One of Canada’s leading security experts says explosive allegations from diplomat Richard Colvin on torture in Afghanistan are so troubling the government should now allow an impartial body to investigate his charges.
Wesley Wark, a visiting professor at University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs, who served on the federal government’s Advisory Council on National Security from 2005 until summer 2009, said he finds key aspects of Colvin’s testimony to a House committee today “troubling but doubtful.”
Colvin told MPs that while he was serving in Afghanistan, senior Canadian military and government officials failed to act on his warnings that detainees handed over to Afghanistan’s notorious prison system by Canadian troops were being tortured.
Despite being skeptical about important details in Colvin’s story, Wark said the Conservative government should either allow the federal Military Police Complaints Commission to proceed with its inquiry into the controversy, or let some other body take on the task.
The MPCC’s bid to hear Colvin’s testimony and probe his charges has been repeatedly blocked and delayed by the government’s lawyers and is now tied up in Federal Court.
“My view is that while the Colvin testimony cannot automatically be assumed to represent the whole truth, it is troubling enough that either the MPCC needs to be allowed to continue its work, or the government needs to provide an alternative vehicle to allow for an impartial investigation of the issue of Canadian policy and practice towards Afghan detainees outside the arena of partisan politics,” Wark told Maclean’s.
Wark is no stranger to Ottawa national security and intelligence circles: he has served as a consultant on intelligence policy to the Privy Council Office. He’s a longtime professor at University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies.
Wark said Colvin’s testimony amounts to saying Canadian military and civilian officials were “knowingly complicit” in torture by the Afghan National Security Directorate. He said detainee procedures in Kandahar were supposed to prevent just that sort of abuse.
“It’s important to understand the process applied in the field,” Wark said. “Suspected Taliban insurgents captured by Canadian forces were transferred by combat units as rapidly as possible into the hands of the Canadian MP detachment in Kandahar.”
He said Canadian military police then processed the detainees, gave them medical treatment, and finally transferred them to the Afghans. Canada’s agreement with Afghanistan for turning them over included an assurance that the International Committee of the Red Cross be informed and that the detainees would be properly treated.
“Colvin charges that this system either broke down or was somehow corrupted,” Wark said. “It’s impossible without further access to documents and testimony to know whether this charge is true.”
Now the question facing Prime Minister Stephen Harper is what investigative body—if any—he will allow to see those documents, hear that testimony, and ultimately get to the bottom of Colvin’s extraordinarily grave charges.