“Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.”
– Judges 12-6.
One of the greatest challenges in fighting a war against a guerilla resistance movement is that it’s almost impossible to tell enemy fighters from ordinary civilians. Wouldn’t it be handy if all your enemies had a speech impediment? Just like the Israelites in the Book of Judges, you could simply line ‘em up and cull out the lispers.
Canadian forces in Afghanistan face this problem every day. Taliban fighters look a lot like ordinary Afghans, because they are. And, unfortunately for our side, they not only look like everybody else, they talk like them too. What the army needs is a magic fairy dust they can sprinkle on suspects that can tell them who is good, and who is evil.
Enter the gunshot-residue test. Canadian soldiers carry in their kits a simple swab that can be used to tell whether a person has been handling guns or explosives. It makes identifying insurgents quite simple: you swab all the men and boys, and detain whoever tests positive.
This term ‘detain’ has a rather special meaning for Canadians in Afghanistan. There are no prisoner of war camps, no Canadian detention centres and our senior ally, the US, has enough on its hands abusing its own detainees without having to worry about ours. Canada solves the problem by handing suspects over to the Afghan authorities, in the person of the National Directorate of Security.
The system has all the no-fuss-no-muss convenience of disposable paper towels. Just swipe the handy GRT, and toss the insurgent in the trash! It works so well that, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Canadian troops hand over twice as many detainees as any of our NATO allies.
There are a few minor flaws in the GRT system. Most men in Afghanistan handle guns, whether for hunting, self-defence, insurgency, or in the service of the local warlord. The country has been at war for so long that residue from guns and explosive is everywhere and, finally, farm fertilizers may cause false positives.
When our troops do hand prisoners over the to the NDS, there are a number of things that may happen. The most likely first step is that they’ll undergo a money-residue test. If they are found to be capable of paying a bribe, they have a good chance of going free. There’s no evidence that this test distinguishes between ordinary civilians and Taliban any better than the gunshot-residue test, so it’s quite likely that some legitimate detainees are quickly back in action, shooting at Canadians again.
If a detainee fails to pass the money-residue test, he may face criminal prosecution, or he may be tortured or he may just disappear.
Reports from AIHRC, Amnesty International, Canadian diplomats, and others describe a smorgasbord of interrogation techniques, which include electric shock, beating with electrical cables and rape. A US State Department report from 2006 describes as common such practices as “pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, beatings, sexual humiliation, and sodomy.”
There are secrets yet to learn about Canada’s actions in Afghanistan, and the Harper Conservative government is determined not to let those secrets out.
This week, Peter Milliken, Speaker of the House of Commons, ruled the government must obey Parliament and hand over all documents related to detainee transfers in Afghanistan. The government is not going to obey that ruling.
Whatever is buried in those heavily redacted files, the government has done everything in its power, and a few things not technically within its powers, to prevent it from coming to light, and you can rest assured that they will continue to do so, even if it means forcing an election with their own popularity at its lowest level yet.
As the political parties battle it out, you will hear a lot of talk about parliamentary privilege, contempt of Parliament, national security, and constitutional crisis. These are all matters of the gravest importance, but they are apt to become a smokescreen for the real questions that those hidden documents have the power to answer.
There are now clear allegations, substantiated by many observers, that Canada callously delivered men into the hands of torturers who would have done the Holy Inquisition proud. It’s also alleged that we still do. There are further allegations that we have deliberately used the NDS as surrogate torturers.
If we do end up in an election because Harper flatly refuses to turn over the documents, Conservative politicians and spin doctors will do everything they can to divert attention from the real meaning of that election. They will try to make it an election about gun control, or crime or Ignatieff’s years abroad.
Don’t let them get away with it, Canada. If Harper won’t answer to Parliament, he’ll have to answer to the people. Not about the long-gun registry, not about his phony war on crime, not about the bogus recovery supposedly created by his corporate bailout schemes: it’s about the careless handling of human life, about complicity in torture, about horrible crimes, about coverup.
If we’re heading into an election over this, let’s call it like it is: it’s an election about war crimes.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.