When it became absolutely clear that US President George W. Bush had lied to the American people about the reasons for invading Iraq, cars around the States began to sport a bumper sticker that read, Clinton Lied, Nobody Died.
The country that had dedicated so much anger against former president Bill Clinton and his sexual escapades had suddenly come to realize that there are lies and there are damn lies, and then there are lies about war crimes.
Last week, Canada awoke to the same conclusion.
In December 2005, unburdened by political oversight, Canadian Chief of Staff General Rick Hillier signed a deal to turn Canadian prisoners over to Afghan authorities.
Unlike other NATO countries, Canada did not attach conditions to the deal allowing it to monitor its detainees for such things as prisoner abuse, torture and summary execution.
Hillier knew that our Afghan allies torture, that they detain prisoners without due process, and that people die or simply disappear from their prisons.
He clearly didn’t give a damn what happened to the Taliban he had already dismissed as “evil” and “scumbags”, nor did he give a thought to the many innocents who are the inevitable by-catch of war’s wide net. Hillier knows that the War on Terror’s gulag is full of men whose enemies turned them in for profit or revenge.
He knows that along with the scumbags he so easily demonizes and condemns to torture are men who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To the extent that Hillier has a boss, he is Gordon O’Connor, Canada‘s minister of Defence.
It’s doubtful whether O’Connor interferes much in Hillier’s war, his only obvious role being to deal with the political fallout back home.
Confronted by the opposition with a year-old diplomatic report detailing abuse and torture in Afghanistan’s prison system, O’Connor first denied the document’s existence, and then finally released it, with all references to torture blacked out.
He claimed to know that detainees delivered into Afghan hands by Canadian troops were being treated within the law, because they were being monitored by the Red Cross.
Challenged after three prisoners who were witnesses in abuse allegations against Canadian soldiers had disappeared in an Afghan prison, O’Connor said, “If there is something wrong with their treatment, the Red Cross or Red Crescent would inform us and we would take action.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross never reports on conditions inside prisons or detention camps.
Its mandate is to care for the suffering.
If it became a human rights monitor it would soon lose access to the secret places where many of the suffering are to be found.
O’Connor was a 30-year career officer, and retired a brigadier general.
His claim to ignorance on such a common piece of knowledge defies credulity.
When the ICRC made it clear that it never has and never will monitor Canada’s detainees in Afghanistan’s prisons, O’Connor switched to story B: the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission monitors the prisoners, and all is well.
Not so, says Abdul Qadar Noorzai, the Kandahar regional head of the AIHRC, who told Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith, “The NDS is torturing detainees, 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.”
Smith also gained access to 30 men who had been detained by Canadian troops and who had ended up in the hands of the NDS, Afghanistan’s secret police.
The men reported having been “beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked and subjected to electric shocks during interrogation.”
Smith met these products of Canada’s detainee policy face to face, and describes them as “broken husks” of men, with “quiet voices and trembling hands” who can’t sleep, who complain of chronic pain, and who “forget the simplest things, such as remembering to pull down their pants when they use the toilet.”
When these shattered men are transferred out of the torture chambers other prisoners and prison officials complain that they’re “left with the chores of washing, dressing, and feeding them.”
To hand prisoners over into such conditions is a gross violation of international law.
Confronted with evidence that the Canadian military may be involved in war crimes, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and I mean this literally, shrugged.
Taunting that the opposition must care more about the Taliban than about Canadian troops to raise the question of torture at all he said, “These are merely allegations being made by the Taliban, I don’t accept allegations without evidence from the Taliban.”
Harper has seen plenty of evidence of torture in Afghan prisons.
In addition to Canada’s own consular reports and the AIHRC’s complaints of restricted access, you can be sure he’s aware of the human rights assessment released by the US State department in March, which reports “pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, beatings, sexual humiliation, and sodomy” in the very prisons to which we consign our detainees.
O’Connor’s last-minute claim to have signed a deal giving Canada access to its detainees looks like more bluffing.
Hurriedly inked with local Kandahar officials, the deal gives no access to detainees who are removed from that province, as many NDS prisoners are.
It falls far short of the agreements the Dutch and the British insisted on before agreeing to hand over prisoners, and even those are of questionable value, observers report, because they don’t permit surprise visits.
Handing over prisoners to torturers is not just a stain on the alleged campaign to liberate Afghan women and build hospitals and protect freedom and democracy.
It’s part and parcel of the War on Terror, a bloody struggle for control of some of the world’s most strategic real estate, fought largely in secret, with butchers, torturers and war criminals on both sides.
The government of Canada lies about what happens in Afghanistan because it has to.
The truth is criminal.