O'Connor under fire
Contradicted by the Red Cross, the Defence Minister is accused of misleading Canadians
Kady O'Malley, Macleans.ca | Mar 09, 2007 | 18:29:39
OTTAWA - Through his tenure as Defence Minister, it has been Gordon O'Connor's best explanation as to why Canadians shouldn't worry about the handover of detainees to Afghani authorities.
The International Red Cross(ICRC), O'Connor has repeatedly said, monitored handovers and was happy with the way Canada was handling them.
"The Red Cross or the Red Crescent is responsible to supervise their treatment once the prisoners are in the hands of the Afghan authorities," he told the House of Commons last May. "If there is something wrong with their treatment, the Red Cross or Red Crescent would inform us and we would take action."
"The president of the Red Cross also said that basically our procedures are absolutely spotless, " O'Connor told reporters last month. "He's quite pleased with what we do with prisoners."
Now, such reassurances have been contradicted by the Red Cross itself - opening the door to more questions about the fate of prisoners taken by Canadian forces, and about O'Connor's future as Defence Minister.
Earlier this week, a spokesperson for the ICRC told The Globe and Mail that contrary to O'Connor's oft-repeated assurances, it has no agreement with Canada - official or otherwise - to provide followup reports on prisoners transferred into Afghani custody.
"We were informed of the [Canada-Afghanistan-detainee-transfer agreement], but we are not a party to it and we are not monitoring the implementation of it," Simon Schorno told the newspaper.
The ICRC statement came as no surprise to NDP defence critic Dawn Black, who has been pushing the government to toughen up the existing transfer agreement since she first arrived in Ottawa last year.
"It's a relief to get confirmation," Black told Macleans.ca. "I've told [O'Connor] over and over again that this isn't the role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, but he continues to articulate something that they won't, don't and can't do.
"The responsibility that the Red Cross and Red Crescent has taken is to inform the nation that has custody of the prisoners of any concerns that it might have, and they perform that role so that they continue to have access to those countries. If they were to break that covenant, and report to third parties, they wouldn't be given that access."
Given the limits on what the Red Cross can do, the NDP has called for a new transfer agreement that would give Canadian officials the power to follow up on prisoners transferred into Afghani custody. "Both the British and the Dutch have the ability to do that," said Black, who also raised the possibility of the NATO force establishing its own independent detention facility and avoiding the handover to Afghani authorities alltogether.
Either way, Black charges that O'Connor's continual misstatement of the ICRC's role suggests he is either "very badly briefed or misleading the House."
Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre is less restrained, suggesting it's all but certain O'Connor did indeed mislead the House, whether intentionally or out of ignorance.
"He tried to comfort us and to say 'don't worry, the Red Cross is monitoring everything, and if there is anything wrong, they'll come back and tell us'," Coderre said in an interview. "That's not true, period.
"When you go to the House and you're answering qeustions, at the end of the day, people are looking for answers. And even if he's incompetent or doesn't know what he's talking about, he has to come clean. You don't put the reputation of an institution like the Red Cross at stake.
Like Black, Coderre wants Canada to consider changing the agreement to allow for follow-up visits like those established by British and Dutch troops. Beyond the obvious concerns over human rights and the possibility that detainees could face torture or worse, he points out that there are also security concerns. "One of the three detainees who disappeared was supposedly a bomber," Coderre said. "If that's the case, shouldn't we be worried?"
O'Connor's office initially refused to comment on the apparent contradiction between what the minister had told the House and what the Red Cross told the Globe. Late on Thursday, however, spokesperson Isabelle Bouchard emailed a brief statement from O'Connor acknowledging that he had gotten it wrong. "It was my understanding that the ICRC could share information concerning detainee treatment with Canada," it stated. "I have recently learned that they would, in fact, provide this information to the detaining nation, in this case Afghanistan."
Given the controversy over the treatment of the three missing detainees at the centre of the prisoner abuse allegations that surfaced in late January, this latest development may compel the government to reexamine the existing policy on prisoner transfer. But even if Canada were to negotiate an agreement similar to the British and Dutch forces, it might not be enough to alleviate some critics' concerns over the treatment of detainees in Afghani custody.
"It always seemed like a cop-out to turn over prisoners like that when there are the different tribal, ethnic and linguistic divisions," military analyst and former soldier Scott Taylor, who publishes Esprit du Corps, told Macleans.ca this week. "I knew there was a problem right from the beginning, when we said we were turning them over to the Afganistan security forces.
"At least eight percent of the police force is illiterate, so the idea that there would be a paper trail is naive to the extreme, even for us ... But in that sort of world, we sort of transpose our societal norms, and assume that the same ones exist there, where there's no mail service and central phone service."
No matter how many assurances the Canadians may have been given about follow-up reports, Taylor suggested, it would be virtually impossible to track anyone down. "I can't think of a better place to disappear into than Afghanistan," he said.
Taylor doesn't just blame O'Connor - not when it was the previous government that made the decision to transfer prisoners to Afghani custody rather than handing them over to the United States.
"We didn't want them to go to Gitmo," Taylor said, "And now there's this assumption that we've got a democratically elected government - but even so, it's surrounded by warlords. Paper work isn't their strong suit, and human rights isn't in their vocabulary, so they probably assumed that we wanted these detainees killed or had a score to settle.
Taylor points to a recent hunger strike in a Kabul prison. "That's one of the prisons we're turning over prisoners to, and they're on a hunger strike," he said. "Even normal life is pretty damn tough, so if those prisoners think it's tougher than it has to be, it's got to be pretty damn bad. If we were to put in place something similar to own standards for a jail, people would be knocking themselves down to get in - what we give a prisoner in Kingston would be a lifelong dream for these guys."