Mr. Chair, I am grateful that the House has this opportunity to exchange views on the new situation for Canadian Forces in Afghanistan because it is indeed a new situation and deserves some parliamentary discussion.
What we are debating tonight is the fact that Canada has undertaken a change from its previous role in Afghanistan and is in the process of establishing what is called the provincial reconstruction team, henceforth known as PRT, in southern Afghanistan, the city of Kandahar, which involves moving the concentration of our forces from Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, to the southern city of Kandahar.
This raises a number of issues. The minister knows that this will involve more active force protection and counter-insurgency activity on the part of Canadian Forces. Our understanding is that some 1,000 plus soldiers will be deployed by February, not including members of the elite JTF2. This is a change too. I hope I will have some time to say more about this later.
There is a perception in the country that this is somehow in keeping with our traditional sort of peacekeeping role, at least our post second world war, post Korea role in world of peacekeeping. In fact, what we are doing in Afghanistan is quite different than that. I do not think the government has been fully upfront with Canadians about the difference in the rules of engagement and the difference in the situation to which Canadian troops are being sent, not only in Kabul but particularly now in Afghanistan.
This is certainly not peacekeeping. It might be called peace building, but it is more like war fighting. It is more like fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda and trying to maintain that state which has been established in the wake of the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban regime through the military activities of a coalition of the willing, of which Canada was a part. I do not think we have paid sufficient attention to the departure or the significance of the change in the role of the Canadian military that our activity in Afghanistan represents.
There also are some questions within the NGO community about the PRT itself and the extent to which humanitarian operations in that area have been placed in a very odd position, where they are subsumed to a military structure. NGOs have some concern about the militarization of development. We heard some testimony to this effect in the defence committee not so long ago. This is not just true there. They also expressed some concerns about the DART in that regard.
NGOs are very sensitive to the role they play in any given situation. They have to be seen as neutral. They cannot be seen as an extension of any one particular side in a dispute. In the three block war, to the extent that they are being subsumed on the development side, they are very concerned about what this means for the security of their own employees and for the effectiveness of their mandate.
Finally, and we have already spent some time on this, Canadian involvement with U.S. forces and in Operation Enduring Freedom means that Canada could be complicit in any torture that occurs and any use of banned weapons by the U.S. forces, and this is the worry that has been expressed here tonight.
I already have raised the issue of anti-personnel mines and there may be other instances where Americans have used weapons that we have signed conventions against. I am thinking of the use of white phosphorous. It was not used in Afghanistan, but I think there is some evidence that Americans have used it perhaps in the attack on Fallujah, which, granted, is different than Afghanistan. We are in this increasingly integrated, interoperable relationship with a country that continues to violate conventions to which we are signatories. It seems to me that the government should be more concerned about this than it is.
When I asked a question in the House not so long ago, the minister of defence was not here. His parliamentary secretary stood up. I raised the question in the context of these black sites that had been recently revealed, where Americans were allegedly sending detainees to be tortured. All got was a very simplistic and naive answer from the parliamentary secretary. He said that they were turned over to the Americans, that the government trusted them, that the Red Cross kept an eye on these things and that everything was just fine.
Frankly, I do not think that cuts it. I would hope the minister would express more concern than his parliamentary secretary did in that context.
I think the minister has received a letter. Perhaps he has not seen it yet. I received a copy of it. It is a letter from a Mr. Melville Johnston, a professor emeritus at Ryerson University. I will quote from the letter. He says:
The Human Rights Watch has condemned the use of “torture shuttles” (airline flights to transfer prisoners to various countries that used to be under the influence and/or control of the former Soviet Union). The European Union and the International Committee of the Red Cross have called for investigations into the so-called “black sites”. Moreover, the Human Rights Commission of the Council of Europe has stated that it finds these sites “very worrying”.
Mr. Johnston goes on to say:
As a Canadian citizen, I am ashamed that my Government would in any way participate in or contribute to the illegal treatment of prisoners held by the US authorities.
I think Mr. Johnston speaks for a lot of Canadians when he expresses these kinds of concerns. We have to be very concerned that in the post-September 11, 2001 environment we do not suddenly undo all the work Canadians did for decades in establishing international law and new conventions trying to make the world a more civilized place. We cannot throw that overboard because we happen to be allies of the Americans in a war against terrorism.
Further to that, I want to go back to something I was talking about earlier with respect to the treatment of detainees. I will again refer to a speech that was given yesterday by Michael Byers who is UBC professor of international law and author of a new book War Law . He delivered the F.C. Cronkite lecture in the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon yesterday. In that address he says the following, and I quote at some length:
In January 2002, Canadian soldiers captured suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and handed them over to U.S. forces. The transfers took place despite the fact that U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had publicly refused to convene the “status determination tribunals” required by the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, to investigate whether individuals captured on the battlefield are prisoners of war. Canada, by choosing to hand the detainees over, also violated the Third Geneva Convention. The transfers did not, however, violate Canada's obligations under the 1984 Torture Convention, since there was no reason to believe that U.S. forces would mistreat the detainees.
Professor Byers goes on:
Today, we know better. Photographs, news reports and official investigations into abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba indicate that, at best, the U.S. military has failed to educate its soldiers about human rights and international humanitarian law. At worst, the revelations suggest a policy of law-breaking that extends all the way up the chain of command, to the Secretary of Defence and perhaps the commander-in-chief himself.
The denial of access to legal counsel, the removal of detainees from occupied Iraq (in blatant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention), and leaked legal opinions that seek to justify torture provide additional cause for concern.
I will end my quoting of Professor Byers at that point.
Canadians may be concerned with the role of our forces in Afghanistan. I think we would find more of a consensus with respect to the concern that Canadian soldiers, by turning over people that they detain to Americans in this environment, are in violation of agreements that we have signed and in violation of the values that Canadians like to think our government holds.
We are in a context not just in respect of the turning over of detainees in Afghanistan, but also with respect to some issues here at home that make us wonder whether we have a government any more that is committed to these long-standing Canadian values. It is not just in respect of the turning over of detainees in Afghanistan. It also is with respect to some issues here at home that make us wonder whether we have a government that is committed to these long-standing Canadian values.
It is not just the turning over of detainees in Afghanistan to Americans for possible torture or forms of imprisonment that violate the Geneva Convention. We also have the case of suspects in Canada such as Maher Arar and others who ended up being turned over to the Americans and who in turn were turned over to the Syrians, with Canada not seeming to care at the time about that.
We have a growing sense of unease about whether in our eagerness, which may well be justified, to combat terrorism we are sacrificing a Canadian tradition with respect to international law that we will rue being exposed to erosion in this way.