VANCOUVER – Canadian General Rick Hillier and Defense Minister Gordon O’Connor have dismissed calls that they be investigated for war crimes over Canada’s role in handing over to Afghan security forces detainees who were subsequently tortured.
Criticism of the Canadian forces is being driven by the revelation in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper that up to 30 detainees had been abused or tortured in Afghanistan prisons by Afghan guards after being transferred from Canadian custody.
O’Connor announced that a new agreement was reached Wednesday which would allow Canadian officials full access to the National Directorate of Security facility, focus of the most vehement criticism and stories of prisoner abuse by Afghan forces.
Canadian lawmakers have been caught up in the Afghanistan issue most of this week. The Conservative government narrowly blocked a motion calling for Canadian troops to return home by 2009.
The New Democratic Party, which wants immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan and not to wait until 2009, voted with the Conservatives. The Liberals and Bloc Quebecois supported the motion. Some observers say that this issue could bring down the Conservative minority government.
Michael Byers, professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, and a prominent critic of the Canada’s role in Afghanistan, called for the resignation of Defense Minister O’Connor and General Hillier, the Canadian military chief, earlier in the week.
Both were named in a 14-page letter to the International Criminal Court signed by Byers and by William Schabas, director of the Irish Center for Human Rights in Galway.
"We don’t know what’s happened for sure, but there are very detailed and damning allegations being made," Byers told IPS. "There are allegations of torture and other abuses on the basis of serious organizational failure to meet basic standards of international law."
Canada’s CBC reported that Major-General Ton van Loon, the top NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) commander in southern Afghanistan, said Thursday that he is not aware of prisoners being tortured after being transferred to local Afghan authorities. But he acknowledged that systems of transfer needed to be improved.
Van Loon, of the Netherlands, said he did not know of "any specific cases" of abuse in the six months he has been in charge of NATO troops.
"I have not been given any reason to think that they have taken place," he told CBC News.
General Hillier dismissed critics who have put forward a complaint to the International Criminal Court.
Appearing on the TV program Canada AM, Hillier said, "First of all, much attention has been paid to what is a very, very small part of our mission. I concentrate on setting our young men and women up for success…on reducing the risk to them. So I just let the theatrics, if you will, of these kinds of things go on around me. I’ve got a job to do. I’m going to do that job."
"This is totally appalling," Steven Staples, spokesman for the Canadian peace lobbying group Ceasefire.ca, told IPS. "Canadians are in shock that detainees were tortured after being in the custody of Afghan guards. The government seems to have known about it. This will be a real turning point for the Conservative government. The calls for resignation should be taken seriously. Legal experts are calling for complaints under international law."
Professor Byers noted that "the UN High Commissioner and a leaked Foreign Affairs report point to serious issues being raised here. These are fairly detailed and specific charges amidst the backdrop of changes in procedure being made. Experts including Amir Attaran, the BC (British Columbia) Civil Liberties Association and others have recommended that there needs to be a renegotiation of the detainee transfer agreement."
"There is little organizational incentive to meet basic standards," he added. "If the allegations are true and the leaders have crafted the policy, Canada’s international reputation will have suffered if Afghan insurgents were transferred by Canadian military to be knowingly tortured."
Byers said that a military mission should aim to uphold the highest international standards. "This situation needs to be addressed in a decisive manner. The Defense Minister and General Hillier should resign for placing Canada’s reputation at risk, and this issue should be open to investigation for war crimes by international agencies."
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day claimed that Canadian Forces had access to prisoners, even after they were transferred. Opposition parties have accused the government of hiding and downplaying reports about rights violations in Afghanistan.
Federal Information Commissioner Robert Marleau told the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics on Thursday that his office will launch an investigation into why portions of a document on Afghan torture were blacked out before it was given to Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.