Our Afghan disgrace.
Torture is beyond the pale for Canadians. It's what other countries do.
The high-water mark in anti-American sentiment in Canada was the Abu Ghraib revelations, and subsequent reports of torture - "coerced interrogation" - at Gitmo that so tarnished America's reputation worldwide. What the Bush administration did was not just a recruiting tool for terrorists, not only a justification for race-based murder by others from the Golan Heights to Darfur. It undercut America's ability to project moral authority when the world needed it, as it so often has in the past.
It was the U.S. that pushed for the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and for the creation of the U.N. itself, of course). America was the driving force behind the creation of the Geneva Accords. The official field manuals of every branch of the U.S. armed services counsels against torture, because (a) it doesn't work, (b) it invites retribution by the enemy on one's own captured comrades, and (c) it denies you the high moral ground, the place you want to be in negotiating the hoped-for peace.
Well, it turns out that Canada - squeaky clean Canada - is complicit in torture, as well. International law and custom finds guilty not just those who torture but who deliver people into the hands of those known to commit torture. And this, from well-informed sources including one of our most accomplished diplomats, is what we did in Afghanistan roughly in the years 2004-07. We handed over suspected Taliban fighters and other Afghans - some of them innocent civilians swept up in raids - into the hands of the Afghan National Army, known in London, Amsterdam, Washington, Oslo and everywhere geopolitics is studied and practiced to be inveterate torturers.
This is an Afghan army, recall, that Canadians are training and equipping even now. This same army is characterized as cutting and running, going AWOL in order to murder political enemies, that is complicit in the world's biggest opium trade, that is a branch of the corrupt Karzai regime, and that switches sides and kills Canadians and other ISAF forces on receipt of higher pay from Taliban insurgents than what Kabul pays them.
The Afghan army is no army at all. Yet a key part of our Afghan mission has been, and remains, to train it.
We peel the layers off the onion and learn that Richard Colvin, one our top envoys in Afghanistan, in scores of private dispatches to his superiors at Foreign Affairs and to foreign policy advisors reporting directly to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the PMO, warned that we were condemning our Afghan detainees to torture in routinely handing them over to the Afghan "army."
We learn that back in 2007, Amnesty International and a B.C. civil rights group worked valiantly but in vain to get full disclosure of what our government knew about this intolerable practice in the field. We learn that Canada's current Chinese envoy was employed by Harper to keep Colvin's revelations from reaching the Canadian public. And we know, as Chantel Hebert reports, that only a cover-up conspiracy among the PM and other MPs who simply had to know about this inexcusable conduct has kept under covers an outrage that lowers Canada's moral standing to the same depths as America's since the initial Abu Ghraib revelations.
Not that Harper has ever been effective in hectoring the Chinese about their civil-rights abuses. But he's become a laughingstock on that score, not only in Beijing but globally. What we as everyday Canadians are just beginning to learn about our effective "renditioning" of suspected Taliban insurgents to the tender mercies of an underpaid, undertrained and undersupervised Afghan army that occupies its many spare hours in the abuse and torture of others is a stain on Canadian civility long known in world diplomatic and military circles. And of course in Ottawa, too, busily covering up the truth rather than confronting it and eradicating unspeakable practices committed in the name of our country.
Richard Nixon was driven from office not for bugging the Watergate or ransacking a psychiatrist's files, but for covering up those and other breaches of his oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution that he ordered or condoned. I'm having great difficulty making a distinction between the actions of the paranoid Nixon and the transparency-phobic Harper.
It so happens, in a very unfortunate turn, that our misbegotten military mission in Afghanistan was launched by the opposition Liberals when they were last in power. Dressed up as a humanitarian mission, in which it was made clear to Canadians that fellow Canadians were likely to die, it was in fact a self-interested fence-mending exercise with the Bush administration, penance for our failure to join the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. These same Liberals are currently led by a self-styled civil-rights champion who argued passionately for an unprovoked invasion of an Iraq, hoodwinked by the lies about Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. And Ignatieff also argued that there are occasions when forms of "torture light" are sadly necessary.
There is no "torture light," just as there is no "pregnancy light." Torture is torture. Ignatieff condoned it. Like the disgraced James Peter Galbraith, he was among those muddled liberals naive enough to think that toppling Saddam would bring about peace in the Middle East, rather than lifting the lid, Balkans' style, on centuries of mutual hatreds. And playing to his U.S. audience as a Harvard professor, Ignatieff argued for inhumane methods of interrogation at a time of heightened U.S. alarm about national security post-9/11. That was music to the ears of the Bush administration, and Dick Cheney in particular, who cited this unsolicited but welcome endorsement of their foulest deeds by misguided liberals. Apart from Ignatieff's addled everyday botching of his current job, his cluelessness about geopolitics - traditionally an era of strength for Canada, dating at least since Lester Pearson was at External Affairs - disqualifies him to lead a major national party of a G-8 nation. There's too much at stake for Canada in this new century to have the office of the official opposition occupied by this intellectual poseur.
So that leaves the NDP to lead a charge to get the whole sordid truth of Canadian prisoner abuse into public view, so that those who betrayed Canadian values and then elaborately covered up what they were doing is revealed in every detail. Why the NDP (and perhaps the Bloc, which also has usefully demanded a public inquiry)? Because only the NDP has been right about Afghanistan all along, objecting to a military deployment with no clear sense of mission, and bound to do more damage than good. Which is how it has manifestly turned out, with Canadian complicity in torture added to the mix of the ISAF's utter inability to contain, much less weaken, the Taliban now in evidence throughout Afghanistan.
We're at a decisive point in our history. As citizens we can demand a full public inquiry into our detainee practices, and how exactly the Harper government responded to the constant flow of internal reports warning it of what was being done in Canada's name.
Or we can let it pass. "War is hell" and all that.
The only thing at stake is our values as Canadians. Or reverence for civility and human rights. If we let this pass, it will happen again. And again. Attention must be paid, and the malefactors brought to justice. If the Harper government can cover up its knowledge and tacit approval of torture, it can and will lie to us about every lesser thing.
* Chantel Hebert (Toronto Star): Impossible for MPs to be out of the loop on torture allegations.
* Rick Salutin (Globe and Mail): Our own little Abu Ghraib.