Whistle blown on torture fears before Colvin

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

Published by the Waterloo Region Record

The emperor has no clothes. It’s a simple, amusing fable. The child who has not been told about the flim-flammery of the invisible cloak speaks what is obvious. Smiles and chuckles all round. End of story.

It’s too bad for career Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin that saying the truth out loud can have such nasty conse-quences.

Colvin’s life has been forever changed by his stepping forward to say publicly, under subpoena by Parliament, that he confidentially alerted his superiors that Canadian Forces in Afghanistan handed over to Afghan authorities a number of Afghan detainees who were then, in all likelihood, subjected to torture.

In my view Colvin has been inappropriately called a whistleblower. He is better understood as the person who said the federal government has no clothes.

The real whistle blower was Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Attaran personally blew the whistle in my ears on March 15, 2006.

Attaran, whom I did not then know, called out of the blue to ask if Project Ploughshares wanted to be a party to a public interest law suit against the federal Crown over the potential legal implications, including possible war crimes, of Canadian Forces knowingly handing over captured prisoners to others who used torture.

I understood enough about what Attaran was saying, even though I am not a lawyer, to know there was a potential case to be made.

From personal experience I also knew that taking the feds to court was an expensive and time consuming proposition. I was directly involved for 10 years in litigation on Indian residential schools, pitting churches against the federal Crown over which one was liable for abuses to former students. It was profoundly unpleasant.

Attaran, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, Amnesty International Canada and the B.C. Civil Liberties Union proceeded, without Project Ploughshares, to initiate a case in the Federal Court on the legality of the handling of Afghan detainees. To my knowledge this court action remains stuck in appeals.

The simple application of the emperor’s fable breaks down in the face of messy reality. Colvin was not a dew-eyed child.

From public reports he is a diplomatic veteran of war zones with an intelligence bent who took a job in Afghanistan previously occupied by Glyn Berry, who was killed by a suicide bomber.

The details of what Colvin wrote in his warnings to his superiors are not yet in the public domain so the public opinion jury is still out on what he wrote and to whom he sent it.

The emperor in this case is not a duped buffoon traipsing about in public in his underwear.

He is collectively represented by the prime minister, his ministers, and senior diplomatic and military personnel prose-cuting a war in a far off place, looking then and now for public support for those efforts.

Why does the emperor have no clothes? The controversy lies in whether the highest Canadian authorities were internal-ly alerted by Colvin in 2006 about the torture of detainees, and if they ignored those warnings at that time.

It is clear that in 2007 concrete steps were being taken by Canada to address the problem that some seem to be saying wasn’t a problem until then. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to matter that Attaran and his friends publicly and legally launched their effort much earlier in 2006.

Unlike the fable, there will be no smiles and a happy ending to this story. The emperor was not duped and cannot simp-ly go back to the palace and get dressed. Sooner or later a public inquiry or the Canadian courts will be used to address these allegations because they concern possible complicity in torture and war crimes. Canada is a country that operates according to the rule of law.

This applies equally to the actions of the government of Canada as to its citizens, whether in Canada or abroad.

Colvin’s career prospects are a minor point compared with the years he can expect to spend testifying at, or following, proceedings in which his reputation will be attacked.

The cartoon rhetorical broadsides against Colvin trotted out in the House of Commons last week will be an amusing memory after lawyers for the federal government have finished him with their legal stilettos.

The crowd at the parade, the Canadian public, will be stuck in the embarrassing situation of not having had the courage to press the question of why this emperor should not have been more careful in how he dressed when sending troops into battle in Kandahar in 2006.

Mea culpa. In not pursuing Attaran’s invitation in 2006 to be more directly involved in this issue, I know I have no ex-cuse for having stayed quiet on the sidelines.

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