In the first few months of 2007, the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan was discussed during 14 sessions of Question Period: February 6, February 12, February 13, February 21, February 27, March 1, March 2, March 19, March 20, March 21, March 22, March 23, March 26 and March 29. It was on the morning of March 19, that Gordon O’Connor apologized to the House for misleading it about the monitoring of detainees by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Herein, a collection of some of the relevant exchanges during this period.
February 13, 2007
Hon. Denis Coderre (Bourassa, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, it has been more than a week since the Minister of National Defence avoided our question on detainee abuse in Afghanistan. Even the chairman of the Military Police Complaints Commission has said: –the relevant military authorities have already had considerable opportunity to initiate internal processes, but have waited until this public complaint to do so. Could the minister explain to the House why he failed to act sooner? Why the cover-up?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I completely reject any idea of a cover-up in our department. Three investigations are going on right now: the military investigation service, a board of inquiry and now the Military Police Complaints Commission. They are all unfettered as they carry on with their investigations. Whatever results they find will be published and the public will be aware of them.
Hon. Denis Coderre (Bourassa, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, on the issue of the abuse that some Afghan detainees have suffered, the behaviour of the Minister of National Defence is cause for concern. He is in the know, he has received documents. There is proof that he receives reports every time detainees are transferred. Now, he is refusing to answer, because he is hiding behind the investigations. Given that he knows more than he is letting on, how will he respond to these investigations? Is he willing to testify? Is he willing to release the documents? Is he willing to tell us what he knows, or will he stick his head in the sand as usual?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I can assure this House that at no time was I aware of any abuse of prisoners, period. I will remind this House that three investigative activities are going on right now: the National Investigation Service, the Board of Inquiry and the Military Police Complaints Commission. They will get to the bottom of it.
February 21, 2007
Ms. Caroline St-Hilaire (Longueuil—Pierre-Boucher, BQ): Mr. Speaker, the federal government committed to ensuring that Afghan prisoners would not be tortured and that they would be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention until their transfer to Afghan authorities. Amnesty International deplores the lack of compliance with that convention. Can the Minister of National Defence tell us why Canada refuses to follow the example of the Netherlands, which obtained the right to follow up on prisoners transferred to Afghan authorities, in order to ensure that they are treated humanely, that they are not tortured and that their rights are respected?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the current arrangement for detainees was made by the previous government. In that agreement, the International Committee of the Red Cross is mandated to visit and monitor detainees to ensure that they are treated in accordance with the standards of the Geneva Convention. The arrangement also recognizes the role of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission with respect to human rights and detainees. Last fall the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross said that Canada was scrupulous in notifying the Red Cross when it took prisoners and handed them over. We are satisfied with the current arrangements.
Ms. Caroline St-Hilaire (Longueuil—Pierre-Boucher, BQ): Mr. Speaker, in addition to Amnesty International, Louise Arbour, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that cases of extortion, torture, prolonged imprisonment without trial, and the systematic violation of the rule of law are frequent. The U.S. Department of State has reached the same conclusions.Given these worrisome findings, what is the Minister of National Defence waiting for to put an end to his wilful blindness and immediately emulate the approach taken by the Netherlands with respect to the transfer of prisoners to Afghan authorities?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, we are in Afghanistan in support of the Afghan government. When lawbreakers come into our hands, we hand them over to the proper authorities. As I previously explained, they are handed over with all the protections of international laws on prisoners.
March 19, 2007
Hon. Sue Barnes (London West, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, Britain and The Netherlands have agreements in place that allow them to verify that transferred prisoners receive proper treatment, but Canada does not. When will the defence minister take steps to give Canada the same authority as Britain and The Netherlands?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, Great Britain and The Netherlands use the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to monitor the activities of detainees in the Afghan system and we will also.
Hon. Sue Barnes (London West, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, four prisoners are missing and Canada has no guaranteed system in place to ensure that prisoners are receiving proper treatment. The government and the defence minister owe Canadians and the House of Commons an explanation about what steps the government has taken to ensure that prisoners are not being mistreated. More particularly, what is the government’s plan if there is evidence that prisoners are being tortured?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has assured us that it will report any abuse of prisoners. It is able to monitor all the prisoners. If it finds abuse, we have asked that it report that abuse to us and we will deal with the Afghan government.
Hon. Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, now that the International Committee of the Red Cross has forced the Minister of National Defence to correct the record and confirm that it has no role in the monitoring of the Canada-Afghanistan detainee transfer agreement, can the minister tell Canadians what immediate steps he is taking to verify that detainees captured by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and transferred to Afghan authorities are being properly treated?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, we have engaged the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. It will monitor detainees within the Afghan system and it will report to us any abuses.
March 21, 2007
Mr. Claude Bachand (Saint-Jean, BQ): Mr. Speaker, when questioned, the Minister of National Defence insisted that he never discussed Afghanistan with the president of the Red Cross when they met last fall. Even though he has often indicated that the Red Cross was in charge of monitoring the orderly transfer of detainees to Afghan authorities, it has never occurred to the minister to discuss the matter with him. What did they talk about? Did they talk about the scheduling of blood banks in Canada or about the registering process for first aid courses?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, our government is committed to ensure that detainees are treated properly in Afghanistan. That is why we have made a recent agreement with the human rights commission, which will go into the Afghan system and verify that detainees are treated properly.
Mr. Claude Bachand (Saint-Jean, BQ): Mr. Speaker, might I remind the minister that he has mislead this House not just once but several times. In so doing, he has broken the trust we had in his word. The minister should not delude himself into thinking that he will get off the hook that easily. It would be too easy to twist the truth, misinform the House and simply apologize for all to be forgotten. Well, we will not stand for that. What is the minister waiting for to resign?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, as I said, we have recently signed an agreement with the Afghan Human Rights Commission. That commission will go into the Afghan system and monitor our detainees to see how they are treated. Meanwhile, I was in Afghanistan last week with our hard-working troops. I met the Afghan human rights representative. He gave me his personal assurance that the Afghans can do what we ask of them.
Ms. Francine Lalonde (La Pointe-de-l’Île, BQ): Mr. Speaker, because the agreement between Canada and Afghanistan is inadequate, the Canadians Forces have no idea how the individuals they have turned over to Afghan authorities so far have been treated. Instead of directing his efforts at trying to justify his lack of action, what is the Minister of Foreign Affairs waiting for to follow the lead of the Netherlands and enter into an agreement with Afghanistan, whereby the government would be kept abreast of how the individuals captured are being treated and could intervene in this regard? It is the responsibility of the Minister of Foreign Affairs to enter into such agreements. Let him take his responsibilities.
Hon. Peter MacKay (Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I believe that the Minister of National Defence has answered that question. The situation is clear. There is now more protection afforded to those in such situations in Afghanistan. I am convinced that the Minister of National Defence now has the control and information necessary to monitor the situation.
Ms. Francine Lalonde (La Pointe-de-l’Île, BQ): Mr. Speaker, I know that the Minister of Foreign Affairs does not want to get involved and would rather let his colleague, the Minister of National Defence, deal with the problem but, logically, the Minister of Foreign Affairs should be the one signing agreements with foreign countries. In fact, in the United States, Condoleeza Rice, whom the minister is rather fond of, is the one who signs those kinds of agreements. What is the minister waiting for to sign a comprehensive agreement with the Afghan authorities to meet our international obligations?
Hon. Peter MacKay (Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, CPC): Mr. Speaker, just to inform the hon. member, it was actually the Chief of the Defence Staff who signed the original agreement. Since that time, we know the Minister of National Defence has travelled to Afghanistan and met with the necessary officials from the human rights commission there. The Minister of National Defence has this clearly in hand. He knows now what the situation was that had to be addressed. He has taken action on that. The government stands four-square behind its Minister of National Defence who is doing a great job on behalf of Canadians.
March 22, 2007
Hon. Denis Coderre (Bourassa, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, with his disgraceful reaction to the issue of Taliban prisoners of war yesterday in the House, the Prime Minister once again tarnished Canada’s reputation on the world stage. I would like to remind him that there are now four Taliban fighters back in hiding who will surely attack our men and women at the earliest opportunity. Does the Prime Minister not realize that his disgraceful conduct yesterday sends the wrong signal to the international community that Canada does not respect the Geneva Convention? Does he not know that taking this position could put the lives of our soldiers in great danger by inflaming our enemies and turning the Afghan people against us?
Hon. Peter Van Loan (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform, CPC): Mr. Speaker, we would send the wrong signal if we said, like the Liberal Party, that we do not stand behind our troops. We will stand behind our troops. We will ensure that they have in place what they need to protect themselves and ensure that they are protecting Afghan detainees under the Geneva Convention. That is why we are pleased that under this government an agreement was negotiated with the Afghan independent human rights commissioner in order to allow access to detainees and to report back on that to the Canadian government if there is any evidence of any mistreatment.
Hon. Denis Coderre (Bourassa, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, not only do we have an irresponsible Prime Minister, but we also have an incompetent, negligent Minister of National Defence who is incapable of handling matters transparently, who is incapable of fulfilling his duties, and who has deceived the people. I have here the Canadian Forces’ code of honour, which talks about duty, loyalty, integrity and courage, and, most importantly, about honour and duty with honour. This is the military ethic, the warrior’s honour. Will the Minister of National Defence practice what he preaches, act according to his military ethic, and prove that he still has a sense of honour by resigning?
Hon. Gordon O’Connor (Minister of National Defence, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I think I do follow that code and that is why I take responsibility. However, let me remind the member that we will protect detainees within the Afghan prison system. We have recently made an arrangement with the Afghan Human Rights Commission. It has undertaken to supervise the treatment of detainees and that will give us some degree of comfort.
March 23, 2007
Hon. Marlene Jennings (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, the minister’s incompetence is astounding. Yesterday, he affirmed that Canadian troops and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission were going to supervise detainees in prisons. Yet, the United Nations Secretary-General said, and I quote: Access remains a problem for the commission. The minister still does not know all the facts and continues to speak nonsense. When will he resign?
Hon. Peter Van Loan (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the government is very proud of the excellent work of our Minister of National Defence and I think most Canadians are very proud as well. We have entered into an agreement that ensures that the independent human rights commission has the opportunity to investigate and report back to us on any reports or any questions on the treatment of detainees. Of course, the original agreement with the Afghan government ensured that the International Committee of the Red Cross also had the same type of access. As a result, we are satisfied that the protection of detainees is ensured under the Geneva Convention.