How Canada failed Afghan detainees

Canada knowingly transferred detainees in Afghanistan to facilities where torture was rife. Since then, the Canadian government has avoided all accountability. This is our unfinished business.

By: , /
October 16, 2015
The 2,500 pages of documents the Canadian government released relating to the Afghan detainee issue. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

On or shortly before Nov. 5, 2007, during Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, two Canadian officials visited an Afghan detention facility in Kandahar to monitor the conditions of detainees who had been transferred by Canadian troops to Afghan authorities. They interviewed one detainee who said he was knocked unconscious, held to the ground, and beaten with electric wires and a rubber hose. He then pointed to a chair in the room and said the tools used to torture him were underneath it.

Under the chair, according to government documents, Canadian officials found “a large piece of braided electrical wire as well as a rubber hose,” and noted a four-inch bruise on the detainee’s back. These allegations of torture were certainly not the first to be relayed to Canadian officials, and they were not the last.

Two days later, on Nov. 7, 2007, DFAIT inter­viewed two detainees, who said they were both beaten with electric cables and forced to stand for long periods of time. One was threatened with exe­cution if he did not cooperate during his interrogation. On Nov. 10 and 11, detainees said others in the facility were abused with wires and sticks during interrogations by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS). On Nov. 27, 2007, one detainee said he was slapped during interrogation, and another said he was beaten several times with cables and told he would be killed or sex­ually assaulted. These were only some of the disturbing allegations of abuse directly communicated by detainees to Canadian officials. Others are described in a report that was recently released by the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

No one knows exactly how many Canadian-transferred detainees were tortured, disappeared or died under custody. This is partly due to the lack of a rigorous monitoring regime for the conditions of detainees, and partly due to the cloud of secrecy the government has maintained over this issue to date.

What is clear is the following: despite a flagrant human rights record in Afghan detention facilities, Canada signed two arrangements with Afghanistan to allow for transfers; relied in those arrangements on diplomatic assurances against torture, which have been shown to be unreliable in countries with consistent patterns of human rights abuses, such as Afghanistan; and made hundreds of transfers to Afghan detention facilities. Canada thus failed utterly to take credible and meaningful steps to prevent the torture of many detainees.

The prohibition of torture is one of the most basic tenets of the rule of law. If anything is a human right short of the right to life, it is surely the right not to be tortured. Under Article 3 of the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), which Canada ratified in 1987, states are barred from transferring individuals to another state if there are “substantial grounds” for believing they would be subjected to torture. Canada’s transfers of detainees thus violated the UNCAT, other international human rights treaties, and the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit parties in any armed conflict from engaging in “cruel treatment and torture” and “humiliating and degrading treatment.” It has been argued the transfers could also be in violation of some provisions of the Criminal Code and the National Defence Act.

In a recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez argued states must honour their fundamental human rights obligations in relation to the prohibition of torture while on the territory of another state, and that to suggest otherwise would produce “unconscionable and absurd results.” He further stated that the Committee Against Torture, the authoritative body that monitors compliance with the UNCAT, considers complicity to include acts of “acquiescence and concealment.”

The government of Stephen Harper vociferously resisted — and systematically blocked — all efforts at transparency and accountability. Citing operational security concerns, it refused to provide uncensored information to the public, Parliament, the Federal Court and the Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC). It used court challenges to prevent the MPCC from investigating the policy decisions behind the transfer of Canadian-held prisoners to Afghan torturers. It also thwarted an investigation by the House of Commons special committee on Afghanistan, first by refusing to disclose documents and then by shutting down the committee when the Conservatives won a majority in 2011.

How could Canada have strayed so far from its bedrock principles of respect for human rights and the rule of law? Through persistent obfuscation, Prime Minister Harper has sought to avoid any accountability for alleged grave breaches of international and Canadian laws prohibiting torture.

Only a public inquiry — if not by Harper, then by his successor — will allow us to understand what went so terribly wrong in Kandahar, and how to ensure that it never happens again. Our common humanity demands no less.