Spin overshadows policy as Afghan prisoner debate rages

OTTAWA — Federal officials assured the Red Cross in 2006 that Canada would take an active role in monitoring the fate of Afghan prisoners — but for critical months behind the scenes did little more than manage the political spin, secret memos show.

OTTAWA — Federal officials assured the Red Cross in 2006 that Canada would take an active role in monitoring the fate of Afghan prisoners — but for critical months behind the scenes did little more than manage the political spin, secret memos show.

The records, examined on a confidential basis by The Canadian Press, show the Harper government placed a greater emphasis on drafting “key messages” to the public and preparing “approaches” for embarrassing disclosures than on dealing with the human rights of prisoners.

Throughout 2006, when Canada took on its combat role in Kandahar, the International Red Cross pressed Ottawa to take more responsibility for prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers.

At the time, federal officials were receiving warnings about torture in Afghan prisoners from Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin. The Red Cross also met directly with a military lawyer, an RCMP officer, as well as another foreign affairs staffer in Kandahar.

And on Nov. 20, 2006, Foreign Affairs officials drafted talking points meant to assure officials of the humanitarian agency.

“Canada is reflecting on how to engage more pro-actively with Afghan and international authorities on the issue of treatment of detainees, including asking the Government of Afghanistan for permission to visit the prisons, discussing with Afghan authorities the process and procedures for handling and treating detainees from transfer to arrival at final detention facility, and talking to the (Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission),” say the talking points.

The document also warned officials to prepare “an interdepartmental approach” for dealing with “the potential scenario where allegations of mistreatment or torture are substantiated.”

A prisoner-transfer agreement between Ottawa and the Afghan government in December 2005 did not allow Canada the automatic right to check on the welfare of those the army had captured.

That Canada was considering even an ad-hoc monitoring regime would have been welcome news to the Red Cross.

Despite those assurances, officials in Ottawa placed the notion of formally monitoring prisoners at the bottom of a “Strategic (Macro) Level Engagement” plan produced near the end of February 2007.

No. 1 on the eight-point plan for officials was to “Prepare standard key messages (ie. importance of adhering to obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law regarding the treatment of detainees.)”

Point No. 8 in the plan was to “consider supplementing the existing arrangement” in such a way to include the “guarantee of access for Canadian authorities to individuals transferred by the (Canadian Forces).”

In March 2007, the federal government did ask the Afghan human-rights commission to check on the welfare of prisoners, but the chronically underfunded agency had trouble getting into detention centres.

The Harper government eventually decided on full-blown Canadian monitoring, but only after being rocked by published allegations that prisoners handed over to Afghan intelligence may have been abused.

Federal officials have since acknowledged in testimony before a House of Commons committee that Canada has no idea whether prisoners were tortured during the 2006-07 time frame because monitoring didn’t take place.

A respected former diplomat was aghast that “developing the spin” would take priority over dealing with an issue as urgent as possible torture.

“This is one of those situations where — once again — presentation has taken the place of substance,” said Louis Delvoie, Canada’s former high commissioner to Pakistan.

“It’s a rather sad commentary on what is taking place. You (should) deal with the substance of an issue and then you develop the communications plan as a separate and subsequent item to explain how you’re doing it and what you’re doing.”

He said this is not the kind of conduct Canadians should expect from their government in wartime.

Errol Mendes, a human-rights law expert, said the paper trail demonstrates that the Harper government viewed the war as a political exercise, where image-branding trumped policy.

“Throughout all of this the military has been used as a political prop and that is dangerous,” he said.

“Governments come and go but the military as an institution remains and the damage this kind of approach can leave is severe.”

Canada’s former top man on Afghan file, during testimony before a special House of Commons committee on Nov. 26, defended the government’s tepid response as being the result of an unpredictable insurgency and a lack of co-ordination between departments.

“The Afghanistan mission presented us with a number of challenges that none of us had ever faced before,” David Mulroney, who is now ambassador to China, told the Commons committee on Afghanistan.

“We learned every single day, talked about how we could do better, integrated best practices into our work, and refined our policies and processes in the face of an evolving series of challenges.”

But NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar doesn’t buy that argument and accused the federal government of lying to the Red Cross three years ago.

“You said you were going to fix it and you didn’t, and from where I come from that’s lying,” Dewar said Monday.

“Something as critical as human rights, you just don’t change the message, you change what you’re doing.”

The paper trail shows Canadians were presented in the fall of 2006 with an alternative to handing over prisoners to an uncertain fate in the hands of the Afghans.

Other NATO allies were clamouring to set up a prisoner camp adjacent to Kandahar Airfield.

As the winter of 2006-07 settled in, Canadian officials began to hear abuse concerns from more than just the Red Cross.

British and Dutch forces, who followed the Canadians into southern Afghanistan, were “deeply frustrated” even though their agreements with Kabul allowed them more access to prisoners.

“UK/Dutch pol/mil colleagues lament that they are unable to track their detainees,” said a Dec. 4, 2006, memo viewed by The Canadian Press.

“It is unclear whether they are tortured, held beyond legal limits, or (all too frequently) released back to battlefield.”

The Allies were worried “the detainee issue could explode at any moment into a political firestorm.”

The notion of setting up a NATO-run prison camp was sounded rejected by Canada, partly on the advice of Colvin, defence sources said.

At the time, officials were putting a lot of stock into the idea that the Afghan government would take the handling of detainees away from the National Directorate of Security and hand prisoners over to a special camp run by the army.

But Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak eventually sank the proposal.

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