Thursday, May 10, 2007

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's team has disgraced itself; Conservatives have shamed Canadians on Afghan prisoner-transfer file

Harper's shabby Afghan shuffle - opinion - opinion

May 04, 2007

After weeks of uproar in Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has finally taken ownership of the Afghan prisoner-transfer file.

But the damage was done by the time Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay belatedly stood yesterday in the Commons to confirm that Ottawa has signed a frantically improvised "enhanced agreement" with the Afghans that will at last give Canada "full, unrestricted and private access" to detainees to ensure they are not tortured.

The Tories' healthy lead in opinion polls last month, which was close to the 40 per cent mark needed to form a majority government, has collapsed to 30 per cent, tied with the Liberals, Decima Research reports.

Little wonder, given that the Conservatives have been sloppy managers of Canada's most significant foreign policy commitment, involving more than $1 billion in aid and 2,500 combat troops. Their attempt to shuffle off responsibility for detainees has tarnished our image as a staunch defender of international law and human rights. That has not enhanced our credibility with the Afghan people and has raised fears our troops might be violating the Geneva Conventions by delivering prisoners to torture.

Nor can the Tories claim they weren't warned. More than a year ago, the Star asked: "Will Canadian troops in Afghanistan find themselves handing over Taliban or Al Qaeda suspects to torture, or worse, as they play a bigger role there? The answer should be obvious, but unfortunately isn't."

At the time, the Star urged Ottawa to strengthen a weak 2005 prisoner transfer pact negotiated under the Liberals. The Dutch have always required the Afghans to keep records of detainees, to allow "full access," and to serve notice of trials, transfers and releases.

Yet it took an uproar in Parliament over claims by Taliban detainees that they had been beaten and shocked to shake the Tories from their torpor to draw up a Dutch-style "supplementary arrangement." That, plus the Tory slump in the polls and Amnesty International's court challenge.

For days, the Conservatives tried to deny a problem existed. They accused the Liberals and other opposition parties of being disloyal, of being Taliban dupes, of sapping troop morale. They claimed no knowledge of "specific" instances of torture, when they had evidence that torture was pervasive. And they trotted out farcically incoherent, contradictory and dissembling explanations of our policy.

However, the new prisoner transfer pact, with its improved protections, shatters their claim that all was well.

While the new deal is welcome, Harper's team disgraced itself in this fiasco. Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor was missing in action, when he wasn't sowing confusion. Public Security Minister Stockwell Day hid behind obtuse non-replies. MacKay seemed confused, for the most part.

Even now, Canadians still do not know how many detainees our troops have taken, how exactly they have been handled, who those detainees are or where they may be. Canadians have no assurance they have not been abused. The Tories themselves do not know, because they chose not to know. They handed off that job to the understaffed and ineffective Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Only under intense pressure have the Tories grudgingly assumed moral ownership of this file.

Better late than never, but it was unconscionably late.

The Conservatives have shamed Canadians and undermined their own credibility with this shabby performance. Their casual disregard for human rights is at odds with Canada's honourable tradition of advancing such rights. If the Afghan debacle is a dismal chapter in Conservative party history, it is also an instructive one.


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