Colvin's toughest critic was an architect of Afghan detainee transfer policy

A retired diplomat quoted frequently by Conservative cabinet ministers as they try to defend the government’s handling of detainee transfers in Afghanistan was himself closely involved in developing the policy governing those transfers.

Paul Chapin told Maclean’s that as director general of the Department of Foreign Affairs international security bureau from 2003 to the fall of 2006, he worked at a senior level on the 2005 agreement under which Canadian troops turned over detainees to Afghan authorities.

“I had some significant involvement in Afghanistan-related issues,” Chapin said in an interview today.

In the House, Defence Minister Peter MacKay has approvingly quoted Chapin’s criticism of diplomat-whistleblower Richard Colvin’s case for Canadian complicity in Afghan torture as “flimsy”—without noting that Chapin has a considerable professional stake in the controversy.

In an interview today, Chapin described being involved in discussions with lawyers in Foreign Affairs and National Defence, and finally with Afghan officials, in 2005. He said he is “happy to take ownership” of that year’s detainee agreement, which included provisions for the Red Cross to be informed when Canada turned over detainees to the Afghans, but not for Canadians officials to visit detainees in the Afghan prisons.

That was the arrangement in force in 2006, when Colvin was posted to Afghanistan and soon began sending messages back to Ottawa advising senior federal officials that detainees likely faced torture in the notorious Afghan prisons.

In testimony before the House committee on Afghanistan last week, Colvin alleged that detainee transfer policy and practices were so inadequate in 2006 and 2007 that he believed all detainees turned over by Canada were tortured. He said his repeated warnings from the field were ignored and he was finally ordered to stop putting them in writing.

Chapin quickly emerged last week as arguably Colvin’s toughest critic in TV panel discussions on both CBC and CPAC. His comments were soon prominently and repeatedly cited in the House by MacKay and other Conservatives as the opinion of an independent expert.

“Mr. Speaker, let us take it out of the realm of politics. Let us take it into the realm of a quote from a senior former diplomat in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Paul Chapin,” MacKay said last Thursday during Question Period.

“Here is what he had to say yesterday about the testimony: ‘I think what set me back is how serious the allegations are and how flimsy the evidence is.’ He goes on to say: ‘It would have been rather more reassuring had [Colvin] been able to provide some of the detail that would give credibility to these very serious allegations’.”

Chapin stands by his criticisms of Colvin. His key point is that while Colvin might have collected reliable intelligence about torture in Afghan prisons, he failed to gather hard evidence that specific individuals turned over by Canada to the Afghan authorities were abused.

“There might have been a general torture problem, but was there a particular torture problem related to the numbers of Afghan detainees the Canadians had turned over?” Chapin said. “Colvin’s charge is not that there was general torture going on. His charge is that we, Canada, knowingly turned over people to be tortured. And that’s irresponsible because he has no hard evidence for that.”

Chapin said he left Foreign Affairs in the fall of 2006, and wasn’t aware then of Colvin’s memos from Afghanistan, which had begun that spring. The security bureau he headed managed many files and the matter of Afghan detainees, he said, “didn’t track very prominently on my radar.”

But he stressed that the possible abuse of detainees was well understood as a planning issue when Canada was boosting its Afghanistan troop commitment in 2005. “Given the choice of rather bad alternatives that we faced,” Chapin said, “what we came up with we thought was a very reasonable approach.”

UPDATE: For anyone interested in listening to what Paul Chapin had to say last week, here are links to the his Nov. 18 appearance on CBC’s Power & Politics with Evan Solomon and his Nov. 19 appearance on CPAC’s PrimeTime Politics with Peter Van Dusen.

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