Thursday, November 19, 2009

Afghanistan Torture Allegations: Is Canada Worthy of a Museum of Human Rights?

In April of 2005, the Federal Government of then-Prime Minister Paul Martin authorized $100 million towards the establishment of The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and two years later current Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced it would be first national museum to be built outside of the National Capital Region in Ontario. Now under construction in Winnipeg, the Museum promises to become a "a centre of learning where Canadians and people from around the world can engage in discussion and commit to taking action against hate and

The significance of the museum and its potential impact on national and international human rights discourse is such that recently, Arthur Mauro, founder of the Centre for Peace and Justice at the University of Manitoba stated his belief that Winnipeg could become the Geneva for the 21st Century, as a centre for peace and cooperation.

However, Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin's disturbing allegations that bureaucrats and other officials in the the Harper government -- perhaps even the Prime Minister's office itself -- may be complicit in torture and war crimes, threaten to expose as fraudulent Canada's commitment to human rights in general and its newest museum in particular.

The allegations are shocking: that Canadian troops turned over all of their prisoners to Afghan security forces for whom torture was "standard operating procedure." Moreover, Canadian troops were widely known for capturing many times more prisoners than their American counterparts, and that many of these were not "high-value" combatants but rather, according to Colvin, "just local people: farmers; truck drivers; tailors, peasants – random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time...In other words, we detained, and handed over for severe torture, a lot of innocent people." The Globe and Mail article, interestingly, omits Colvin's concluding statement: "Complicity in torture is a war crime."

Clearly these allegations must be independently investigated. If confirmed, they represent a profound betrayal of values Canadians have long held to be universal, and, most distressingly, principles that we have thought helped to define us as a nation and distinguish us from those we fought against -- namely the Taliban -- as well as the shameful history of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

That Canadian government officials would ignore, discourage and apparently seek to cover up Canadian complicity in torture and other human rights abuses is appalling and shameful. If those being accused of these crimes are not soundly and convincingly cleared of these allegations, or else appropriately punished, they will have undermined every positive thing Canada has declared itself committed to in Afghanistan and will probably destroy much of whatever trust
remains in our forces there. They will also certainly embolden the Taliban and place our soldiers in greater danger.

However, this episode could have an even more lasting and shameful legacy. At this moment, the foundations of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are being constructed at the Forks; in 2012 this fabulous building and the inspiring institution it contains will be operational. Yet in the eyes of the world Canada will have been exposed as a committer of war crimes, an abbettor to torture and atrocity. Regardless of official statements and millions of dollars in support of the Museum, our country will have shown itself to be unfit to build such a noble institution.

The only way we as a nation can show ourselves worthy of the Museum is to follow Colvin's accusations wherever they lead, investigate them to the full extent of our abilities and hold those responsible to justice. As citizens of this nation, we too must hold our elected leaders accountable; to dismiss this as another mere "scandal" that will eventually go away to be replaced by another will not do. To do anything less than a full accounting makes as all culpable as Canadians for what has been committed in our name.

For Winnipeg to truly become a Geneva for the 21st Century, all of us -- Winnipeggers and Canadians alike -- must face these allegations honestly. Only then can we prove to ourselves and the world that we are in fact civilized enough to warrant being home to a Museum for Human Rights.

If not, then in the eyes of the world the Museum will likely be seen as a monument to our hypocrisy.

By Michael Dudley

1 comment:

  1. Dear Michael D.,

    Yes, Canada still has grace and should host a Human Rights Museum, even though it too has sinned in the war on "terror". If one condemns any nation for illegal acts of any of its officers, virtually every nation on earth of any size is stained. Some are stained rather deeply like my own USA. Besides which, if one confines noble acts of education only to those who already get it, well, that is like teaching only Ph.D's.

    Which, by the way, can be painful in its own way. Best wishes always,

    Michael A.