Mr. Speaker, I stand today to express my opposition to the motion, as amended, now before the House.
I am convinced that it would be serious mistake for the government to produce the many documents referred to in the motion tabled by the hon. member for Vancouver South. Producing verbatim copies of these documents would jeopardize not only the security of Canadians serving in Afghanistan, but also Canada's relationships with other countries. Furthermore, the release of unedited versions of these documents would be clearly inconsistent with parliamentary convention related to the protection of sensitive information.
The Parliament of Canada has established important rules under the Canada Evidence Act in relation to the handling or disclosure of information concerning international relations, national defence or national security. The values underlying Parliament's intention to protect the national security of Canada from harm by unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information must inform the actions of ministers and officials.
Parliament exercises significant powers, yet Parliament also appreciate the importance of protecting confidential information. This is evident in statutes such as the Security of Information Act, the Canada Evidence Act, the Access to Information Act, the Privacy Act and the Criminal Code. The principle of public interest immunity is also well established in the common law. These principles also find expression in parliamentary convention.
The government's position on the matter is clear. We must make every effort to protect sensitive information that, if disclosed, could compromise Canada's security, national defence and international relations.
The government's position on co-operating with the parliamentary committee is also clear. We will continue to support the work of committees and provide any and all information that does not compromise the national interest.
The government rejects the notion, however, that parliamentary privilege somehow relieves public servants appearing before committee of their obligation to protect sensitive information that relates to national security, national defence or international relations.
As I am sure the members of the House will appreciate, there is a well-established parliamentary convention that committees will respect common law privileges and Crown immunity, particularly in relation to national defence, national security or international relations and not require the disclosure of injurious information.
The authoritative text, Parliamentary Privilege in Canada by Joseph Maingot makes this point clearly on page 191:
With respect to federal public servants who are witnesses before committees of either House, the theory of the compellability of witnesses...may come in conflict with the principle of ministerial responsibility. By convention, a parliamentary committee will respect Crown privilege when invoked, at least in relation to matters of national and public security.
To link this statement with the motion now before us, members of the House must acknowledge that important issues of national security are at stake and should therefore abide by parliamentary convention and respect the government's actions to protect sensitive information.
In essence, parliamentary convention must govern committee practices and procedures. Further support for this conclusion is provided by a 1991 report of the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, published as part of the Journals of the House. To quote from that:
The House of Commons recognizes that it should not require the production of documents in all cases; considerations of public policy, including national security, foreign relations, and so forth, enter into the decision as to when it is appropriate to order the production of such documents.
The House must exercise its powers responsibly. In some cases, the only responsible option is for the House and its committees to refrain from pressing the theoretical extent of their powers.
The government's concerns for national security informed an earlier decision to redact documents submitted to the Military Police Complaints Commission, also known as the MPCC. The decision reflects the fact that the MPCC operates in a significantly different legal environment than parliamentary committees.
On the subject of the extent of the redactions, no other tenable option existed once the MPCC decided to hold public hearings. The decision provided the MPCC with the power to compel testimony and to order the production of documents. The hearing therefore met the definition of a proceeding under section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act.
It is important to note that before the MPCC announced its intention to hold public hearings, government officials provided it full access to thousands of pages of unedited documents produced by Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence.
The decision to redact documents is not taken lightly and reflects the absolute need to protect sensitive information. Pursuant to section 38, officials redacted the documents. Copies of these edited documents were later provided to the Special Committee on the Canadian mission to Afghanistan.
While section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act may not apply directly to proceedings of a special committee, the values that inform that legislation, passed by Parliament, are consistent with the parliamentary convention that harmful information should not be disclosed in a parliamentary setting. Accordingly the process under section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act serves as a useful surrogate to identify information that should not be disclosed to the special committee due to concerns related to national security, national defence or international relations.
The government fully supports the special committee and believes it plays an important role in Canada's democracy. Respect for legal duties enacted by Parliament is also essential to the health of our democracy. Ultimately, however, restricting access to particular information is justified by a more important goal, one that serves the best interests of Canadians.
The Supreme Court has acknowledged that the government must, on occasion, withhold sensitive information. In the R. v. Thomson decision, the Supreme Court stated clearly, “all government must maintain some degree of security and confidentiality in order to function”. It also confirmed that an act of Parliament would apply to the House of Commons expressly, as in the case of the Official Languages Act or implicitly as in the case of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
In the case the House heard about a little earlier, the Canada (House of Commons) v. Vaid, which is a 2005 Supreme Court of Canada case, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the Canadian Human Rights Act had no application to the House of Commons because it did not so expressly provide. The Supreme Court held that the argument was “out of step with modern principles of statutory interpretation accepted in Canada” and that the proper approach was to construe the words of the act in their entire context, having regard to the scheme, object and remedial purpose of the act.
Although our debate today focuses on a point of parliamentary privilege, we must never forget that it also directly affects the lives of Canadians serving on the front lines of a deadly conflict a half world away.
As members of Parliament, we must never lose sight of the fact that men and women continue to put their lives at risk to defend our country and all that it represents. We must not sacrifice the safety of these brave souls on the altar of parliamentary privilege. Yet this is precisely what the motion before us today proposes to do.
To understand what is at stake, one must recall that Afghanistan's Taliban government played a central role in aiding and abetting a series of terrorist attacks against Canadians and Canada's allies.
Seven years ago, Canada deployed troops, in support of the invasion led by the United States to oust the Taliban and diminish the capacity of terrorists in Afghanistan to strike targets in the west. While the mission has evolved somewhat over the years, thousands of Canadians continue to serve in Afghanistan as part of an international effort to root out insurgents and to promote peace, prosperity and justice.
Last year, the members of the House voted overwhelmingly in favour of extending the mission through 2010.
In recent weeks, top officials from the Canadian Forces and several federal departments have provided evidence about the legal status of detainees and about the practices and procedures Canadian officials followed to ensure that they honour international laws and conventions.
On November 4, for instance, Canada's Judge Advocate General, Brigadier-General Kenneth Watkins, stated that:
The policies and procedures put in place by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and the legal test that must be satisfied before detainees can be transferred are all meant to ensure compliance with these international legal obligations.
During the same session, the committee heard testimony about the series of increasingly rigorous agreements and practices implemented by Canada, expressly to prevent the abuse of detainees.
A December 2005 agreement between the militaries of Canada and Afghanistan, signed under the Liberal government, empowered the International Committee of the Red Cross to monitor and report on the status of detainees. A more robust follow-up agreement, signed in 2007, enlisted a second independent monitor, the Afghanistan International Human Rights Commission, and restricted the movement of detainees captured by Canadians.
In addition to these measures, Canadian officials continue to monitor the treatment of detainees captured by our soldiers. When these officials found credible evidence of abuse, Canada temporarily halted the transfer of prisoners to Afghan officials in November 2007. The transfer resumed a few months later, once those concerns had been addressed.
The release of at least some of this information would clearly undermine the safety of Canadian officials working in Afghanistan. Information about when and how Canadian officials visit a particular prison, for instance, would be of great value to the insurgents and to the terrorists. They could use this knowledge to attack our monitors and free the detainees.
One can only imagine how the enemy would interpret and exploit other top secret information. It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the terrorists. They are both sophisticated and brazen. Among the more than 100 Canadians to die at their hands are three civilian aid workers and one senior diplomat.
We cannot lose sight of the fact that our soldiers are not the only ones engaged in this dangerous mission. The Government of Canada must do its utmost to protect everyone it assigns to Afghanistan.
It is this duty to protect that inspires my opposition to the motion before us today. The Government of Canada must not abandon this duty in response to the committee's investigation into the conduct of Canadian officials responsible for prisoners captured in Afghanistan.
There can be no doubt that this government has in fact co-operated with the committee. The government has ordered senior military personnel, diplomats and other officials to appear, often on short notice and often travelling vast distances. Their candid testimony has enabled committee members to gain critical knowledge about the capture and transfer of detainees.
All of these witnesses recognize, however, that they must not disclose information that might compromise Canada's security or international relations. As dutiful, honourable public officials, these witnesses respect the laws passed by Canada and the policies implemented by government that protect confidential information.
The allegation that the Government of Canada seeks to obstruct or interfere with the committee's work by denying access to documents is completely untrue. The committee has requested a considerable number of documents, and government officials continue to work hard to satisfy this request. The process will take some time because many of the papers contain top secret information.
Parliamentary committees are essential and valuable components of Canada's democratic system. Canadians appreciate the analysis and the perspective that committees can bring to the issues of the day, but Canadians expect committees and Parliament itself to exercise those powers responsibly and reasonably and in accordance with parliamentary convention. Canadians do not accept that the relatively narrow interests of a single committee are more important than the safety of our men and women serving in Afghanistan.
Given these realities, restraint and caution must be our guide. The government must not release information under any circumstances that could jeopardize national security and international relations. I encourage my hon. colleagues to vote down the motion that is before us today.