Time for truth about torture

One man has Canada in an uproar. Former second-in-command at the Canadian embassy in Kabul, Richard Colvin, told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa that all detainees handed over to the Afghanistan government by Canadian soldiers were abused. The opposition parties have called for a public inquiry, but the Harper government has called Colvin's testimony into question. Now, Canada must yet again have a serious discussion about its role in Afghanistan.

Colvin sat before the parliamentary committee and flatly stated: "According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure." He alleged that the abuse included beatings and rape. Colvin also revealed that he wrote 16 reports that detailed his doubts about the programme that failed to follow up on detainees once they were turned over to Afghan officials. Those reports, he claims, were ignored, or actively silenced. The reply to all of this from Canada's defense minister Peter MacKay was one of dismissal. "There has not been a single, solitary proven allegation of abuse involving a transferred Taliban prisoner by Canadian forces," he said. The opposition parties roundly booed him.

The issue of Canada's role in the treatment of Afghan detainees is not a new one. The 2005 agreement that Canada signed with the government of Afghanistan on detainee transfers did not account for Canadian monitoring of the detainees once they were in the hands of Afghan authorities. By 2007, reports surfaced of detainee abuse, and public opinion forced the Harper government to suspend, and later change, the detainee transfer program. Still, in 2008, federal court justice Anne Mactavish remained concerned, citing the fact that some detainees had disappeared and suggesting that Afghanistan's history of human rights violations was reason to worry that torture had taken place. Though the federal government failed to admit that abuse had occurred, both it and the federal court recognised that detainee abuse was a concern.

Which makes the government's current position strange. MacKay spent his Thursday afternoon on the major Canadian news networks, attempting to undermine Colvin's testimony. But given Colvin's high rank and non-partisan position, it seems difficult to imagine what Colvin might have to gain from lying. Were his concerns ignored and silenced? Or does the fact that he forwarded them at all suggest that he was not under a very strict gag order? And what of his claims that all detainees were subjugated to abuse or torture? Are they overblown or accurate? MacKay suggested that corroborating evidence is needed in order to launch a public inquiry. True, but that suggests this is a new problem with no past evidence to support Colvin's claim. It isn't. This is becoming an uncomfortable ongoing issue for Canadians, and we deserve to know what happened.

A public inquiry is necessary. Taking this discussion outside of partisan bickering in the House seems essential to finding out what Colvin knew, who else might have known what he did, and what role - if any - Canada has played in the abuse of Afghan civilians. Colvin's allegations point to moral corruption - that's not what Canadians were told would be achieved in Afghanistan. As it does for Britain or the US, Canada's role in Afghanistan walks a fine line between defining who we want to be, and the kind of criminals we're supposed to be fighting against. We need to know which side we're walking on.

Colin Horgan, a Vancouver-based freelance writer.