By Murray Brewster, CBC News Posted: Jun 17, 2016
Federal Liberals who argued for a public inquiry, while in opposition, into the treatment of prisoners during the Afghan war, now say they will not conduct such an investigation.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government was put in a tight corner this spring by an e-petition that demanded a wide-ranging probe into unresolved questions related to the issue, which almost toppled the Harper government in 2009.
Former New Democrat MP Craig Scott, who was defeated in the Oct. 19 election, gathered 750 names for the digital petition, which is a new feature in Parliament, to demand the Liberals live up to their previous stand.
'The government of Canada does not believe an independent judicial commission of inquiry is necessary.'
- Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, in written response to e-petition
What the Liberals did deliver Friday, on the cusp of the summer recess, was a three-page written response taking the reader through the long, convoluted history of the incendiary topic. The narrative went all of the way back to 2001, when Canadian special forces arrived in the war-torn country following 9/11.
"Throughout military operations in Afghanistan, the government of Canada ensured individuals detained by the (Canadian Armed Forces) CAF were treated humanely and handled, transferred or released in accordance with our obligations under international law," said the response, penned by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. "Therefore the government of Canada does not believe an independent judicial commission of inquiry is necessary."
But the issue at stake was never how Canadian troops treated prisoners.
What the government knew, and when
The question, which consumed much political oxygen in Ottawa, was whether the Conservative government knew — or had been warned — that prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities by Canadians were tortured or faced the likelihood of abuse.
'This time it's a coverup of what the Conservatives knew, and when they knew it, about torture in Afghanistan. So their solution is not to answer the questions but, rather, to padlock Parliament and shut down democracy.'
- Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, Dec.. 30, 2009
It's an important point of international law.
If the government had been aware, and did nothing to stop it, then it could be considered a war crime.
It was a point of principle the Liberals were prepared to go to an election on in 2009, when the Conservatives stonewalled the release of documents to the Military Police Complaints Commission. The watchdog agency was conducting an investigation into what military cops knew about allegations of abuse in Afghan jails.
The Conservatives faced a Liberal-sponsored motion that could have led to their defeat in the House of Commons, but instead of facing it, former prime minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament.
The Liberals howled with outrage at the time.
"This time it's a coverup of what the Conservatives knew, and when they knew it, about torture in Afghanistan," Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, now the public safety minister, told CBC News on Dec. 30, 2009. "So their solution is not to answer the questions but, rather, to padlock Parliament and shut down democracy."
Scott accused the Liberals of hypocrisy on Friday after their response.
The Liberals had staked their reputation on openness and transparency, "but I'm nonetheless disappointed, and a little bit shocked as well, at how much the current government has completely taken on all of the arguments and rhetoric from the last government," he said.
"It's an extremely important issue, because ultimately what is done in our name, what we do around the world, has to reflect our fundamental values. And if we're fighting for those fundamental values, while simultaneously compromising them, we lose all legitimacy to be pushing those values to others."
He also said Sajjan should not have been the one to make the decision because, having served three tours in Afghanistan as a reserve force intelligence liaison officer, he is in a conflict of interest.
"This means he likely has a minimum general knowledge of issues that would have been directly relevant to a commission of inquiry, such that he might need to be a witness. So just with that very basic problem, he should have recused himself."
Previously, Scott had warned that if the new government wasn't prepared to act, he and others in the legal community were willing to petition the International Criminal Court at the Hague to investigate.
He reiterated that pledge Friday.
Paul Champ, the lawyer for Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which fought multiple court battles to halt the detainee transfers, said the government missed an opportunity to assert human rights leadership.
"I was hoping they were more principled when they were raising those issues," he said. "I think when the Liberals were in opposition they, perhaps, saw the Afghan detainee issue as nice, partisan, you know, football that they could use to beat up on the Conservative government of the day."
The NDP's Foreign Affairs critic, Hélène Laverdière described the Liberal's decision as hypocritical.
"Justin Trudeau himself called for an inquiry, but now in government, he has flip-flopped on the issue," she said. "Instead of the transparency he promised, we are seeing Liberals use Conservative-style excuses for not holding an inquiry. There are serious allegations here and the reputation of Canada and our military is at stake."