Canada’s Unfinished Mandate

The case for a passionately dispassionate inquiry into the Afghan disaster

by , January 06, 2010

“We can only hope that Somalia represents the nadir of the fortunes of the Canadian Forces. There seems to be little room to slide lower. One thing is certain, however: left uncorrected, the problems that surfaced in the desert in Somalia and in the boardrooms at National Defense Headquarters will continue to spawn military ignominy. The victim will be Canada and its international reputation.”

These words were written by the Commission of Inquiry into the Somalia affair in 1997 and seem eerily to predict Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan: ignominy. The troops on the ground seem to be exemplary, endangered, and leaderless. The problems that the Somalia Commission regarded as unresolved – the "Unfinished Mandate" – were related to the upper levels of the Department of National Defense chain of command, senior officials in the Canadian civil service who administered the Department of National Defense, and senior government officials, particularly the minister of national defense The commission was unequivocal that senior leadership bore responsibility for the disasters in Somalia, and that these leaders were never held to account.

My belief is that the same three groups bear responsibility for the Afghanistan disaster: the upper military chain of command, senior civil servants at Defense, and senior ministers of both the current and previous Conservative governments and previous Liberal governments. My conviction is that the Somalia inquiry needs to be resumed and finished. Nobody will look good afterward – there will be more than enough guilt to go around – except possibly the members of the commission and principled voices from Parliament and the citizenry. We are all citizens, however, and are all responsible for what is done in our name, like we were all responsible for the criminal acts committed by the government of Canada against Maher Arar, for which no senior official has been held to account, except possibly RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli, who shot himself in the foot in a manner impossible to ignore, yet was promoted to a job at Interpol. Plus ça change…

If the Canadian government has become disengaged from us, the citizens, that’s bad, but it’s up to us to re-engage and hold our Parliament to account. The government of Canada, led by Stephen Harper – a weasel in weasel’s clothing – has demonstrated a consistent contempt for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. You get the idea the government thinks it’s in charge of an oligarchy like Alberta and rules by divine right. The examples are almost too numerous to mention. First of all, there’s the matter of Steve – a man whose grasp exceeds his reach – a guy who wants to be prime minister of Canada but has no idea why and has absolutely no policy other than getting elected, or preferably, appointed Dear Leader for Life. There is no foreign policy (our foreign policy is NATO’s foreign policy), no climate policy (our policy is Obama’s policy), no science and technology policy (what policy? – we dig things up and send them to China; the Chinese send back refrigerators and stereos), and no policy on crime, other than being against it.

The crime policy is a bit odd, since, on the face of it, the attorney general of Canada, the Honorable Rob Nicholson, has misled justice (a criminal act under the Criminal Code of Canada) by obstructing justice during the judicial proceedings of the Military Police Complaints Commission of Canada, and since the minister of national defense, the Honorable Peter Mackay, is, on the face of it, in contempt of Parliament by withholding documents from the Special Parliamentary Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan.

Then, there’s the touchy matter of war crimes. Somehow, this gets a lot of press in Canada without anybody being specific about it, so here’s Article 12 of the Third Geneva Convention, the applicable law for Canadian troops in Afghanistan:

"Part II. General Protection of Prisoners of War

"Art. 12. Prisoners of war are in the hands of the enemy Power, but not of the individuals or military units who have captured them. Irrespective of the individual responsibilities that may exist, the Detaining Power is responsible for the treatment given them.

"Prisoners of war may only be transferred by the Detaining Power to a Power which is a party to the Convention and after the Detaining Power has satisfied itself of the willingness and ability of such transferee Power to apply the Convention. When prisoners of war are transferred under such circumstances, responsibility for the application of the Convention rests on the Power accepting them while they are in its custody.

"Nevertheless, if that Power fails to carry out the provisions of the Convention in any important respect, the Power by whom the prisoners of war were transferred shall, upon being notified by the Protecting Power, take effective measures to correct the situation or shall request the return of the prisoners of war. Such requests must be complied with."

So, last time I checked, Afghanistan was regarded as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions as of 1936. You don’t have to be an international lawyer to figure out that that agreement might not be binding on the current, um, "administration" in Afghanistan. But even if it was, the "Detaining Power" (Canada) is not off the hook, because we have to make a good faith assessment that the "Accepting Power" (this is the language of the Department of National Defense"Campaign against Terrorism Detainee Transfer Log") has the "willingness and ability … to apply the Convention." You don’t have to be Richard Colvin to figure out that that never happened and, therefore, that all prisoner transfers by NATO troops to Afghan jurisdictions have always been illegal. People don’t seem to want to talk about this, although there’s no shortage of people willing to say that it’s not our problem.

People said that at Nuremberg, and it didn’t work.

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