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Expert on laws of war says that war crimes may have been committed by Canadian officials

Note that this rather blunt opinion of Canada or Canadian officials possibly being in breach of international law comes from a 3rd party, not an opposition political party. Here’s an excerpt of an article posted at Macleans by Professor Michael Byers, “who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, and has He has taught the laws of war at UBC, Duke University, Oxford University, the University of Cape Town and the University of Tel Aviv”:

‘Elements of a war crime seem to be present’

According to UBC’s laws of war expert, Canadian officials may be in breach of the Geneva Convention

…The actual facts are still emerging, but all the elements of a war crime seem to be present. The prohibition of torture ranks with the prohibitions of genocide and slavery as one of the most fundamental rules of international law. Torture—and complicity in torture—is a “grave breach” of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

If Canadian officials allowed detainees to be transferred to Afghan custody despite an apparent risk of torture, and chose not to take reasonable steps to protect them, they are as guilty of a war crime as the torturers themselves. They could be prosecuted in Canada under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. Or they could be hauled before the International Criminal Court. Canada has ratified the ICC’s statute, giving it jurisdiction over Canadians who commit war crimes anywhere. However, the International Criminal Court will not intervene if Canadian officials are willing and able to investigate and prosecute. We must hope that the will to investigate and prosecute is present.

Given Peter MacKay’s attempt (as well as the rest of the Conservative government) to besmirch and smear Richard Colvin’s testimony, as well as the man himself (calling him a Taliban dupe, amongst other things) I have my doubts that at the moment this government is “willing to investigate and prosecute” on its own. It may need some prodding from the ICC to do so.

This is a serious matter, and the government should be calling for a public inquiry to get to the bottom of things one way or the other;   not engaging in a witch-hunt against a whistleblower who well knew his career might be in jeopardy for coming forward with his testimony. As the author of the above piece writes at the end of his column:

It’s time for Canadians to rally behind this brave and principled diplomat. It’s time to insist that any war criminals be investigated and prosecuted, regardless of who they are.

I might also add that a public inquiry will determine if there WERE violations or not, and whether there is grounds for prosecution. All the more reason to have an independent judicial inquiry so that we can find out the truth of things. The Conservatives came in promising more open accountable government; it’s about time they practised what they preached.

In the meantime, I hope a few lawyers of some human rights organizations are giving the ICC a call to inform them of these allegations.

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16 comments to Expert on laws of war says that war crimes may have been committed by Canadian officials

  • KC

    Scott – I ask you with complete sincerity what you think Canada should do with captured Taliban. Assuming we can’t actually trust the Afghan government not to torture detainees what do we do with them? Set them free in Afghanistan only to have them return to the battlefield and keep killing Canadian soldiers and Afghan civilians? Set them free in Canada? Bring them back to Canada and indefinitely detain them without charge or trial (because really there is nothing under Canadian law that can be used against them)? Create Canadian run POW camps in Afghanistan and hold them until the ‘war’ is ‘over’ (if the war ever ends)?

    I simply don’t know what the answer is.

    • @KC, “I simply don’t know what the answer is.”

      Hmmm… oh, oh, I know the answer… we do what we are supposed to do: humanely imprison them and process them. Those who are dangerous are held.

      Or, maybe this is a huge hint that we simply don’t belong there at all?

      • KC

        Ok so Canadian-run POW camps is the answer. What do we do with them when we pull out in 2011?

        • @KC, From http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/many-detainees-were-just-farmers-afghan-official-says/article1372428/ :

          The chief of Afghanistan’s notorious intelligence agency told Canada in April of 2007 that he had no idea how many of the prisoners handed over to him by rank-and-file Canadian soldiers were in fact Taliban or just local farmers, according to a memo written by diplomat whistleblower Richard Colvin for his Ottawa superiors.

          Mr. Colvin delivered shocking testimony this week in Ottawa that has put the Conservative government on the defensive, spurred calls for a full-blown public inquiry and made senior bureaucrats scramble to explain themselves. He said all the detainees Canadians turned over to Afghan authorities were tortured. The memo suggests that most turned out to be of little value.

          In fact, Amrullah Saleh, chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, told Canadians most prisoners were later released – meaning they weren’t likely high-value captures, according to the memo.

    • @KC, How about we start with getting our system up to the standards of the British and Dutch forces?

      (Colvin) said unlike the British and Dutch, Canada did not monitor their conditions; took days, weeks or months to notify the Red Cross; kept poor records; and to prevent scrutiny, the Canadian Forces leadership concealed this behind “walls of secrecy.”

      Regardless if we have done so already or not, this is about investigating whether Canadian officials in the past were complicit in torture by looking the other way or erecting a “wall of silence” towards Afghan policy. So, I think your question is off the mark a bit and not dealing with the issue at hand — who ignored Colvin’s warnings, and how far up the chain of command did this go?

  • croghan27

    “Citing this article is about as usefull as citing Jack Layton as an independent expert on the economy.”

    Seems to me it was the current Minister of Finance who, less than a year ago, brought in a “what, me worry” budget, ignoring the international economy going to hell in a hand cart (that almost sank his government). So, yes – consulting Layton on the economy makes a lot more sense than the flaming incompetent now in place.

  • Roll Tide

    Byers is about as third party as Ezra Levant.

  • Citing this article is about as usefull as citing Jack Layton as an independent expert on the economy.

    Here’s what the Ubysee editorial board thinks of Byers:

    We’re Tired Of Byers
    Our View

    Last week, UBC political science professor, failed NDP Candidate, and media gadfly Michael Byers went on a hunger strike as part of the 2010 Homelessness Hunger Strike Relay. When we heard the news, virtually every member of The Ubyssey editorial staff winced. And not just because it was a self-serving media stunt that reeked of martyrdom and did little to serve the actual cause of homelessness. Since he arrived on campus in 2004, we’ve seen, heard, and written more about Byers than is merited given his accomplishments—how ever impressive they might be. He’s written many a book, comes off as incredibly thoughtful in interviews, and people who take his classes generally have nice things to say. That’s the case with a lot of academics though—and we don’t see many thrusting themselves into the public spotlight with the gusto Byers does.

    But Byers isn’t an academic at this point; he’s a politician. He ran for the NDP last election, he plans to run again for them in the next election and he’s ready to criticize the Harper government about anything at the drop of a dime. Except he—and reporters who use him for his good quotes and pretty face—still refer to him as an “in ternational law expert,” even when he’s talking about the Olympics, the economic crisis, or any other subject that has nothing to do with international law. An academic imparts his learned knowledge on an issue, and a politicians promotes himself and his particular views. With Byers, the line is certainly blurred. At this point, whenever he publicly promotes a cause, it’s difficult to tell: is he promoting an important issue, or is he promoting Michael Byers and the NDP?

    We know that even though his actual job is a UBC professor, UBC students aren’t exactly his first priority. After all, this past semester plenty of graduate students signed up for his class on global politics, but when they got to their first class, he told them that due to the upcoming election the class would be cancelled. He then proceeded to tell them why he was running, why students should vote for him, and, by the way, if anyone wanted to volunteer for him, that would be super awesome. Not exactly a humble display from the socially conscious professor.

    All of which has led us to conclude the following: we’re tired of Byers; tired of talking about him, tired of hearing about him, and tired of his pseudo-self promotion. Michael Byers, we’re taking a cue from Stephen Colbert: you’re on notice.

  • Rumrunner

    Careful on the “3rd Party” note, Scott. Michael Byers wrote that article, and while he didn’t get elected for the NDP, you’re asking for flak from the trolls by calling him a 3rd party.

    • @Rumrunner, The Con trolls are going to take issue with anyone who contradicts the Conservative narrative on this… so it doesn’t bother me a bit. He’s still a 3rd party in my view, and obviously a knowledgeable expert.

      If they want some “balance”, I’ll remind them that one of the the Conservative government’s own advisers on security issues has said Colvin’s allegations prompt the need for am independent judicial inquiry. Is he “biased’ as well? Is Norman Spector a “Liberal hack”, who’s also called for a judicial inquiry?

      • the rat

        Yeah, he’s a third party to you because he supports your view. The fact that he was and likely will be a candidate for the NDP and has publicly called for a “truce” between NDP and Liberals where each would not run candidates against the other in selected ridings, well, that has no bearing whatsoever on this, I’m sure. Nor does the fact that much of this took place under Liberal stewardship matter, it seems. But more to the point it’s same old-same old for our Liberal friends who support the army on Nov. 11th and the rest of the year do everything to undermine it.

  • I do not think the
    Canadian soldiers did anything, unless they were told to do so..It would be the higher up or the Government was told what was going on…whoever was told, and kept a secret ,should watch out.

  • pale

    Oh gawd. The Rove tactics again….

    Learn to read Steve….. “Canadian officials” is not Soldiers.

    This is getting so old with you lot who cannot actually defend the indefensible.

    CUT AND RUN! SUPPORT THE TROOPS. Blah blah.

    If you want to enter into any conversation, LEARN what it is actually about.
    The pointy finger at the Liberals is acting like a two year old.

  • Steve Mason

    While you are worried about the treatment of suspected suicide bombers and roadside bomb makers, you are calling our soilders “war criminals”. I really hope that you aren’t in the majority of the Liberal party because I will never consider voting for you again.

    • @Steve Mason, because unlike you, apparently, I have a moral conscience in believing that we shouldn’t be stooping into the depths of depravity when fighting the bad guys. I don’t believe in the Machiavellian rule of “the ends justifying the means”.

      If there was complicity in turning over these folks to the Afghan Secret Service knowing they were likely to be tortured – yet we turned a blind eye to it – then it is the duty of our government to investigate that and prosecute people if they find that to be the case.

      If they won’t, the International Criminal Court will.

      I might also point out that if these allegations are true, we’ve also handed over many innocent people who got tortured by the Afghan Secret Service. If torturing the “bad guys” doesn’t bother you, surely the torturing of innocent people should.

    • @Steve Mason, In other words, Steve Mason believes it is okay to torture people, and that the Conservative Party supports that.

      He also believes in conviction without trial and giving brutal punishment.

      On the upside, he still believes in voting.

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