the down low on torture from up north

I know that most of what passes for news in Canada is pretty tame stuff. It’s mostly of the “how many Canadians were involved in that global tragedy?” variety. But this one is serious, worth the world’s attention–especially the United States. It has been unraveling for quite some time now, and it is just coming to a head. The question is the extent to which the Canadian government was complicit in the torture of detainees in Afghanistan.

A while back, a high-level official in Canadian foreign affairs testified that knowledge that detainees were being tortured by Afghans was widespread in the top levels of government, and that nonetheless, the policy of Canadian armed forces in Afghanistan was to hand detainees over to the Afghans. People are outraged, and want to learn the details. The Prime Minister pulls a fast one on the people and shuts down the government, hoping it will all blow over. A guest blogger at Crooked Timber has a good summary of how this came together, and for fair and balanced coverage, here is a timeline from the Globe and Mail that does not connect the proroguing of Parliament to this issue.

But you can’t shut down Parliament forever, and surprise surprise, MPs still remembered this issue when they returned to session in March. The opposition leaders in Parliament have asked to see all the documents on this issue. The government, run by the Conservative party leader, Stephen Harper, has refused to show them to Parliament, instead assigning one person to review the documents and make a report to Parliament. Even then, it has been slow to release the documents, and those that get through are heavily redacted. Assigning a special liaison to review documents that are too sensitive for even Parliamentarians to see is an unprecedented move, and it represents a shift in the balance of power toward the Prime Minister (sound familiar?).

Objecting to this action, the opposition leaders have asked the House Speaker to rule on whether the government is in contempt of Parliament. Basically, they ask for a ruling of who is in charge of the country–the government or the Parliament–seeking a ruling on the balance of power. Just yesterday the House Speaker ruled that in fact the government could be held in contempt for its refusal to share relevant documents with Parliament, giving the parties two weeks to work out a compromise.

What happens next is worth paying attention to. All signs point to the government’s complicity in Afghan torture, and up here hiding that knowledge is going to be seen as offensive as well. Perhaps the government could fall, and an election could change the balance of power over to the Liberals? Well, not so fast. The war in Afghanistan predates the Conservative government–would it be too much of a stretch to expect that the Liberal government was taking the same course? If so, where does that leave the voters if there is an election?

Of course, there may also be implications for the US and the UK here, too. If the Canadians are allowing torture of detainees in the same conflict that the US and UK are embroiled in, it is worth asking questions of these governments how their actions might have differed from the Canadians. Too soon to tell, but it’s worth keeping an eye on Canadian news over the next couple of weeks.

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