We are not yet in a constitutional crisis over the government’s refusal to release the Colvin memos to Parliament, but we probably should be. A secretive and overbearing government has turned an ordinary political dispute into an extraordinary confrontation over the powers and privileges of Parliament. Unless some compromise is found, Parliament will ﬁght, and Parliament will be right.
What began as a manageable controversy over the Harper government’s faltering attempts to deal with a problem it inherited from the Liberals—what to do with the prisoners our forces captured in Afghanistan—has been transformed, via the Conservatives’ reﬂexive paranoia and insularity, into a full-blown political debacle, complete with martyred whistle-blower, outraged former ambassadors, self-correcting generals, and befuddled ministers. And running throughout, a drumbeat of press reports contradicting virtually every aspect of the government’s story.
It now appears, contrary to the government’s repeated assurances, that at least some of the prisoners we transferred to the Afghan police and security services were tortured, or at least abused; that at least some of our troops knew this; and that serious concerns about the treatment of these prisoners, and about our own procedures for reporting on their whereabouts, were relayed to government and Defence ofﬁcials, not only from Richard Colvin, the diplomat at the centre of the storm, but from multiple sources.
None of this is evidence of a deliberate policy of transferring prisoners for torture, or even negligent disregard of their probable fate—the stuff of war crimes charges. Neither can we say for a fact that senior ofﬁcials knew prisoners were being mistreated. The facts, at least so far, remain consistent with a story of ofﬁcials’ evolving awareness of the seriousness of the problem, and of the inadequacies of their initial responses.
It was, after all, at Canada’s insistence that an agreement was ﬁrst struck with the Afghan government in December 2005, requiring that any prisoners be treated humanely according to the Geneva Conventions, and ensuring access to Red Cross inspectors at any time. As the weakness of that agreement became apparent, a new arrangement was struck in February 2007 providing for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to make inspections as well. Corrections Canada ofﬁcers were ﬂown over to make recommendations for improving Afghan prisons. And when even that proved deﬁcient (the AIHRC complained it was being denied access), after the publication in April 2007 of prisoners’ allegations of mistreatment the protocol was changed yet again, to provide for inspections by Canadian ofﬁcials.
It is legitimate to ask why it took so many months for the Harper government to arrive at the same protocol that was insisted upon by the British and Dutch forces from the start. It is equally legitimate to ask why the previous Liberal government did not simply hand any prisoners taken over to the American military, rather than gamble on the prison system of a country whose notion of justice might charitably be described as medieval. Even allowing for the confusion that typiﬁes any war zone, let alone Afghanistan, the answers might well have reﬂected poorly on both governments.
But whatever controversy might thus have been aroused would have been nothing like the ﬁrestorm in which the Conservatives now ﬁnd themselves, owing entirely to their refusal to allow the evidence to come out—a policy that, whatever its motives, has only fed suspicions of wrongdoing. If the government has nothing to hide, it sure seems determined to hide it.
It is not only Parliament, we should recall, that the government has been stonewalling. Colvin’s sensational appearance before the Commons special committee on Afghanistan only came about after the chairman of the military police complaints commission, Peter Tinsley, discontinued hearings into the treatment of Afghan detainees in the face of the government’s persistent refusal to release the relevant documents to the commission.
Obstructing the work of a quasi-judicial commission is one thing—regrettably, hardly unusual in this country, where the shutdown of the Somalia inquiry caused barely a ripple. But refusing a Commons committee’s demand for the documents—and, more remarkably, last week’s vote of the full House—is another thing again.
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