Talk Is Cheap – Do Something!

In the barrage of words concerning Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, Lloyd Axworthy has a creditable track record. As president of the University of Winnipeg, Canada’s foreign affairs minister from 1996-2000, and architect of the Ottawa Convention banning land mines, Axworthy’s voice has been consistent, humane, and enlightened.

Where does that get us?

Lloyd has written a piece for the Globe and Mail, with which I am entirely in agreement, describing the "Spreading Northern Security Plague," a virulent disease with the following symptoms: "security trumps human rights, international covenants can be disregarded, commissions of inquiry can be secretive and dismissive of rule and procedure, and vital information on crucial issues such as the transfer of Afghan detainees is deliberately withheld."

Canada’s government has a terrible track record. As noted bluntly by Justice Dennis O’Connor is his final report [.pdf], the inept collaboration of Canadian agencies with their American counterparts in supplying information that was either untrue or misleading led to Maher Arar being transported to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured. On or about the time of his return, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police misled the government about its own responsibilities in the matter, and even then, unknown leaks from government sources tried to smear Mr. Arar’s reputation, again without foundation, without acknowledgment, and without accountability. Of course, the citizens of Canada were ultimately responsible in apologizing to Mr. Arar for his ordeal and paying him compensation. We’re talking about Canada here.

Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association have been at the forefront in taking on this plague, and yet as Lloyd observes,

"It is surprising that Canada’s narrow preoccupation with security and secrecy has been allowed to go on with impunity. Public indignation and parliamentary attention have been in short supply. There has not been the kind of legal challenge to these transgressions that has recently marked efforts in the U.S., even though our Charter gives us a solid basis for judicial action."

Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, I’m just this guy, you know? And yet, acting merely as a concerned citizen, I have the privilege of being able to ask my own government, through the Access to Information Act, for information with regard to the treatment of prisoners of war taken by Canadian troops in Afghanistan, my motivation being in part to honor my family members who did the Right Thing in World War I and World War II, and partly because of the whole Nuremberg Trials business and the lessons that were supposed to have been learned for evermore. Robert Fisk quotes American human rights advocate Eva Stern in The Great War for Civilization:

"If ordinary Germans living under total oppression can be held responsible for the crimes committed by the Nazis – because they did not speak out – how much more responsible are we who live in a country where we have the freedom to speak out?"

Exactly. My own quite modest inquiry has gone on for a ridiculous 16 months, as described on a blog started to document the amazingly obtuse governmental response to any request for information about Afghan prisoners.

Having asked for such information, my concern being that Canadian troops were in breach of the Third Geneva Convention, I got the runaround; in particular, 73 pages of whiteout preceded by a letter that said nothing, the whole thing requiring nine months, multiple inquiries, and a subsequent appeal to the information commissioner of Canada that went on for a further six months, after which I received a letter telling me nothing.

So I’m taking it to court. My point is that any citizen can do the same. But very few have, apparently, at least on the Afghan issue, and I can understand why: it takes time and energy and you’re up against a bunch of people who have no scruples about using tax dollars to frustrate any citizen who wants some basic reassurance their country is obeying the law, particularly international humanitarian law. You know, this really sucks.

Lloyd, I’m going in. Cover me.