Mr. Speaker, the Bloc Quebecois supports the motion, which reads as follows:
That the charge against the minister of defence, for making misleading statements in the House, be referred to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
To begin with, we have the facts, which I feel it would be pointless to repeat. It is our conviction that the minister deliberately misled the House. On January 28 he made the following statement concerning prisoners during the take note debate in the House of Commons:
Let me assure members of House that the Canadian forces will treat detainees in accordance with international law and always fairly and humanely.
He went on to say:
The Canadian forces will meet its international legal obligations on transferring detainees.
On January 29 we had the first changed version. He told the House that he had been informed on the previous Friday of the possibility that Canadians had taken prisoners.
On January 30 his version changed once again. He told the House that he was first informed about the detention of prisoners within 24 hours of when it actually occurred. As we know, this probably occurred on January 21, since that was the date on which the infamous photo of Canadian Special Security Forces personnel with the prisoners was taken. Some people were able to recognize that the personnel in question were not Americans, despite the Globe and Mail caption to that effect.
He told the House on January 30 that he was informed of the arrests within 24 hours of the event.
We find ourselves in a situation where the Prime Minister was maintaining up until January 28 that the Canadian Forces did not have any detainees. He denied this vehemently, in the style for which we know him well “Come on now, this is a hypothetical question”. This means that while the Prime Minister was saying, “We will see when we have prisoners”, the Minister of National Defence already knew that Canadian soldiers had detainees in their custody.
Is this serious? I heard the Deputy Prime Minister say “In any case, what difference would it have made?” Allow me to say, on behalf of the constituents in my beautiful riding of Mercier, that it does make a difference that the Prime Minister should say “we will see, this is a hypothetical question”, when already prisoners had been detained by Canadian soldiers. It would have made a difference if the Prime Minister had known and had not answered the way he did, if he had to deal with the substance of the issue, instead of brushing off the question.
We find this issue extremely important, not only because it put the House in a situation where a minister was not telling it the truth—and we have every reason to believe that this was intentional—but also because of the matter involved. The treatment of prisoners, not just those in Guantanamo, but also of the other prisoners who are still in Afghanistan in conditions that we do not really know, and under the “protection” of the Americans.
We know that the Canadian soldiers who left on Friday will be deployed within the next two weeks in the Kandahar region. They will be in a position to capture other prisoners. These prisoners will not immediately be sent to Guantanamo Bay under the rather close scrutiny of the media but will be treated in a way and subjected to conditions in Afghanistan that are unknown to us.
Why is it important to talk about prisoners of war? I am sure this issue has not often been debated in parliament. In fact, I did not discuss it often during my life.
Since September 11 and since President Bush declared that the United States felt at war and justified in terms of the means taken to overcome the Taliban and then the al-Qaeda network, there has indeed been a war going on, and I do not think anyone can deny that.
We find ourselves in a situation where we could take prisoners. It is possible that Canada will find itself in that situation, since this time we are not only taking part in a peacekeeping operation, but also in an operation designed to restore peace, which is a high risk operation. Those are the words used by the Minister of National Defence in the House. He himself said that this was a high risk operation.
Why is it important to talk about this issue of prisoners of war? It is important because it has to do with Canada's international obligations. The Geneva conventions were signed following extensive talks after World War II. The parties were looking for something that would be fair for those who have taken part in a war, who have been defeated, but who have served their country, regardless of what one might think about the other country which has been attacked or which has been victorious, so that a law could be established for those who fight for their country.
Over the years, this law has also been extended to include resistance fighters. The purpose of the law—this is a view held by many—is to assure all countries that if soldiers or those who fight for their country are taken as prisoners, they will be treated as provided for by international law, according to principles known to everyone and, everyone hopes, respected by all nations.
According to these rules, any prisoner captured during a state of war in the role of combatant must first be treated as a prisoner of war. As such, he may be required only to answer a limited number of questions and only until he is brought before a tribunal, which may be military or regular, for soldiers or for civilians, of the country in which he is being detained. I could describe the conditions at some length.
The problem we are having in the House is that it is obvious that the United States is not respecting these ground rules. I have read and reread the answers that I have been given. We have been told that the prisoners are being held under humane conditions. That is not what we are asking.
We are asking whether Canada, which gave an undertaking when it signed the Geneva conventions, has in fact respected them or, when it transfers prisoners to another country, has undertaken to ensure that that other country respects the Geneva conventions. And, should that other country no longer be respecting them—therefore, Canada needs some means of ensuring that the other country really is respecting the conventions—Canada must be able to repatriate the prisoners and ensure that the Geneva conventions are respected.
Clearly, this is not the situation right now. But I would like to go back to the dates.
At the meeting of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade held on January 17, the Minister of National Defence said that no agreement had been concluded between Canada and the United States. We know that the prisoners we saw in the photo—fortunately, because, had we not seen that, we might never have known—were under the authority of Canadian soldiers on January 21.
The questions are quite simple: When was the agreement concluded, by whom, and how? We have yet to get any answers, no matter how many times we ask the questions.
What we do know for sure is that during the week of January 21 to 28 the issue was hotly debated in the United States, between the U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell—he can be named because he is not a member of parliament—who said that the prisoners should be treated according to the Geneva convention, fully, and not in part, and defence secretary Rumsfeld, who was supported by President Bush.
We saw on the news for a week that there was a debate going on. Even the weekend prior to the House's return it was on the news, and the folks on the right in the United States, such as Mr. Safire, were very pleased by the fact that Colin Powell was holding his own.
We arrived here, in the House, to be told by the Prime Minister that there was an agreement reached on January 29.
How and when did this happen then, that Canada agreed that prisoners would not be treated according to the Geneva convention, when was this agreement reached?
If there was an agreement by which the Geneva convention would be respected, then it is safe to believe that the prisoners handed over by Canada would not be treated in the same manner as those taken by American soldiers.
This is not an issue about dates. It is not simply an issue of the Minister of National Defence seemingly not having told the Prime Minister the whole truth, which kept him unaware that there were prisoners, which should have prompted him to answer the question that he was trying to brush off. What this boils down to, is that Canada has been placed in a situation where we have not respected the Geneva convention.
The government can tell us that Canada respects international law. I would respectfully point out that it should really tell us when and how, because it is not the case.
There is also an aspect that I would like to stress. We dealt with it in the debate we had last Monday night in the House, a debate on the sending of troops. All those considerations should bring us back to the troops now in Afghanistan.
I indicated many times that it is extremely unfortunate that the House did not have to vote on the sending of troops. Then all of us, including government backbenchers, would have been interested to know what kind of a mandate those soldiers would be given. It is a serious thing to send soldiers into a situation where they will not be able to respect Canada's commitments. That is the truth of the matter. Those soldiers are entitled to respect from the House and the government.
Besides having to live in excessively difficult conditions, which everyone agrees with, besides having to do humanitarian work and demining work and to live through a highly risky situation, those soldiers should at the very least know that the mandate we are giving them is consistent with the international conventions that Canada is committed to respect. However I do not see how the government will convince us of that.
Since my time is limited let me simply add that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that it is illegal to extradite an individual to the United States if capital punishment could be applied. We know the rules of the American military courts, which are set up by ministerial order, do not provide for a full defence of prisoners, far from it. We are not even sure prisoners will have a lawyer. It appears that their lawyer could be appointed by the court or the American defence secretary. These prisoners could be sentenced to death. Judicial proceedings will be held behind closed doors. Need I say more?
Right from the start, the Bloc Quebecois, along with many other international actors, has pleaded repeatedly for the creation, by the UN Security Council, of a criminal court to try the prisoners when the war in Afghanistan is over. I think it is obvious now how important it would have been to make sure the prisoners get a fair trial. This same debate will take place in other countries, but I know Britain, France, Spain and other countries, have shown their disapproval by asking the Americans to hand over the prisoners who are their nationals so they can be tried according to the laws in their own country.
This is a very serious issue. We have to know what happened. We should know all the truth. I tend to think that the Canadian government, instead of having our troops under UN command, preferred to have them under American command without paying any attention to the implications for Canadian soldiers.