House of Commons Hansard #128 of the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was information.

Topics

Opposition Motion--Documents Regarding Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:05 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, we have already established that this is a constitutional privilege of Parliament, that it is in the Standing Orders and has been extended to committees of the House. Even the parliamentary law clerk has given his opinion that under the Canada Evidence Act, notwithstanding public safety and national security interests, it is available.

There is already information in the public domain that a detainee in the custody of Canadians and released to the Afghans was in fact tortured. The issue at question is whether or not it happened. The government was saying no and now, all of a sudden, evidence has come out. I also understand that embedded journalists have information as well, including film, and that more will be coming out.

I wonder if the member would care to comment on this. The government simply has to stop the stonewalling and the cover-up and make sure that we take the appropriate steps as we move forward on this. It just needs to stand up and be responsible for its actions or, in fact, its inaction.

Opposition Motion--Documents Regarding Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

Keith Martin Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Madam Speaker, it is the constitutional right of Parliament to demand information and it is the supremacy of Parliament that trumps other provisions of the laws. The fact is that what the Conservative government member said is utterly wrong.

We are not asking for information on operations or information that is going to detail the operational needs or the current situation of our Canadian Forces members. We do not need to find that out, but we do need to find information that is specific to these events. We also need to make sure that this does not happen again. That is the issue, but it also goes to our ability to win in this mission and to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Our Canadian Forces members are doing their job there. The members of the provincial reconstruction team are doing their job. Our allies are doing their job. However, if Canadians are put in a situation where they are doing things that are going to harm these efforts, because of failure in the political doctrine of the Conservative government, then, in effect, the Conservatives are harming the very mission that so many of our men and women have given their blood, sweat and tears for, and to which the Canadian public has given significant amounts of money.

I do not think it should be seen in some superficial way, but I think the government also needs to utilize this as a springboard to deal with the larger issue of the mission in Afghanistan, what it is doing, what its objectives are, how it is doing it and how it is integrating with other groups while looking at the political strategy for the mission in Afghanistan in a broad regional context. Only in the regional context will we be able to deal with this mission and ensure some semblance of security for the Afghan people into the future.

Opposition Motion--Documents Regarding Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

NDP

The Acting Speaker Denise Savoie

Questions and comments.

The Minister of State for Science and Technology, a very brief question.

Opposition Motion--Documents Regarding Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

Cambridge
Ontario

Conservative

Gary Goodyear Minister of State (Science and Technology) (Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario)

Madam Speaker, perhaps I will just make a comment. The fact is that we are debating a motion here that is asking the government to release information that could in fact entail something as simple as a soldier's name, middle name, address and perhaps phone number. It is information that the Taliban are hoping they can get their hands on, not just to attack that soldier but also potentially to put the family of the soldier at risk.

That is exactly what this motion says. This member has not read the motion.

With my final comment, I want to remind the member that it was the Liberals who put us in Afghanistan without a debate in 2003. We have fixed their mess; this happened under their watch.

We have no problem with dealing with committees as long as folks on committees are not using Twitter. However, what we will not do is to release information that is in the national interest, so that our allies can continue to—

Opposition Motion--Documents Regarding Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

NDP

The Acting Speaker Denise Savoie

I would like to give the hon. member for Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca time to respond. He has 30 seconds.

Opposition Motion--Documents Regarding Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

Keith Martin Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Madam Speaker, it is interesting that the members from the other side all have the same talking points. They all churn out the same nonsense. They are not willing to utilize their own God-given intellect to be able to deal with a very important issue.

What I would impress upon the members from the other side is to look at this clearly, understand that what they are saying is a bunch of nonsense and to get to the heart of the matter, so that we can resolve this issue and have a proper mission in Afghanistan with a proper structure and proper political solution to deal with this very serious and important issue.

Opposition Motion--Documents Regarding Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:10 p.m.

Bloc

Francine Lalonde La Pointe-de-l'Île, QC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to see you in the chair this afternoon.

Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed extraordinary events in the House. I was first elected in 1993, and I have seen a lot of brouhaha since then, but never like this. This is the kind of brouhaha that prompts us to ask questions about the role of parliamentarians.

I read a legal opinion provided by Rob Walsh, law clerk and parliamentary counsel. He is a senior parliamentary officer. He produced a document concerning the constitutional role of the House and its committees. I will read excerpts from it because I think he makes a good point and a strong one in the context of this debate.

He says:

As I indicated in my earlier letter, it is important to remember that the Committee, charged by the House with reviewing Canada's mission in Afghanistan, is at all times to be seen as carrying out its constitutional function of holding the Government to account. This is fundamental to responsible government and more particularly to the relationship between the Government and the House and its committees—

Is that strong enough? I will go on.

—and provides the constitutional basis for the demands made by the Committee upon the Government for information and for the Government's obligation to provide to the Committee the information it needs to carry out this function. The law of parliamentary privilege provides that this relationship operates unencumbered by legal constraints that might otherwise seem applicable.

I invite my hon. colleagues to read the rest of this legal opinion. Not only does it confirm the legitimacy of the motion that was moved this morning and has the support of the opposition parties, but at the same time, it confirms the importance of the parliamentary role of the committee as well as the constitutional role of parliamentarians and the committee. I invite my Conservative colleagues, some of whom might feel like they are being attacked by some of our questions or opinions, to reflect carefully on this. It is directed at all members—not only the opposition members, but also members on the government side. It says much about the importance of committees.

I would like to thank Mr. Walsh for having written this opinion and I think it could prove very useful in the future. However, why was this needed?

On the one hand, a great deal of time would be required, but my colleagues have already taken quite a bit of time. On the other hand, I would like to revisit a few crucial aspects.

After the attack on the twin towers in 2001, our world, not the entire world, but our world—where “our” world ends is up to each of us—found itself thrown into a state of war unlike any we had seen, I think, since the second world war and the Korean war. It is a context to which our minds, hearts and politics are not accustomed, a context which deserves our attention, and one in which we need to identify our principles.

Canada's Engagement in Afghanistan
Routine Proceedings

4:20 p.m.

Okanagan—Coquihalla
B.C.

Conservative

Stockwell Day Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway

Madam Speaker, with the greatest respect for the member and in the interest of the members, I would like to table some documents.

As a point of interest and based on timing, I am considering the coincidental matters which the hon. member is speaking to. In accordance with Standing Order 32(2), I have the honour to table the sixth quarterly report on Canada's engagement with Afghanistan.

Export Development Canada
Routine Proceedings

4:20 p.m.

Okanagan—Coquihalla
B.C.

Conservative

Stockwell Day Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway

Madam Speaker, I also have the honour to table the government's response to the legislative review of Export Development Canada.

The House resumed consideration of the motion, and of the amendment.

Opposition Motion—Documents on Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:20 p.m.

Bloc

Francine Lalonde La Pointe-de-l'Île, QC

Madam Speaker, I cannot wait to read it.

I was saying that since 2001, a number of countries—the United States first and foremost, but also NATO, which is growing larger with the addition of the eastern European countries—have plunged into another world. That means that we have to review and take a fresh look at the principles that will apply. I say “we” because I am putting everyone in the same boat to start.

It is not easy, because this is not a traditional war. We are fighting a dirty war over there. We therefore have to develop principles that are going to allow us—we are still thinking about that—not necessarily to win the war, but to enable the Afghans to regain control of their country and develop it with our help.

By the way, I am anxious for us to talk about this. We are supposed to discuss it in committee first, and then in Parliament, but we must do so. How are we going to keep going after 2011? We have to carry on, not to wage war, but to help Afghanistan develop.

Canada sent soldiers into this situation and was supposed to know how to comply with the Geneva conventions. I do not know to what extent they were studied. It may be that they were not studied at all. It seemed that what was most important was to be strong, to win the war and to help the people.

We hear ministers and generals talk about how hard they have worked. I do not doubt that, but the fact remains that the Geneva conventions were drafted to tell countries how to treat detainees in war time, or if they are in a war zone and they are taking detainees.

We have to read the Geneva conventions. We certainly have all the documentation we need right here. The respect we owe the detainees, from the accommodation we provide them to the way we treat them, in every way, shape or form, is nothing less than respect for their rights, even if we view them as criminals before they even go trial. That is the rule.

And the rule is such that if a country responsible under the Geneva conventions—either the country providing assistance or the country receiving assistance—detains someone, transfers him and suspects that the detainee will be mistreated or tortured, that country has no right to transfer the detainee.

Does that pose real problems? I am sure it does. We have been told repeatedly that Afghan prisons are poorly built and poorly equipped and that the prisoners are malnourished. This has been well documented. We have also been told, and this too has been amply documented, that the conditions in the prisons are conducive to torture and there is indeed torture. These are standard practices. Just read the report of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The commission conducted a major study on a sample of 398 prisoners. Of those, 57 detainees from Kandahar were identified as having been tortured. That is a substantial percentage.

Was it difficult to manage under these conditions? I think it was extremely difficult. Other countries have taken a different approach and have not agreed to transfer detainees to the Afghan authorities, knowing the state of the prisons and how the detainees are treated there.

That is not the purpose of this debate. However, it does help explain our anger. This is a false debate. We are right in saying that, in most situations, the signs were there and the government should have stopped transferring detainees. The government has said that, at first, it relied on the Red Cross. However, in the first agreement that was quickly negotiated and signed by General Hillier, Canada did not have full access, nor did the Red Cross.

Full access was necessary. In other words, they should have had access to the detainees at any time. There was a responsibility to keep exact written records of the detainees in order to know what happened to them. We should not forget that, in the Afghan prisons, these detainees could meet guards whom they had fought, or relatives of the guards might have been killed or injured by the detainees. When exact written records of detainees are required, there must be access to them. Without access, you cannot keep the records.

I tried to read the redacted documents we received. The bits that are visible at least allow us to understand that there was a great deal of discussion about transferring the detainees, under what conditions, and about the fact that they were unable to keep records. Someone said—and these were the exact words—“We have not tracked them for two months. Imagine what can happen in two months.” Someone wrote that.

There was no follow-up between December 2005 and May 3, 2007. There may have been good intentions, but there was no follow-up. Who can guarantee, in such cases, that the prisoners were not tortured after being transferred, even though we placed our trust in the process? After all, someone also wrote that Afghanistan was assuming responsibility for them.

This is explicitly prohibited in the Geneva convention. The country that is transferring the prisoners remains responsible and cannot transfer that responsibility.

Since that country remains responsible, if prisoners are transferred and the conditions are what they are, if there is a serious risk that the prisoner could be tortured, this contravenes the Geneva convention. That means that we could be penalized for contravening the convention.

I tried to paint a general picture. When I was young, I was a history teacher. I always made an effort not just to learn, but also to understand. What has been going on for the past few weeks? The government prevented Mr. Colvin from handing over documents that he had sent to a number of people as warnings. He had sent 18 or 19 documents all over to say that this or that could not be done. I think he said that it made no sense and that Canada would probably tarnish its reputation.

I hope that after this debate we will be able to see the documents in question.

We also heard testimony from individuals without any admission that a mistake had been made.

It makes sense that this issue would become explosive during oral question period in the House of Commons. But that is not what we want. What we want is to find a way to allow Mr. Colvin to testify, to get the documents and to restore Canada's reputation.

Opposition Motion—Documents on Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

Cheryl Gallant Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke, ON

Madam Speaker, I have found evidence of torture in Afghanistan:

YOU must become so notorious for bad things that when you come into an area people will tremble in their sandals. Anyone can do beatings and starve people. I want your unit to find new ways of torture so terrible that the screams will frighten even crows from their nests and if the person survives he will never again have a night's sleep.

This was under the heading “I was one of the Taliban's torturers: I crucified people”, as reported by Christina Lamb on September 30, 2001.

Today's motion, by design or not, may provide information to assist the cause of the insurgents to rid Afghanistan of the protection that UN-sanctioned forces provide.

As a member of the separatist party, why does the member opposite want to put the lives of our soldiers in danger?

Opposition Motion—Documents on Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:35 p.m.

Bloc

Francine Lalonde La Pointe-de-l'Île, QC

Madam Speaker, I would like to point out to my colleague that many of the soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan were Quebeckers. I would also like to point out that Quebeckers are brave and disciplined. Not a single officer has reported failure to comply or even to participate. They are enthusiastic and energetic in their work and in engagements.

I am a separatist, and yes, my goal is independence. However, those of you who have been listening will have heard me say that the situation we find ourselves in is one we share. We are still part of Canada because that is what Quebeckers want. We are loyal, and we participate in the debates. You should be glad that we care about working to restore Canada's reputation.

Opposition Motion—Documents on Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:35 p.m.

NDP

The Acting Speaker Denise Savoie

I would remind all members to address their remarks to the Chair.

The hon. member for Mississauga South.

Opposition Motion—Documents on Afghan Detainees
Business of Supply
Government Orders

4:35 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, I know the member has been involved in foreign affairs files for many years during her career as an hon. parliamentarian.

The issue here ultimately comes down to this. It appears that Canada has been in violation of international law, the Geneva Convention, and this is the allegation. I heard the words of the member for Cambridge already, but I do not believe the House has been reminded often enough of the terms under which it would be determined that someone would be in violation. It is not a matter that we simply think that something happens, it is a matter of whether we are aware. Just by being aware that there is the possibility, I believe we could be in violation of international law.

Maybe the member could answer this question. Why is it so important that we clear our name to ensure that the reputation of Canada continues to be in favour of human rights?