Richard Colvin and Afghan torture

By Dennis Gruending

Richard Colvin testifies on Parliament HillRichard Colvin, a Canadian diplomat who served in Afghanistan, has blown the whistle on our government’s complicity in the torture of Afghans taken prisoner by Canadian soldiers and turned over to the notorious prison authorities. The International Red Cross, Amnesty International and the Dutch military have had similar concerns. The Conservative government responded to Colvin’s allegations, in the words of The Globe and Mail newspaper, with a strategy of “deny, delay, disparage.” Defence Minister Peter McKay has been bobbing and weaving, saying at first that he never saw Colvin’s dispatches from Afghanistan, then admitting he did but that what he saw contained no useful information. The Prime Minister, as is his wont, went into full attack mode, describing Colvin as a dupe of the Taliban. Similarly, three military generals, including Rick Hillier, former chief of defence staff, were trotted out before a parliamentary committee to deny Colvin’s allegations and to dump on his competence – what else would we expect generals to do in a time of war?  Colvin was a trusted civil servant and following his tour in Afghanistan he was placed as an intelligence officer at the Canadian embassy in Washington, but one now wonders for how long.

Canadians have seen through the lies and personal attacks. A poll taken by Harris-Decima as the controversy raged in November indicated that 51% believed Colvin’s claims and only 25% believed the government’s spin that Colvin was not credible. On the other hand, it is disturbing to read letters to the editor and online responses indicating that some Canadians really don’t care what happens to Afghans taken into custody. These letter writers appear to agree with Rick Hillier that our troops are dealing with “scumbags” – although even Hillier would have to acknowledge that this is occurring in their country, far from our shores.

“Illiberal democracy”

The point here is not so much to rail at obfuscation, lies and character assassination accompanying this tawdry affair, but rather to say that when Canada is engaged in a war our habitual democratic practices are inevitably one of the casualties. The eminent British writer John Gray says in his book Black Mass that in the post 911 era the United States is an “illiberal democracy in which elections take place against a background of diminished freedom.” The so-called war on terror, which is so broadly conceived that it may well lead to a state of perpetual conflict, provides the excuse for the American government to do almost anything: to invade and occupy other countries; to kill and main civilians as the inevitable collateral damage; to hold prisoners for long periods without trial, as has been the case in the Guantanamo prison; to torture prisoners directly, as the Americans have done, although they won’t admit it; to turn prisoners over to other regimes that specialize in cruelty and torture; to spy on America’s citizens at home; and to trample on their hard won civil liberties. It is not a pretty picture and Canada is deeply involved.

John Gray describes the war on terror as a dangerous delusion. It is used as a pretext by governments, he writes, to “demand freedom from the constraints that have developed over many centuries to curb the exercise of power.” In Canada, the Chretien government passed the Anti-Terrorism Act in December 2001, allowing police to arrest suspects without a warrant and detain them without charges.  The law also allowed a judge to compel a witness to testify in secret in the interest of protecting national security. The legislation was in force for five years and had to be reviewed at the end of that time. The Harper government wanted to extend the bill’s provisions in 2007 but was unable to do so in the face of opposition from other parties in a minority government.

It was the RCMP in Canada, in cooperation with the FBI, that sent Maher Arar to be tortured in Syria, and it took a full public inquiry to get to the bottom of the lies and stonewalling engaged in by our police force, bureaucrats and politicians. The Liberals were in power when Arar and several other Canadians of Arab descent suffered similar, if less serious, ordeals. These people include Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen who travelled back to his native Sudan, was accused of having ties to terrorism, and spent years living at the Canadian embassy because our government would not allow him to come home. Eventually, in 2008 a Federal Court judge ordered Abdelrazik returned within 30 days, saying that the government had breached his constitutional rights by not giving him an emergency passport to fly home.

The list goes on. Adil Charkaoui, a Morrocan-born Canadian, was arrested by the Canadian government in 2003 under a security certificate, which prohibited him or his lawyers from examining evidence used to issue that certificate. He was detained without charge or trial but later released from prison. His bail conditions included a curfew and electronic monitoring and 24-hour police access to his home without warrant. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that his charter rights had been violated and he was ordered released from his curfew and electronic monitoring.

War without end

When Canada went to war in 1914 and in 1939, the enemy was clearly defined as Germany and Austria-Hungary in the first case, and Germany, Italy and eventually Japan in the second. Our government issued Draconian wartime measures, including conscription and the internment of Japanese and other citizens. Now we are in a war not against states but against shadowy sub-state actors and it is quite possibly a war without end.

We have been in Afghanistan almost eight years, a period longer than our engagement in either of the world wars, and we are not planning to leave until 2011, if then. Our government even refuses to tell us the cost of the war, citing national security reasons. But an estimate provided in 2008 by the independent budget officer for parliament concluded that the total cost would be between $14 and $18 billion by the planned withdrawal in 2011. To put that in context, the entire budget of the province of Saskatchewan for 2009-10 was $10.2 billion.

Our complicity with torture in Afghanistan is unsavoury at best and contravenes international conventions. Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom says the Afghan prisoner scandal, at bottom, is about who Canadians are. “Are we the kind of people who don’t care when people are tortured? Or are we the kind of people who do?” It is entirely possible that our government and its agencies will become even more cynical, manipulative and authoritarian. It’s something for citizens to think about and to oppose. We Canadians talk glibly about our democracy as if it were a perfect system set in place for all time. That is not necessarily the case.

One thought on “Richard Colvin and Afghan torture

  1. I retain optimism that, basically, we’ll figure this out for next time.

    Setting conscription aside, we (most of us) learned after the World Wars that interning Canadians of the same descent as our enemies was unacceptable. I think we have to work towards, and hope, that we’ll learn from the excesses of the aftermath of 9/11.

    However, it’s only most of us that learned those lessons. There were people agitating (or at least willing to consider), publicly and privately, internment of the religion and race considered “responsible” for terrorist attacks. But we didn’t do that, because we ignored those lesser voices. And those are the ones who troll on comment boards writing despicable statements.

    Our job isn’t to convince them that they’re wrong; it’s to make sure that people who are less certain of the importance of civil liberties than we are don’t end up being swayed by regressive manipulators.


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