Monday, March 19, 2007

O'Connor Apologizes: Too little, too late

Gordon O'Connor recently got his lying ass handed to him on a plate when it was revealed that he had misled parliament about the role the ICRC supposedly had in overseeing the transfer of detainees in Afghanistan from our troops to Afghan officials - a practice that has resulted in allegations from at least 18 men that they were abused at the hands of those officials.

O'Connor was forced to apologize and did so in the house today.

"I fully and without reservation apologize to the House for providing inaccurate information for members," O'Connor said Monday in Parliament. "I take full responsibility and do so without hesitations."

"The International Red Cross Committee is under no obligation to share information with Canada on the treatment of detainess transferred by Canada to Afghan authorities."

O'Connor also tabled letters to correct information he and other DND officials provided to the House of Commons.

In a report by The Globe and Mail earlier this month, the ICRC denied O'Connor's initial claims saying they were not responsible for monitoring the Canada-Afghanistan detainee-transfer agreement.

The report contradicted numerous statements by O'Connor including one he made to the House on May 31, 2006:

"The Red Cross or the Red Crescent is responsible to supervise their treatment once the prisoners are in the hands of the Afghan authorities. If there is something wrong with their treatment, the Red Cross or Red Crescent would inform us and we would take action."

As late at March 4, 2007, O'Connor told CTV's Question Period that DND was "reliant on the International Red Cross to monitor" the treatment of detainees.

He said his previous statements had been "inadvertent" and that they were made "in good faith". In other words, he had absolutely no idea what the non-binding farce of an agreement General Hillier had signed with the Afghan government in December, 2005 even consisted of. Further, as a former military man, O'Connor should have known exactly what the ICRC does and does not do regarding the handling of detainee matters.

He's incompetent and should be fired. Period.

Update: O'Connor is under fire in question period from all of the opposition parties over these detainee issues. His standard response is that "there are 4 investigations" underway which, of course, led to even more questions about his department's attempts to challenge the jurisdiction of the Military Complaints Commission just last week. He's apparently backing down from that threat now. O'Connor was also asked about the fate of the 3 missing detainees, of whom he said previously:

"Everybody can be found", O'Connor said, adding that we should "wait until the end of the investigation" to find out what happened to them. "We'll wait to see whether they're missing or not", O'Connor added.

That statement implied he might actually know where they were. Obviously, he has no idea what's happened to them.

Here's why all of this is such a huge issue. Last fall, Human Rights Watch issued a letter to NATO about the conditions detainees are held under in Afghanistan:

US forces in Afghanistan have arbitrarily detained civilians, used excessive force during arrests of non-combatants, and mistreated detainees. This behavior led to widespread anger among Afghans and elicited official complaints from President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials. It is important for NATO forces to establish a uniform set of lawful and transparent procedures for handling Afghans detained in the course of military operations.

Recognizing that US forces did not comply with the legal standards applicable to their operations in Afghanistan, several NATO countries have signed bilateral agreements with the Afghan Ministry of Defense regulating the transfer of detainees from NATO forces to Afghan authorities. While the agreements differ in some details, they share many common features, such as an agreement that NATO forces will release detainees or transfer them to Afghan custody within 96 hours, and that NATO and Afghan authorities will treat detainees in accordance with international law. The agreements further stipulate that Afghan authorities will not try, release, or transfer detainees to a third country without the explicit agreement of NATO forces (presumably to avoid transfer of detainees to US custody or other jurisdictions where detainees may be subject to mistreatment). Under the agreements seen by Human Rights Watch, NATO forces, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, will have access to detainees even after they have been transferred to Afghan custody. [ed. That obviously is not the case with Canada's agreement with the ICRC.]

Afghan detainees receive greater protection under these agreements than they receive from the US military, but we are concerned that detainees remain at risk of abuse unless NATO improves the terms and implementation of its policies toward detainees in Afghanistan.

NATO forces have stated that they have detained only a few detainees, even in the heavy combat zones of southern Afghanistan. Dutch forces operating in Oruzgan announced their first five detainees two weeks ago, while British and Canadian forces operating in Helmand and Kandahar, respectively, have publicly acknowledged fewer than 100 detainees. Given the ferocity of the fighting in these areas, the absence of more detainees raises two alarming alternatives: either that NATO forces are not taking detainees, or, more likely, that NATO forces are circumventing their bilateral agreements by immediately turning over detainees to Afghan authorities and thus abrogating their responsibility to monitor the detainees’ treatment.

We have received credible reports about mistreatment of detainees transferred by NATO to Afghan authorities. It is our understanding that the Afghan Ministry of Defense does not have in place a legal framework for holding detainees. We understand that the Afghan government has not yet ratified a law on military tribunals drafted with the assistance of US authorities. For now, we understand that in practice most NATO detainees are transferred to the National Directorate of Security (NDS), an opaque, unaccountable and abusive institution still governed by classified laws promulgated during Afghanistan’s communist era. The NDS operates detention centers that fail to meet international standards for the treatment of detainees.

Although the NDS has made efforts to disassociate itself from its predecessor KHAD, which was notorious for torture, Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of detainees being mistreated by the NDS; in some cases the treatment amounted to torture. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has recently learned that on at least one occasion the NDS hid a detainee who had been handed over by NATO from the ICRC.

Human Rights Watch urges NATO to formulate and articulate a common policy that requires NATO members to be involved at all stages of the detention process. NATO should ensure that the ICRC, United Nations, and Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission have access to all detention centers where NATO detainees are held to monitor prison conditions and investigate allegations of prisoner abuse. Finally, NATO and the Afghan Government should publicize the names of detainees and the date and location of their arrest as well the name of the detainee’s father, birthplace, and current village or town. [ed. That is not included in Canada's agreement with the AIHRC.]

Even though O'Connor continually told the house on Monday that he has complete confidence in the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission and that he'll wait for the results of the 4 investigations now underway in Canada, it seems the head of that commission has already passed judgement on the situation:

The leader of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission suggests it's a difficult job to monitor the treatment of Taliban prisoners.

Abdul Noorzai says the commission only has 48 staff in the Kandahar region, and eight of those are directly involved in reviewing complaints or visiting prisons.

The Human Rights Commission for the Kandahar region signed an agreement with Canada last month to monitor and report on any abuse of detainees.

Noorzai acknowledges abuse and even torture of prison inmates is an ongoing problem in Afghan prisons.

But he told The Canadian Press he has no evidence that any Taliban suspects handed over to the Afghan government by Canadian troops have ever been abused.

How can he possibly state that when the agreement signed with his organization to oversee detainee treatment only came into force this month? Are we really expected to believe that those 8 staff members have done a thorough investigation of all of the compliants?

There is something seriously wrong with all of this and O'Connor is not to be trusted to sort it all out.

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