that were ultimately made with respect to how those would be reviewed?
I would like to mention two things.
First, we support this motion and we recognize that the Liberal government's work will also be subject to scrutiny in the inquiry proposed by the member for Ottawa Centre. This will not be a partisan review. This review will delve into the Liberal government's handling of the war and that of the Conservative government. We accept that responsibility and are saying so clearly.
Second, there is a fundamental contradiction in the government's position. It says that all kinds of problems made it necessary to change the agreement between Afghanistan and Canada. Yet it refuses to clarify exactly what problems made the change necessary.
That is the contradiction, and that is the issue that we hope will become the focus of the proposed inquiry.
The last point I want to make is this: Why hold a public inquiry? As some members will know, if they have ever paid any attention to some of the things I have said over the years, I am not a huge fan of holding public inquiries every time something goes wrong. I have argued against them in different instances, but it seems to me in this particular case, it is very hard to figure out what the alternative is. Some people say it should be a parliamentary committee. We are dogged by problems in the parliamentary committee. We cannot get access to information. We cannot get access to the same documents. Documents are leaked to journalists. The journalists then report on the documents. It is really quite an unusual situation. A government gives a document to a journalist and the journalist says whatever he or she is going to say about whatever he or she is told, and then the government says that this journalist has the information. Where else would they get the information if they do not get it from a source within the government? Where else would those documents come from. Where else would the unredacted documents come from if they do not come from the government? Where else would they come from?
I am not suggesting that the parliamentary secretary gave the documents to the journalist. I am just saying, where else would they come from? Who else has access to those documents? It is a fascinating question as to how this takes place.
We are then faced with the situation: What other vehicle do we have to get to this central question? Although the members opposite might not like to see it this way, I do think there is a significant question for Canadian foreign and defence policy and our public policy, that is, having faced this difficult situation, are we or are we not prepared to get to the bottom of it?
In every effort that was made, the Military Police Complaints Commission, for example, was told by DND lawyers, “No, you cannot look at this; no, you cannot look at that”.
There does not seem to be any really effective alternative other than to hold a public inquiry to get to the bottom of this question.
Mr. Claude Bachand (Saint-Jean, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak today on the Bloc Québécois' behalf about the proposed public inquiry now before us.
We have to tell it like it is. We are dealing with a cover-up operation the likes of which has never been seen in Canadian history. Moreover, it is being carried out by what is probably Canada's least transparent government ever.
Given the current context, it is understandable that we should be dealing with a number of issues. The government is hiding things from us and preventing various parliamentary committees and commissions from getting to the bottom of things. I think it is important to establish a chronology of events so that those listening can understand the issue.
I could start with the attack on the twin towers in 2001, but I will not. Nevertheless, it did lead to Canadian armed forces intervention in Afghanistan. As in every theatre of operations, an important and urgent issue arose: what to do with detainees.
I will jump instead to 2005, 2006 and 2007, when the opposition was raising questions in the House, even when the Liberals were in power. A lot of questions were asked in the House about the fate of detainees and how they were treated. There were also questions about whether detainees were treated according to the Geneva convention. Every time, we were told that there was no problem, that the Geneva convention was complied with, that detainees were not tortured, that the people who were turned over to the Afghan authorities were monitored in some way, and that everything was fine. That was the message we got.
Even at that point, I could not understand why the government in place was not asking for information more officially and openly in order to reassure people. Everyone understood the importance of this issue and the democratic values that this Parliament and all western parliaments stand for. That is very important. We cannot condemn certain regimes or certain torture practices if we use them ourselves.
There were a lot of questions, and I do not know why, every time the Minister of National Defence or the Minister of Foreign Affairs faced questions in the House, he did not tell his office that he had been asked questions again and that he wanted to know what was going on. But that is not how the government reacted. Instead, it hid the truth.
I am talking about the previous government as well as the current one. We were told there were no problems. To my way of thinking, even back then, the general public, especially in Quebec, felt that there was a problem. The people of Quebec had a very hard time accepting the operation in Afghanistan.
Moreover, I would remind this House that the Bloc Québécois opposed the last two requests to extend the mission in Afghanistan, because of a whole series of problems, including that major problem, of course.
The values of the Parliament of Canada and the legislative assemblies of Quebec and the other provinces are very important. The work done by their members and, in turn, the work done by soldiers in the theatre of operations must be guided by democratic values. Everyone agrees that politicians—the people who make the decisions—have the first and last word about military interventions abroad.
We have a responsibility as individuals. It is a shame that people who want to get to the bottom of this are being accused of not supporting the troops. We say this all the time and we will say it again today: we have absolutely nothing against the troops, who are simply obeying orders. The government tells them what their mission is, when they will leave and when they will come back.
We are not criticizing the troops. We are criticizing the government for trying to cover up its inaction and secrets, and trying to muzzle the opposition. It is accusing us of being like the Taliban and not supporting the troops. That is false.
We have said it many times here and it bears repeating because, just the day before yesterday, the Prime Minister boarded a Canadian frigate and said that he supported the troops and that we did not. That is not true. Even soldiers can be tried under the Geneva convention if it is found that they transferred detainees when there was a high risk of torture. These are fundamental values that we want to defend.
We also want to try to end this war. We say war, but really it is an insurgency. There is a real climate of secrecy. The Afghan population knows it and is starting to be vocal about the fact that the troops there are occupation forces and not liberation forces. If we prove ourselves no better than the Soviets or no better than any other group that tortures people, that has an impact. The counter-insurgency has to be based on fundamental values. If the Afghan public finds that things are not being done properly, and there is talk of that over there, then we will have a hard time resolving this conflict. The Afghans will see that their family and friends are being held like prisoners and being tortured. According to Mr. Colvin, it was farmers and people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. How can we then turn around and say that the values we want to defend are so fine? The Afghans will say they are not so fine because they have an aunt, an uncle or a nephew who was tortured.
This also affects Canada's international policy. How can the Prime Minister staunchly defend human rights when goes to China? The Chinese president will probably reply that he should start by looking at his own record, because to his knowledge, things are not going so well. And he would be right. This weakens Canada's position on the international scene.
So it is important to say that we are worried about it. We in the opposition have been worrying about it since 2005, 2006 and 2007. We have asked many questions. The government tried to calm us down, saying that there was nothing there, when in fact we know very well that, yes, torture did occur. It is probably still going on. Perhaps now, with the second agreement signed with the Afghan government, there is more control over it. However, with the 2005 agreement, there was not enough control or supervision in Afghan prisons, which means that torture did occur. Regardless of what any generals say or what Mr. Mulroney says, regardless of what government officials are going to say on Wednesday afternoon, torture does occur in Afghan prisons and we are not the only ones saying so.
Amnesty International, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Red Cross say so. Everyone says so. The Afghan commission is reporting torture in 98% of cases. So the government cannot tell us that it is not happening. At this time, only the government, its public servants and other people paid by the government are practically the only people saying that prisoners are not being tortured. Everyone else—the opposition, European diplomats, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and the Red Cross—all agree that torture is taking place. Therefore, this is a very real problem.
Some people have tried to solve the problem and that where it gets interesting because we see that the government's cover-up continues. The Military Police Complaints Commission wanted to carry out a systematic study. It looked at the various court decisions because groups such as Amnesty International had gone before the Federal Court and the Supreme Court. It said it would investigate. The government began by telling the commission's chair, Mr. Tinsley, that his term was coming to an end and that it would not be renewed. That was not good; they wanted to disrupt proceedings. People are beginning to say that the chair of a body such as the Military Police Complaints Commission should finish his inquiry before being replaced. Otherwise, it would be too easy to say to Mr. Tinsley, on the day his term expired, that his job was finished. A new member would be appointed and he would practically have to start all over because he had not heard the first statements of evidence. He has to reacquaint himself with the legal aspects and reread what the witnesses said, and so forth.
That was the first sign of obstructionism by the government. The fact that some witnesses have received legal notice from this government—specifically from the Minister of Justice— threatening them with sanctions if they testify is the second sign of obstructionism.
Not only is the minister threatening them with sanctions, but he is also refusing to table the documents because they represent a threat to national security, according to the information provided in the legal notice. We will speak of national security a little later because that is the excuse behind which the government is hiding. These ministers of the Crown are using national security as a pretext and I will speak of that later. There are a number of facts that have raised doubts. Not only did we have doubts when we questioned the government in 2006 and 2007 but our doubts have been confirmed by the government's conduct with respect to the Military Police Complaints Commission. In fact, the government has paralyzed the commission.
After calling on the government many times to release documents and allow people to testify, the chair was forced to suspend the work of the commission. But the government is now saying that the chair himself suspended the work. When witnesses can no longer testify and documents are not available, what can the chair do? The chair must suspend the work. It was the government that suspended the commission's work, not the commission itself. The government's secretive nature and lack of transparency is becoming more obvious.
I will continue. This is what happened. My colleagues and I believed that, in the interest of defending the values I spoke about at the beginning of my speech, we would have to take over. We told ourselves that the Conservatives could try to cripple a commission, even if it operates at arm's length from the government, as they often say, but it would be more difficult for them to do that to a House of Commons committee. But that is what is going on now.
When the government has the chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission in a stranglehold and is preventing him from doing his work, he has no choice but to suspend the work of the commission. He can complain publicly once or twice, but that stops being effective after a certain point. For two or three weeks, members of Parliament have been pressing the government every day. We want to know the truth. The Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan is doing its work, within the limits that have been imposed on it. But the government is starting to take away our opportunities to discover the truth. It keeps preventing committee members from getting to the truth.
This is the same behaviour the government demonstrated with the commission. But now it is more difficult, since the government must answer questions every day. And every Wednesday afternoon, journalists attend the meetings of the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan. Reports are published in the newspapers. Thus, the government is under some pressure. Yet that does not prevent it from trying to cripple us.
This all started when I moved a motion. My colleague from Ottawa Centre also moved a motion. In it, we said that we wanted to get to the bottom of what happened with Afghan detainees. In the motion I myself moved, I proposed reviewing sections 37 and 38 of the Canada Evidence Act, the two sections that deal with national security.
The first heated exchange began when our first witness, General Watkin, the government's Judge Advocate General, appeared. He has full jurisdiction on the military justice side of things. When the general showed up, everything got off to a bad start. That is what came out in the media too.
In response to the committee's initial questions, the general said that he could not answer. That was exactly what we did not want to hear. We wanted to hold an inquiry so that people would answer our questions and help us get to the bottom of things. Behaviour mirrored that exhibited during the Military Police Complaints Commission hearings. Witnesses were told how far they could go, and for anything beyond that, they were to come up with reasons not to respond. The general said that because of client privilege, he could not provide the information because his client had asked him not to.
He said that he could not break the bond of trust with his client. That is when the arm-wrestling match between the general and me began. We asked Mr. Walsh, the law clerk of the House, to tell us how far we could go during parliamentary committee meetings. Could we question any witness at all? Were witnesses immune? Were we entitled to access to documents on request?
The general responded that he would abide by rulings of the Federal Court or the Supreme Court of Canada and that he did not want to go any farther. The law clerk of the House confirmed that, during a session of a parliamentary committee, we have the right to interpret the law as we wish, and witnesses are required to answer questions.
I resolved the situation by suggesting that the general consult with his client, the Government of Canada, and come back with the latter's response to my interpretation of parliamentary law, which takes precedence over court rulings. We have to have the freedom to speak, and we have to have access to all of the documents. So things got off to a bad start with the first witness.
Then the generals arrived and they all said the same thing. It then became clear how unbelievable the situation was. These generals did not hold back. I even found them to be a bit arrogant. They said they had access to all the documents. And I am not talking about redacted documents, where even the date at the top has been crossed out and all that is left is the initial salutation and final “thank you” because the rest is completely or almost completely blacked out. Those are censored documents.
The generals told us they consulted the documents and did not see any problem. They were all singing from the same song sheet. I have never seen one general contradict another. The three generals became the three tenors of denial. To their knowledge nothing happened and nothing will change.
We began having serious doubts about the government's credibility. These people are not going to accuse themselves. What is more, they have a version that we cannot verify. It would be like a defence lawyer having documents in his or her possession that the crown attorney did not have. Some say they have certain information in their documents, but we cannot take action because we have not seen those documents. We are not on an equal footing in this situation.
We asked to see the documents, but everyone says there will be no documents. For two weeks now we have been asking the government to provide us with uncensored documents. I do not know if those documents are available today, but as of yesterday, we still had not received them. The inquiry is proceeding. The Judge Advocate General, the generals, Mr. Colvin and David Mulroney have all appeared before the committee, but we still have not received any documents. So we are being forced to proceed blindly, in the dark. Has there ever been anything like it? It is very difficult. Quite simply, they are making it almost impossible for us to do our job.
So then Mr. Colvin appeared before the committee and caused quite an uproar. I thought his testimony was excellent—unfortunately for him, one might say, but fortunately for us. Since I see that I have only one minute left, I will speed things up a little. I had more prepared.
So Mr. Colvin really caused an uproar. We are now grappling with the need for a public inquiry. We have no choice; we have no access to the documents. Our witnesses are being muzzled and we have only seven minutes to ask them questions. As soon as we have finished, the committee moves on to another party, which also has seven minutes, and so on. Our witnesses can duck and weave all they want, but a public inquiry is needed, one with an independent judge who can access the documents and who will compel witnesses to give their evidence with full immunity.
This is what is needed at this time and what we are calling for. That is why we support the motion for a public inquiry.
Mr. Jack Harris (St. John's East, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to support the motion, which I seconded. It states:
|| That, in the opinion of the House, the government should, in accordance with Part I of the Inquiries Act, call a Public Inquiry into the transfer of detainees in Canadian custody to Afghan authorities from 2001 to 2009.
First, I should address the fact that the spread of the dates here obviously coincides with the commencement of Canadian activity in Afghanistan starting in 2001, continuing to this day, the longest military engagement in which Canada has participated. The second world war was shorter than that as was the first world war. We have a long-standing Canadian engagement in military activity and military combat abroad.
There is the importance of Canada doing this kind of activity in a way that complies with our obligations as a country, to ourselves, to the international community and, first and foremost, to our soldiers who are asked to conduct this very dangerous and important activity in the context of our international human rights obligations. However, we need to know whether we put the systems in place to meet these obligations.
I will start with a quote from Brigadier-General Ken Watkin, Judge Advocate General, who appeared before the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan on November 4 of this year. He set out the legal framework of the obligation about which we are concerned. He says, “The prohibition against torture is a peremptory and non-derogable norm of international law”, and here is the nub. He says:
|| The transfer of detainees to a real risk of torture or ill-treatment is contrary to international humanitarian law, also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict. It is a specialized body of law that governs the conduct of Canada, its officials, and its military forces during the armed conflict in Afghanistan.
That avoids all the semantics of whether the Geneva Convention applies or whether there were prisoners of war, or any of those diversions we have heard government members engage in from time to time, even claiming in one debate in the House that it was not a war at all. Why the members would do that I do not know. It certainly is a diversion from the reality, as Brigadier-General Watkin pointed out to the Afghanistan committee.
We need an inquiry to find out whether the systems that Canada put in place from day one meet our international legal obligations. The government tries to fog this up in attacks on the patriotism of individual members of Parliament when we question a general. I do not know when this became something that was wholier than thou, that when people criticize a general, they are unpatriotic. This seems to be more the kind of thing we would hear in a more militaristic state than we have in Canada.
We have the right to debate these issues, not that I question any particular statement of a general. However, surely this a country where parliamentarians and the civilian authority is the authority that is important. We honour and respect the work of our soldiers and their sacrifices. We saw a national outpouring during the week of November 11, in which all Canadians recognized that.
However, this is not the point. In establishing this mission in Afghanistan and then carrying out this mission, the primary responsibility of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade is to ensure that our international legal obligations are looked after. The senior military authorities in the Department of National Defence and the minister are primarily responsible. The question is this. Is the 2005 agreement, which I think is universally regarded as being inadequate, and our practices now in keeping with our international obligations?
The call for an inquiry is a call for us to find that out in an atmosphere where there is an objective and independent review of the facts and circumstances that were known or should have been known to the government at the time in question. It is not about attacks on individual public servants that are taking place regularly in this House and in the wider public. There needs to be an objective voice and an objective weighing of the issues and concepts.
We are not talking necessarily about evidence. One would not know from listening to the Minister of National Defence that we are talking about a criminal prosecution being undertaken by Richard Colvin. He was doing his job. His job was to report to Canadian authorities on the very things on which he reported. He used the sources that were available to him as part of any normal activity of a Canadian diplomat or political officer in the situation he was in.
Let us not forget that Richard Colvin replaced Canadian diplomat Glynn Berry who, four months previously, was killed by an IED. Mr. Colvin was a brave and courageous Canadian who went to do a job for his country in Afghanistan and is being vilified daily in the House of Commons by the government. That is a shame.
David Mulroney, to his credit, acknowledged the courage, bravery and contribution of Richard Colvin in his work in Kandahar for the Canadian government. As I say, to his credit, Mr. Mulroney's testimony acknowledged that. In fact, he said when the changes were made in 2007, they relied on Mr. Colvin and his work as part of the whole picture of what was going on in Afghanistan.
Mr. Mulroney does not share the view of the Minister of National Defence and others in the government who have done some damage to Mr. Colvin's reputation, but not enough to persuade Canadians that an inquiry is not necessary. In fact, the majority of Canadians, according to a recent poll, support the need for an independent public inquiry into what went on with respect to the handling of detainees.
We hear people from time to time ask why anybody would care, that this is about Afghanistan, a backward country, that all the people are Taliban and they do not have any regard for Canadian lives and why should Canadians care about them. That is part of a theme that runs counter to the call for an inquiry and for Canadians raising concerns and believing that there should be concern.
Since Mr. Colvin was the first one to bring this up in his testimony, I could do no better than to quote the rhetorical question he asked and then answered before the committee on Afghanistan. He asked, “Even if Afghan detainees were being tortured, why should Canadians care?” He gave five compelling reasons. “First, our detainees are not what the intelligence services would call “high-value targets”, such as IED bomb makers, al-Qaeda terrorists or Taliban commanders”.
In other words, the people who were being gathered up were not necessarily as a result of intelligence efforts and choosing individuals to arrest because they were people who were picked up by intelligence sources. They were picked up by conventional forces doing routine military operations. Many of them, as he pointed out, would not have been targets of investigation.
This has been confirmed by later meetings with Afghanistan security officials, who complained that they had to release many of the people who were passed over to them because they did not have any supporting evidence or information as to why they were detained. They were not Taliban. The indication is that the NDS and others have a very high knowledge base of who is and is not Taliban. His conclusion was that a lot of innocent people may have been handed over for severe torture.
He went on to say that the second reason we should care is that seizing people and rendering them for torture is a very serious violation of international and Canadian law. He said that Canada has always been a powerful advocate of international law and human rights, that that is a keystone of who we are as Canadians and what we have always stood for as a people and a nation. He said that to do so would be contrary to our own stated policies. In April 2007 the Prime Minister said publicly that Canadian military officers do not send anybody at all to be tortured. That was indeed our policy, but behind the military's wall of secrecy, in Mr. Colvin's view, that is unfortunately what we were doing. He said that even if all of the Afghans who were detained had been Taliban, it would still have been wrong for them to be tortured.
The Canadian military is a proud and professional organization, thoroughly trained in the rules of war and the correct treatment of prisoners. The question is, at that time, what was the level of knowledge in Afghanistan of government officials and, by implication, the military? Was it sufficient to render a view that there was a real risk of torture or ill treatment if detainees were handed over? That is a question that has to be answered, not by me or by the government here today. We have heard people's views on it. We have heard Mr. Mulroney's view on it. We have heard the generals' views on it. Whether there was evidence of any individual detainee who was handed over by Canada and had been subsequently tortured is not the question, whether there was proof of torture of a particular individual. In fact, the system was such that it was almost impossible to have such proof.
What Mr. Mulroney said to the committee last week was that after signing the second memorandum, and we are talking about May of 2000, a database of detained prisoners was developed. In other words, he confirmed what had been said by Mr. Colvin and others, that prior to then, we were not tracking or monitoring the prisoners, and therefore we could not answer that question ourselves. Whom do we rely on to determine whether or not there was a real risk of torture?
Mr. Colvin, in writing his reports, doing his job and relying on the sources that he was required to rely on, said as follows in an affidavit to the MPCC:
||--I obtained information on detainee issues from a wide range of sources. This included diplomats from other embassies, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], officials from UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan], military officers at ISAF, human-rights organizations, journalists--
--and we have seen some of those reports--
||--and intelligence sources. It would be normal, appropriate and necessary for me in the context to rely on such sources in the course of my duties. All this information was provided on a confidential basis, and the specific sources cannot be disclosed in an Affidavit.
He said the same thing to the committee and what happened? He was attacked by the government for it. He did not even tell us who his sources were. Of course, the names of the sources are confidential, and that is totally understandable.
Why do we need a public inquiry? Because the organizations to which he referred and the evidence that was laid out, and previous speakers have referred to it, indicated that the United States Department of State, Human Rights Watch, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and other agencies confirm the level of torture and ill treatment in Afghanistan jails was, to quote some, commonplace.
Was there a real risk of torture? That is something that may have to be decided objectively. Did we have procedures in place to prevent that from happening? It is a given that we did not. Obviously the changes that were made indicated that, and some of the things that Mr. Colvin has said were used in doing that.
A Globe and Mail editorial last week talked about four questions, and these are four questions that we believe can only be answered in an objective inquiry.
Here is what the Globe and Mail editorial said:
|| The federal government's dissembling on abuse Afghan detainees suffered after they left the hands of Canadian Forces is now transparent.
|| The government must be held to account, and needs to answer these questions: What did the government know, and when?
That is the fundamental question that has not been answered. All we have had is pot shots being taken at opposition members and at diplomats who were doing their job to try and get this information forward.
The article also asked who else inside the government was expressing concern. The government is saying that Mr. Colvin the one person. I frankly do not believe that Mr. Colvin was the only one who expressed any concern about the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan prisons. How do we find that out? We will not find it out by going on fishing expeditions in a parliamentary committee but by having a full public inquiry where someone can do the job.
The article also asked what the extent and the result of the investigation was once undertaken. The article is talking about information before April 2007. Another questions was how widespread was the culture of secrecy. We do know that other countries such as the U.K. and the Netherlands that have been engaged in this activity had open, transparent and comprehensive policies. They had policies which followed up on their detainees and made proper reports.
While all the information was being kept secret, the minister of defence of the day in 2006-07 said there was no problem because the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, was monitoring the prisoners and the ICRC would tell us if anything was going wrong. That mantra was presented to the House of Commons month after month until finally the International Committee of the Red Cross had enough and made it public that not only did it not monitor prisoners, but it could not do that. It only tells the Afghan government if it sees anything.
I do not even think the Conservative government was able to notify the Red Cross of what prisoners it had because of its poor record keeping and it failed--
Mr. Laurie Hawn: That was the previous government.
Mr. Jack Harris: Mr. Speaker, the member is saying that was the previous government. If that was the previous government and if what the member is saying is true, then that would also be part of the subject of the inquiry.
Mr. Ed Fast: Jack, you've got to get to the truth.
Mr. Jack Harris: Mr. Speaker, a member opposite said we have to get to the truth. That is exactly what we have to do. This forum or parliamentary committees should not be the places where people banter back and forth on this subject. We need an objective inquiry.
What would an inquiry do? What would be the value in having an inquiry? It has been suggested recently by a distinguished professor of law that there are five important attributes of a public inquiry: one, independence; two, effectiveness; three, an adequate mandate; four, investigative powers; and five, transparency.
The primary one has to be independence. Regardless of how reasonable I am being here today, and I think I am being extremely reasonable, I am obviously being regarded by members opposite and probably people in other parties as being somewhat less than independent, somewhat biased. That comes with politics. Equally true, of course, is what is being said on the other side by ministers who have a stake in whether or not mistakes were made in the past. They have a bias as well. Independence is extremely important.
As to the effectiveness of an inquiry, an inquiry would be much more capable than a parliamentary committee of doing a proper job, such as examining witnesses.
The investigative powers, and in fact, the transparency and openness of a public inquiry is what Canadians want and what Canadians need.
Hon. Lawrence Cannon (Minister of Foreign Affairs, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to preface my comments on the issue of Canada transferring Taliban detainees to Afghan authorities by reminding some of the members here that Canada is operating in Afghanistan in a challenging and complex environment with respect to security.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world.
Our soldiers, diplomats, humanitarian workers, police and correctional officers and others are putting their lives at risk to build a better, safer world for Afghans, Canadians and the international community.
With respect to the transfer of Taliban prisoners, it is important to remember that Canadian Forces personnel do capture individuals during military operations.
The reason they do that is to protect themselves from danger, to provide better protection and stability to the Afghan people, and to prevent terrorist attacks against Canada and the international community.
Canadian Forces personnel transfer these detainees to Afghan authorities under a supplementary agreement between the governments of Canada and Afghanistan signed on May 3, 2007.
Let me be perfectly clear. There has never been a proven allegation of abuse involving a transferred Taliban prisoner by Canadian Forces. This is about what Afghans allegedly did to other Afghans. This is not about our brave men and women serving in the battlefields of Afghanistan.
We have said it before and we will continue to reiterate it, when the military and diplomats have been presented with credible, substantiated evidence, they have taken appropriate action.
I want to emphasize to the House that, as it has always done, the Government of Canada ensures that the prisoners it transfers to Afghan authorities are treated humanely in accordance with both countries' obligations under international law.
When concerns were expressed, we took action. The 2005 transfer agreement was not good enough, so we came up with a better one.
When allegations surfaced, we acted. We strengthened an inadequate 2005 transfer agreement.
In addition, under the terms of the new agreement, Canada boasts one of the most rigorous mechanisms for the monitoring of prisoners, as well as access to those transferred to Afghan authorities, in order to ensure the protection of their rights.
Once prisoners are transferred, Afghan authorities are ultimately responsible for how they are treated.
However, and just as important, it allows for the development of this essential capacity, where no such capacity existed before.
I would remind the House that Afghanistan is an independent, sovereign state and in the end, that country's government is responsible for protecting its citizens, enforcing the law and ensuring that human rights are respected.
In that spirit, Canada is trying to help ensure that prisoners' rights are being respected, especially those captured by Canadians and transferred to Afghan authorities.
Canada's efforts are focused on two goals: providing general programs to develop Afghan capacities in order to improve conditions for all Afghan prisoners; and maintaining a rigorous, effective oversight and monitoring system in order to ensure proper treatment of prisoners transferred by Canadians.
Our government has made significant investments in building the Afghan government's capacity to detain Afghan and other insurgents and to investigate, prosecute and convict them, in accordance with the Afghan government's responsibilities and its international obligations.
In particular, Canada supported the reform of the correctional sector in Kandahar and throughout Afghanistan by providing mentoring and strategic training activities, as well as providing assistance to improve the related infrastructure and equipment.
As the hon. members here today know, our government negotiated and entered into a new agreement with the government of Afghanistan. That agreement took effect on May 3, 2007.
Under the new agreement, Canadian representatives have full, private and unlimited access to all prisoners transferred by Canada to the Afghan authorities.
Our supplementary arrangement provides one of the strongest safeguards to ensure the protection and monitoring, through visitation, of human rights of prisoners who are transferred by Canada to Afghan authorities.
Since 2007, when Canada obtained the right to have access to detainees captured by the Canadian Forces under the supplementary agreement, Canadian authorities have made nearly 200 visits to those detainees. They have often visited them once or twice a week for private interviews, even though such visits could expose them to considerable personal risk.
If, during these visits or by some other means, Canadian authorities learn of serious allegations of abuse, Canada immediately notifies the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan human rights commission and raises the issue with the highest Afghan government authorities so that a proper investigation is held.
When Canadian investigations revealed plausible allegations of abuse of Afghan prisoners transferred by the Canadian Forces, we took action. We did not start transferring detainees again until February 2008, after we had ensured that our requirements had been met and the necessary conditions had been restored.
We can be proud of our men and women in uniform in this respect as in all respects. We should not play politics with the difficult mission of those who protect us. There is no need to launch a public inquiry into this matter. The special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan has also undertaken a study on the issue of detainee transfer. Witnesses have appeared and, in the upcoming weeks, more are scheduled to testify.
The testimony last week before our committee of Generals Hillier, Gauthier and Fraser as well as Mr. David Mulroney demonstrate clearly just how difficult, involved and complex this effort has been. However, it has demonstrated that, despite these difficulties, they were always conscious of their responsibilities when it came to the question of transferring prisoners held by the Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities. That is a critical point that we should not lose sight of as this debate goes forward in the House today.
During these committee proceedings, the opposition has been free to call witnesses, as they did with Mr. Colvin. The hearings have been broadcast on national television, so Canadians have been able to see the proceedings for themselves. What did they see? Canadians saw the compelling testimony of three distinguished Canadian generals and a top diplomat, Mr. David Mulroney, the former senior official in the Privy Council Office, in charge of coordinating our efforts in Afghanistan.
What did they hear? They heard the clear and unequivocal message that at no time and under no circumstances did Canadian Forces transfer detainees when they suspected there was a real risk of torture. That was confirmed by all the witnesses except Mr. Colvin.
Retired General Hillier said, “We didn't base our actions upon people making statements that all detainees were being tortured. How ludicrous a statement is that from any one single individual who really has no knowledge to be able to say something like that. We certainly didn't see any substantive evidence that would indicate it was that way”.
Mr. Mulroney said, “I can say we have no evidence that any Canadian transfer of detainees was mistreated”.
Could all the other witnesses be wrong? Is the opposition asserting that anyone is lying?
Let us go back to the facts. When did we have real documented concerns as we did in November 2007? When we did, those transfers were stopped. We were only able to reach those conclusion because, in May 2007, our government put in place a more robust monitoring mechanism, one that supplemented the Liberal 2005 arrangement. That was two and a half years ago. That is the record. Canadians know it.
The government has given the commission its full cooperation; it has submitted thousands of pages of relevant documents, and numerous officials have already testified.
The Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan has also begun studying the issue of detainee transfers. Witnesses have already appeared, and others are scheduled to testify in the weeks to come.
I travelled to Afghanistan twice and met with dozens of Canadian soldiers, police officers and officials. Each time, I was impressed by the courage, calm, strength of character and genuine patriotism of all these people. They are the glory of their generation, as were the heroes of Vimy, Dieppe and so many other theatres of war where Canadians fought to defend our values and our freedoms. These men and women are also putting their lives in danger to secure a better future for a country that is trying to ward off the threat of totalitarianism, sectarianism and extremism.
The worst excesses, the worst cruelty we have seen in generations have been committed in Afghanistan by the horrible Taliban regime and their terrorist accomplices.
The members of the official opposition, whose party decided to send our soldiers into this region—and our party supported them—know full well that we face a cruel, unscrupulous enemy.
In closing, I invite them to think about that when they are tempted to criticize the people who are defending our honour against the forces of barbarism.
Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Outremont.
Canada has been involved militarily in Afghanistan since 2001 and questions about detainees have been asked for years.
Reports are available from the U.S. state department and Human Rights Watch saying that torture was and is commonplace in Afghan prisons.
Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association sought a court injunction to stop detainee transfers. The morning of the first hearings in May 2007, the Conservatives signed a new detainee transfer document.
This agreement contained many of the elements that New Democrats had been asking for: a rights of inspection of Afghan prisons, a right of follow-up and a limit on the prisons to which detainees could be transferred.
However, since 2007 almost no documents have been released about inspections or follow-ups that we may or may not have done. The only documents that have been released were compiled in the summer of 2007 and contained allegations of torture from the reports of Canadian officials. It was stated by these witnesses that wounds of abuse were seen.
The government has refused to release any documents related to any inspections that may or may not have happened around these various halts in transfers.
The Military Police Complaints Commission has been investigating detainee abuse in transfers and the government has not given it a single page of evidence since February 2008.
This is clearly an attempt to cover up. Because the opposition members are asking for answers and for the truth to be revealed, the Conservatives claim that the opposition do not support our troops. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are simply using our troops as a shield so they do not have to release documents and answer questions
This is in the same vein as government statements that the war is protecting women and children. Claims have been made by the government that our soldiers are there to protect women and children. We have heard this 100 times. Yet the situation and realities of life for many women and children have not improved. The establishment of women's rights has long been used to justify Canada's intervention in Afghanistan when, in fact, the U.S. led coalition entered Afghanistan in response to 9/11 and under the right of self-defence after the Taliban regime allowed al-Qaeda to base itself in that country.
Women's rights groups and female Afghan parliamentarians have stated that women's rights have not improved in Afghanistan, nor are they a priority for the government there. In fact, leaked Government of Canada reports say that women's rights have not improved since the fall of the Taliban. The Taliban regime committed horrendous atrocities and prevented women from enjoying even basic human rights.
However, the Taliban does not have a monopoly on the abuse of women's rights. Other armed groups, such as the Northern Alliance, also have a history of oppressing women. Former Northern Alliance warlords are now local governors and members of the Karzai government.
In fact, after the election of Mr. Karzai, the Afghan department for vice and virtue was reinstated. This notorious department was responsible for many of the atrocities committed during Taliban rule.
In addition, in an effort to fight the Taliban, international forces have made deals with notorious warlords and armed militia who are complicit in the abuse. This means that women are unable to turn to the very forces who are supposed to protect them.
In June 1997 the NDP defence critic tabled a minority report on Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, outlining among other things that Afghan women were not adequately protected or supported by the international military presence in their country. This has been completely ignored by the government.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has reported that women and girls continue to be threatened and deprived of their human rights. The first basic right is the right to education.
Today 1.8 million girls are enrolled in school. However, girls represent only 35% of Afghan's total school going population. At the grade 1 level, girls constitute about 40% of the students. This percentage becomes progressively smaller at middle school, at about 34%; and by grade 12, females account for only one-quarter of the students. Girls living in rural areas have significantly less access to schools than those in urban areas.
According to the commission, the cultural requirement to have female teachers creates a vicious cycle. Girls are not educated due to lack of female teachers, which in turn prevents the development of female teachers to educate the girls. This attitude is deeply entrenched in Afghan society and is unlikely to undergo any radical change in the near future. Women constitute only 28% of existing teachers, and of them, 80% work in urban areas.
The commission further reports that attacks by insurgents on educational facilities have jumped dramatically in the last few years. In 2007 there were 55 security threats and over 180 attacks carried out on schools, killing 108 people and injuring 154. The first three months of 2008 saw five threats and 24 attacks, with two people killed.
The situation is particularly critical in the south where the insurgency is strongest. Attacking schools is usually the last step in a long process of intimidation that keeps Afghan children, particularly girls, out of school. Other types of attacks and intimidation techniques include threatening letters, threats of kidnapping, attacks on teachers, intimidation of local officials and attacks on schoolgirls on their way to school, using acid. We saw that on television: little girls scarred by acid.
Such actions have forced the closing of more than 200 schools in 2007. The primary targets of the attacks, of course, were schools where boys and girls attended classes together or where they shared a building. Security was the number one reason cited by the AIHRC investigation crew when it looked at the allegations of girls being prevented from going to school by relatives.
Women are also denied basic access to health services. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, every 30 minutes in Afghanistan a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. That is 60 deaths for every 1,000 live births, which is 60% higher than in the industrial world, and 80% of those deaths are preventable.
Recent studies by the commission show the reasons women lack access to health care include the traditional ones: the non-existence and lack of health centres, a poor economy, lack of self-sufficiency, lack of participation in their own affairs, lack of attention to their health issues by the families, and domestic violence and illiteracy. According to the studies conducted by the commission, 24.6% of people have no access to acceptable health services, and the majority of them are women. In addition, 54.8% of people cannot use the so-called health centres due to the long distances involved.
The level of accessibility to health services varies. Women's access to health services is only 5% to 7% in the southwest, and in some districts of central Afghanistan there are no female doctors and no health workers. This situation exists despite national and international laws emphasizing the need for women to access health services.
The commission also outlined forced marriage as a serious barrier to women's rights in Afghanistan. These marriages come about through various means, including as a way to settle a feud; huge dowries; or threats of intimidation. These marriages can include underage marriages, that is, where a child is forced to marry an older man or where a child is engaged when she is born. Widows are still considered a heritage and are not allowed to marry other men willingly.
Finally, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reports that violence against women is prevalent. The participation of women in Afghan public life is still relatively low, and the majority of violence against women takes place within the family. According to UNIFEM, 80% of violence against women occurs within their families. Domestic violence is a serious problem, accounting for a third of the total violations against women. Often the violence is so debilitating that women may choose to run away and be put in jail rather than tolerate the abuse.
Abuse, suicide, domestic violence, forced prostitution, addiction to narcotics, all of these exist in Afghanistan. What are our troops doing there? What is the government covering up? Why can we not hear the truth?
Mr. Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, today we are debating a motion introduced by our party, the New Democratic Party, to establish a commission of inquiry, pursuant to the Inquiries Act, into the transfer of detainees in Canadian custody during the current conflict in Afghanistan.
We are focusing on the period between 2001 and 2009. In that period, two governments were in power. It covers a number of years, primarily when the Liberals formed the government and also when the Conservatives governed with a minority in this House.
First it is important to create the proper context for a debate on torture and examine why it is so important to determine whether our armed forces were involved in the transfer of detainees to an authority, the Afghan government, which may have abused or tortured them. We know that international agreements, primarily the Geneva conventions, prohibit the transfer of a detainee in times of war if there is a risk of torture.
First, there is simply the human side of this. Torture is unacceptable. Second, it is a problem, because even if we do not think about other people, we must at least think of ourselves. Our own soldiers and members of our armed forces could end up in the same position one day. It would be very hard for us to invoke the Geneva convention if we have a very bad record when it comes to the treatment of prisoners.
As for the first part, the moral aspect, it is important to put the writings of the current Liberal leader into perspective. When he was in the United States, he had no problem writing a number of justifications for abuse and mistreatment. I would even say that the current Liberal leader, from his exalted position as a professor at Harvard University, became an accomplice to the American government of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, by giving them the terminology they used to justify torture.
The Liberal leader took a page from the book of George Orwell, whose Newspeak is all about changing the terminology, when he said that we should no longer talk about “torture”; we should say “enhanced interrogation techniques”. What happened next? We saw the American president, Vice-President Cheney and other government officials say that water boarding could be acceptable. The former Liberal leader established some criteria. There should not be permanent damage, harm to physical health, and so on.
When someone does not have a moral GPS, they write things like that, and that is unfortunately the case with the Liberal leader.
Torture is torture, period. But it had become a sort of touchstone. Were we tough enough to live in a world where we knew that there was a vast terrorist plot to destabilize our governments? I would venture to say that the thing that has most destabilized our governments is the loss of our moral authority in the world, because our governments, our democracies, are based on values, and one of our values is that we do not tolerate torture and we cannot outsource torture. We cannot leave it to someone else to have it done.
In this case, there are several different versions and sometimes different versions from the same person. The current Minister of National Defence has contradicted himself so much in recent weeks that a commission of inquiry is needed to shed light on this issue.
At one point, the Minister of National Defence said one thing in this House and, later the same day, stood in the corridor behind us and said the opposite for the television news. The public has the right to know two things. First, are torture and the transfer of detainees to people who might torture them still prohibited under Canadian law? Second, will the government comply with international law, specifically the Geneva convention? If so, then we have the right to know what happened in Afghanistan.
Instead of coming clean and admitting that, given the contradictory versions, the best thing to do was to shed some light on this disturbing matter, we heard personal attacks levelled against very credible people of the highest calibre. We were very surprised to hear the government attacking Mr. Colvin. We will have the opportunity to see what the Conservatives do with people who say the opposite of what they want to hear. Putting his own career on the line, of course, he had the courage to write down repeatedly that he was very worried because, according to all available information, it appeared that people were being tortured in Afghan prisons.
No, he was not present during any torture sessions, otherwise, things would be altogether different. The Conservatives keep saying that he did not witness any torture himself. Of course he did not see any, as if a Canadian official would stay and watch. However, according to all the available information, he knew torture was taking place. He therefore wrote about it and appeared here.
He is being mercilessly attacked by the Minister of National Defence. What a shame. The Conservatives had just appointed the same Mr. Colvin to a very important strategic intelligence position in the United States. And now they are telling us that he has no credibility and we should not believe a word he says. No problem. They simply found another senior Canadian diplomat and dragged him by the scruff of the neck before the parliamentary committee. It was something to see. That other diplomat knew what the government expected of him, but he nevertheless managed to say that Mr. Colvin's concerns were valid and well founded.
An authority was set up to deal with such matters. That authority within the Canadian armed forces is the Military Police Complaints Commission. In accordance with an act of Parliament, it has a very serious responsibility to keep a critical eye on what our soldiers are doing and to make sure that their actions obey the rules governing ethical conduct in time of war. So what happened? The government engaged in systematic obstruction to the point that the chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, which examines the actions of our armed forces, has been forced to suspend the commission's work. But are they ashamed of that? Not at all. What are they doing now? They are saying that he was the one who decided to suspend the hearings. He explained that he could no longer hold hearings because he was being blocked at every turn.
What happened to the noted scientist responsible for nuclear safety who sounded the alarm by saying that there was going to be a shortage of isotopes? They fired her. What happened to the person in charge of investigations at the Competition Bureau who revealed what was going on in the oil industry? They fired her. Last week, the person responsible for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's ethics review dared to say things that the government did not want to hear. They fired him. That is how the Conservatives have operated time after time. Anytime upright people dare to say what the Conservatives do not want to hear, they try to fire them. They did the same thing with Mr. Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, who dared to tell the truth and who was always right.
In closing, for all of these reasons, the only way to be sure of anything is to hold a proper public inquiry. That is how we will find out who is telling the truth—the Minister of National Defence or other very credible individuals. I am eager to find out.
Hon. Bryon Wilfert (Richmond Hill, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this debate. I want to say first of all that I support the motion before the House.
This debate has absolutely nothing to do with the support of Canadian soldiers in the field. Having been to Afghanistan on two occasions, I can say that they are of the highest quality, the highest standards, and that our men and women deserve and I know receive the support of all members in this House.
The issue is about the conduct of the Government of Canada. It is about the direction that the government is going in. As the vice-chair of both the defence committee and the Afghan committee, I find it very troubling that we are not able to have the documentation that we need in order to do our job. Apparently others have that right, whether they be former generals or people in the press, but the members of the committee who are charged with the responsibility of looking into these issues, into these allegations, do not have the documentation.
This Parliament passed a resolution in 2008, and I want to read one part of it to the House:
||(a) commit to meeting the highest NATO and international standards with respect to protecting the rights of detainees, transferring only when it believes it can do so in keeping with Canada’s international obligations;
That is what this House passed and members on the other side voted for that. That is our moral responsibility and, indeed, our legal responsibility, both under the Geneva Convention and the articles of war.
We have heard from the other side that somehow while the 2005 agreement was clearly not adequate, the Conservatives brought in a tougher one later on. Nobody is disputing that. The question is, from the generals who appeared before us, Mr. Mulroney and others, that we really did not know what we were getting into in 2005, but clearly if there was a problem, why did the government across the way decide to change the agreement, to amend the agreement? If there was no abuse, and no one can categorically say that there was not, then why did we have to amend it? We had to amend it because obviously there were issues out there.
In one of these redacted documents, and again when we are reading something with all this black in it, it is very difficult, one of the memos from Mr. Colvin's email which was copied to Mr. Mulroney, Colleen Swords and others, and I do not even know the date because unfortunately it is blacked out, under 19 it says:
|| Apart from non-access to detention facilities themselves, the main difficulty we faced was in correctly identifying “our” detainees. [blacked out] explained that they had no list of “Canadian” detainees....Moreover, the information in our possession was quite limited. The names were written only in English, not in Pashto. We had no photos or other descriptions of each detainees, only their age and the name of their village (not even the district) in [blacked out]. Of the [blacked out] only in [blacked out]--
And it goes on. From that, clearly there is either something to hide or the fact is that we did not know what we were transferring, but certainly the International Red Cross did. Certainly, the Americans did and others did. I am sure that pressure was brought to bear and is why the government decided to change the agreement.
The agreement that was entered into in 2005 was to meet the requirements we thought of at the time. Clearly, there were allegations out there, these allegations made by Mr. Colvin and others. Mr. Colvin is a respected public servant. The generals before us are all well respected. No one questions that.
The questions are, what did the government know, what information did it have, and what did it do with that information when it received it? If the government has nothing to hide, then why does it not allow a full public inquiry? That would also be very helpful, both to those who have come forward on both sides of this issue and also because we as a committee, and I think this is very important, are constrained in our ability to seek the answers because first, we do not have the documentation, and second, we have seven minutes in which to ask questions. It is pretty hard to get the question and answer in seven minutes. I know that is a difficult situation at least for members.
Maybe, on the other side, some members there have seen these documents in their entirety. They claim they have not, but at this point we say a public inquiry because we are not able to function. In fact, it seems like a Hollywood backdrop. Witnesses come in and certain members are briefed on this information who come before the committee. The members try their best, but at the end of the day, we do not have the information we need. So this is also a moral issue.
We have a moral obligation to Canadians to ensure that we are extremely above board. The government, if it were needing to hide anything, would certainly makes these documents available, certainly to members of the committee, but also would be forthright in saying there is a conflict here. We have a situation where a former defence minister indicated he knew nothing that happened and yet 19 memos were sent to the government indicating that there were concerns of torture.
Then we have the current minister who has changed his mind from time to time depending on the situation. My mother used to say “never be a prevaricator of the truth because you will have to remember what you said or not said at some point”. It is better to simply tell the truth right up front. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be able to get the answers we need. Is the government covering up? One would assume, if members are not prepared to release the documentation, if they are not prepared to be forthright, that is the only conclusion one can come to.
On the issue of international responsibilities, our soldiers are performing extremely well in the field. We know they are taught very strongly about what to do when they have a prisoner. So there are concerns when these people are turned over to Afghan jails. No one is suggesting that Afghan jails are top notch. In fact, they are a disaster. We know they are a disaster and that is why on at least three occasions the transfers were stopped. If they were not stopped then everything would have been fine. But clearly they were stopped because there were these allegations out there. I find it hard to believe, as a member of Parliament, that the government did not know because otherwise it would not have stopped something if everything was fine.
On this side of the House we listen when government members speak. On that side of the House we hear catcalls. If we really want to have a thorough and full debate, then they should listen, even if they do not like it. At committee we try to extend the same courtesy across the aisle, but the government is stonewalling. We saw what happened at the Military Police Complaints Commission, another example of where it was thwarted from doing its job because of the situation.
I should point out that my friend and colleague, the member for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, will be splitting time with me.
I want to point out that the special committee on Afghanistan is not able to do its job because it does not have the tools to do it. Unfortunately, although everyone on the committee certainly has good intentions, they cannot do that. So the issue now comes down to certain people saying one thing, certain people saying another thing. We need a full public inquiry, where the documentation can be provided, where we can actually get the answers and not in seven minutes, so we can move forward on this issue.
Again, I refer to the resolution that Parliament supported. It referred to protecting the rights of detainees. We have to walk the talk. We cannot pass a resolution and then ignore what is in the resolution. We have a responsibility and I would suggest that if the government has nothing to hide, call a public inquiry. Let us find out the real facts and then not only will Parliament know but Canadians will know.