Canada’s reputation has been damaged

It’s been a long march into twilight. A country that gave the world Lester Pearson’s peacekeeping and Brian Mulroney’s stand against apartheid is now struggling with Stephen Harper’s apparent blindness to compelling evidence of Afghanistan prisoner abuse.

It’s been a long march into twilight. A country that gave the world Lester Pearson’s peacekeeping and Brian Mulroney’s stand against apartheid is now struggling with Stephen Harper’s apparent blindness to compelling evidence of Afghanistan prisoner abuse.

For all its sound and fury, the counter-attack that politicians, bureaucrats and generals mounted in the last week was morally weak and legally flimsy. In struggling to sway public opinion, finely parsed denials skidded around the looming conclusion that Canada transferred prisoners into probable torture after being warned by the pre-eminent and most credible victims-of-violence organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross.

By June 2006, the federal government had a clear and urgent responsibility to halt the transfers. Instead, it waited until the following May, and after allegations made headlines, before signing a new pact with stronger safeguards.

Under international and Canadian law, that’s not nearly good enough. Accountability begins before detainees are transferred and continues after they are in Afghan control, a point the Red Cross testily made to diplomat Richard Colvin and he reported to then-foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay’s office. Errol Mendes, a University of Ottawa law professor and international criminal court expert, insists those responsibilities expose holes in explanations and testimony aired in the last week. Political and military leaders along with mandarins don’t require the hard evidence they claim was missing; they only need circumstantial evidence to be duty-bound to protect prisoners.

Afghanistan in 2006 was wallowing in that evidence. Apart from Colvin’s serial memos, NATO allies and local as well as global rights groups were waving caution flags. Even though the Red Cross didn’t apply the torture label — its mandate, understood by all governments, restricts such explosive language to reports filed to those directly involved in mistreatment — the danger was so obvious then that it changes the question Canadians need answered. It’s no longer just what the prime minister, ministers, generals and bureaucrats knew; it’s why they took so long to act?

Solving that mystery is one persuasive argument for an independent inquiry. Another is the Conservative contention that fully disclosing relevant information would jeopardize national security.

Often the last refuge of those tossing restlessly at night, the secrecy obstacle now threatening the public right to know is best removed by appointing a judge to privately review classified documents during an otherwise open process. Justice Dennis O’Connor considered far more sensitive intelligence in probing the treatment of Maher Arar and still was able to reach conclusions while guarding national interest and informant safety.

It’s important to explore the reasons for federal delay. By doing too little when so much was known, the government gambled too much. It added risk of reprisals and legal liability to the mortal hazards facing soldiers. By failing to uphold the law, it made nonsense of the mission purpose of exporting core Canadian values. Finally, it stained the reputation of a country that, along with pioneering peacekeeping and opposing South Africa’s racism, took leading roles in banning land mines and entrenching the responsibility to protect the world’s most vulnerable people.

If the prisoner problem is structural, it demands repair. If it’s political, voters need to know the truth before casting another ballot.

Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.

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