Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Torturegate: revisionist history

A CBC report today appears to place blame on the Liberals for not putting a stop to the torture of Afghan detainees when they were in power. And once again, I am forced, reluctantly, to rise to their defence.

Here are the salient bits of the report:

A Canadian diplomat with extensive experience in Afghanistan says she raised the possibility that detainees transferred from Canadian to Afghan custody were at risk of torture back in 2005, but her concerns were ignored.

...But [Eillen] Olexiuk said her advice was ignored by Paul Martin's government.

"I don't think anybody really cared, quite frankly," she said.

It was only in 2007 that allegations of torture arose in the media, with reports of transferred detainees being beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked and shocked.

After the allegations arose, Stephen Harper's newly elected Conservative government signed a transfer agreement with Afghanistan in May 2007, allowing Canadian officials to visit prisons and track detainees who had been transferred there.

Good grief. Here's what really happened, and it's all public record.

  • In a May 27, 2005 letter from [then-Foreign Affairs Minister Bill] Graham to [Paul] Martin, the former prime minister was told that Canada planned to negotiate an agreement with the Afghan government that would spell out "explicit undertakings" on how the detainees would be treated.

    The same day as the letter, Graham "authorized the Canadian Forces to seek arrangements with relevant authorities on the transfer of detainees," according to a Defence Department briefing note.

    "The Prime Minister concurred with this approach on 10 June 2005," the note states.

  • On May 31, 2005, Graham and Hillier met Afghanistan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah to discuss the possibility of a bilateral "framework agreement," according to the briefing note. In a July 28 letter, Hillier asked Graham for authority to work toward the negotiation of a bilateral agreement on the treatment of detainees.

    Graham signed off on the plan.

  • [Quoting Michael Ignatieff] On December 18, 2005, during a federal election, General Rick Hillier, then CDS, signed a detainee transfer agreement with the Afghan government.

    The ministers opposite were sworn in on February 6, 2006, and the defence minister has admitted that he heard serious allegations of detainee abuse from the moment the government took office.

The rest, as they say, is history: the abuses continued, and prevarication and cover-up remain the order of the day for a government that has been in power for over four years. As for the implied alacrity with which Harper leaped into action when torture of detainees finally surfaced in the media in 2007, Richard Colvin had been blowing the whistle since early 2006. One can readily see where Harper's concerns lay.

Was the December 2005 agreement, signed a month before the Conservatives came to power, flawed? Obviously. But it's simply not the case that concerns brought to the (Liberal) government's attention were "ignored." Indeed, I find myself wondering if Olexiuk's warnings might have been what triggered those bilateral talks with the Afghan Foreign Minister.

[H/t Holly Stick]

UPDATE/ADDENDUM: Not that the Liberals hadn't had fair warning as far back as February, 2004.

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