Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/11/2009 (3614 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The problem was not that pictures of any kind of abuse had been taken or that the Canadians had something to hide. Rather, publishing pictures of prisoners captured in war could be a considered a violation of the Geneva Conventions which protects prisoners from becoming objects of "public curiosity."
Although upset that the Canadians wanted to seize his pictures, the photographer admitted that he had not seen any crimes committed nor any of the prisoners treated poorly. The sole concern of the Canadian military was ensuring that they met all of their obligations under the Geneva Conventions.
The Canadian Forces rightfully pride themselves on adhering to international law as a part of their standard operating procedures. Most accounts of the military taking prisoners in the media since 2006 have been positive.
The problem in this case is not what Canadians do to their prisoners, but the policies of our allies once those prisoners are handed over. Although it may seem they are no longer under Canadian jurisdiction, international law says otherwise.
The laws which govern the transfer of prisoners of war are found in the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 (specifically articles 12, 46-48 and 70).
A brief summary of the law as well as current state practice is that those countries which capture individuals are ultimately responsible for their welfare, even if they have been transferred to a prison under another nation's control. If it comes to light that there are abuses or that treatment does not meet the Geneva standard in the other country's prison, the original capturing state is obliged by the Geneva Convention to "take effective measures to correct the situation or [that they] shall request the return of the prisoners of war."
Crucially, for the government, the conventions are clear that the prisoners are the responsibility of Canada, irrespective of the individual responsibilities that may exist on the ground in the theatre of war.
When it comes to other detainee abuse scandals, this is both the difference and the problem.
At Abu Ghraib, the offences were committed by American personnel at an American controlled prison and the responsibility for the crime was relatively clear. The scandal for the Canadian forces in Somalia was that a detainee had died while in detention by Canadian forces after suffering abuse at their hands.
The allegations made by diplomat Richard Colvin suggest that while the Canadian forces did not themselves directly abuse any prisoners, they knew that any prisoners transferred to Afghan prisons were more than likely to be tortured. This would be a violation of the Third Geneva Convention.
The condemnation of Colvin by the government and current and retired Canadian Forces personnel has come quickly. Indeed, under international law his accusation is a serious one and would have serious ramifications (particularly given Canada's status as a party to the International Criminal Court.)
But what the government is most likely afraid of is another Somalia Inquiry which, however much needed, dragged on for years. When combined with a decade of military cutbacks, the inquiry was a demoralizing experience for the Canadian Forces, which ultimately led to the disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment.
To go through such an experience again — while fighting an incredibly costly war in terms of human lives — is something that the Tories certainly wish to avoid.
Yet, if Defence Minister Peter MacKay is correct in asserting that there are many holes in Colvin's testimony, it suggests that there is little to fear from such an inquiry taking place. Indeed, if Colvin's critics are correct, it may bring to light the good practices which Canadian Forces pride themselves on.
It is our neighbours to the south, however, from which the government may best learn a lesson. Of all of the painful memories of the 2003 Iraq War, Abu Ghraib has remained one of the most prominent and a symbol of what can go wrong in the chaos of war.
Yet once the scandal broke, it was instantly recognized for what it was and prompted not one but 12 investigations as to how such war crimes could have occurred.
Besides accountability, the goal of these investigations was to help find ways of preventing them from happening in the future. The process was not without flaws, but it did send a clear message that such instances of torture and abuse were wrong and are considered a major setback for the American forces.
This is not the first time that questions have been raised over how Canada handles the prisoners it has captured in Afghanistan. Given the controversies that have arisen in the United States over their policies in handing prisoners, and a perception that Canada's "humanitarian" character (however inaccurate) is at stake, there is a serious question as to whether or not an inquiry could be held in a neutral apolitical environment.
Based on the experiences of the U.S., however, attempts to bury Colvin's accusations are not going to be good for the government, the military or future missions abroad.
Stephanie Carvin is a Canadian lecturer in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. She completed a PhD in 2006 at the London School of Economics on the topic of prisoners of war. It will be published as Prisoners of America's Wars by Columbia University Press in 2010.