Global Policy Forum

World Court Asked to

CBC News
April 26, 2007

Two Canadian human rights activists have asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate "possible war crimes" by top Canadian defence officials. The request for a probe into the treatment of Afghan prisoners comes from Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, and William Schabas, another Canadian professor who is director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights in Galway.

Byers said he and Schabas sent a letter to the court's chief prosecutor on Wednesday outlining media reports of "serious allegations of misconduct by Canadian soldiers and Canadian decision-makers in terms of transferring detainees into an apparent risk of torture." "We're not judges," Byers told CBC Newsworld on Thursday. "We can't say that these are war crimes, but we can certainly connect the news report with what we know about the law, and if the allegations are correct, we think there's a pretty good chance that war crimes have been committed."

The professors allege Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor and Gen. Rick Hillier, chief of Canada's defence staff, agreed to the transfer of prisoners to Afghan authorities despite the risk of torture and other abuse. Opposition parties kept up the pressure on O'Connor on Wednesday after he announced a "new arrangement" that would allow Canadian officials access "at any time" to Afghan detainees to ensure they have not been tortured. They continued to grill the Conservatives in the House of Commons on Thursday.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said if there is a new prisoner transfer agreement, he would like to see it. NDP Leader Jack Layton repeated demands to know whether the government is making its foreign policy "on the fly." On Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said he had not heard of the new deal; Hillier could offer few details, but said civilian staff at Kandahar air base have been assigned the task of checking on detainees.

Formal agreement expected soon

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Commons on Thursday that the government has an understanding with Afghan officials about access to captured Taliban fighters and it will soon "formalize" the deal. "We will conclude a formal agreement so that we never again face these baseless allegations," he said. Thirty Afghan detainees have claimed they were beaten, whipped, given electric shocks and denied food once they were transferred to Afghan security forces by the Canadian military . Canada signed an agreement with Afghanistan in 2005 that committed Canadian soldiers to hand over captured Taliban prisoners to local authorities.

Top general denies torture claims

NATO's top commander in southern Afghanistan said on Thursday he's not aware of prisoners being tortured after they have been transferred to Afghan authorities, but that doesn't mean the prison and police systems don't need improvement. Maj.-Gen Ton van Loon said he has not heard of "any specific cases" of abuse in the six months he has been in charge of NATO troops. "I have not been given any reason to think that they have taken place," the Dutch general told CBC News. Van Loon said he and his officials talk regularly with Afghan police and the country's intelligence service, who have assured him that there is no abuse and no torture. Even so, he said, NATO soldiers need to keep working with the Afghans. "This country is developing a police [force] from scratch and we need to make sure we get this as fast as we can up to the standard that we take for granted in our countries," said Van Loon, who transfers power to another officer next week.

Defence minister accused of coverup

O'Connor said under a previous arrangement, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission had guaranteed that it would report any abuses to the Canadian government. "Within the last few days we have basically made an arrangement with the government in the Kandahar province so that we can have access to our detainees," the minister told the foreign affairs committee. Opposition MPs during question period on Wednesday accused the minister of being part of a coverup. Liberal Ujjal Dosanjh alleged that O'Connor had misled the public on Canada's ability to monitor detainees and of burying a report flagging allegations of torture in Afghan prisons.

MacKay denies coverup allegations

MacKay called the coverup accusations "patently false," while the prime minister said the report dealt with the "general concerns" over the state of the Afghan prison system. The Globe and Mail newspaper said a report prepared for Foreign Affairs by Canadian diplomats in Kabul warned the government last year about Afghanistan's poor human rights record and allegations of torture. The Globe said the Department of Foreign Affairs at first flatly denied it had any such report, which the paper said was heavily censored before it was released under an Access to Information request.

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