Soldiers not ordered to turn a blind eye to Afghans abusing children: inquiry

Canadian Forces commanders never ordered anyone to ignore allegations of Afghan soldiers and interpreters sexually abusing children in Afghanistan 10 years ago, a military board of inquiry has concluded.

OTTAWA — Canadian Forces commanders never ordered anyone to ignore allegations of Afghan soldiers and interpreters sexually abusing children in Afghanistan 10 years ago, a military board of inquiry has concluded.

In fact, they didn’t learn of the claims — which began to surface in 2006 when several soldiers told their superiors of seeing sexual activity between Afghan soldiers and young boys — until after media reports surfaced two years later, the report said.

It wasn’t until after a soldier went public in 2008 that the military began making changes to the way such allegations are handled, and also launched an inquiry to find out exactly what had happened.

Though the inquiry wrapped up in 2010, it took six more years for the report to be made public because of the complexity of the recommendations and competing military priorities, National Defence said Tuesday in releasing the report’s findings.

The allegations did prompt changes to the rules in 2008, when the military’s operating procedures were also amended, it added.

The nature of combat and conflict in Afghanistan in the years after the allegations surfaced was also cited as one of the reasons the military didn’t react to the claims more quickly.

“The board has found that at the time this abuse was first suspected, the CF was engaged in a very difficult and dynamic operation involving significant loss of life and injuries, and that the number of serious issues requiring simultaneous resolution was high,” the summary of the report says.

Despite the six-year delay, the changes made in 2008 included a directive from the chief of defence staff at the time that soldiers had the authority and responsibility to intervene if they suspected an assault was taking place.

Pre-deployment training was also improved to give clearer guidance on the laws of Afghanistan and armed conflict, and how to handle ethical issues and potential international human rights violations — including reports of abuse of women and children in areas where the Forces were operating.

Part of the issue, the inquiry concluded, was a lack of understanding on the part of soldiers about how to deal with what they were hearing and seeing.

“Without specific orders or instruction on what practices in a foreign culture are illegal, some soldiers believed that the practice of sexually abusing children was condoned by the Afghans and was therefore not considered reportable,” the report said.

The ambiguity surrounding reporting requirements meant commanders in Ottawa never learned of the allegations, and so couldn’t take them up at senior diplomatic and defence levels.

“I welcome the findings of the (board of inquiry) and acknowledge that work needs to be done on several fronts, including the length of time it has taken us to release this report,” Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, said in a statement.

“However, I am pleased to note that the Canadian Armed Forces has already acted on many of the recommendations, which will help contribute to the safety of vulnerable populations in current and future theatres of operations.”

The military had previously concluded no Canadians or employees of Canada were involved in the sexual assault of Afghan minors.

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