Despite revelations of complicity in major human rights abuses, Canada takes lead role in U.N. rebuke of Iran.
By Stephen Gowans
Canada sponsored on November 20 a U.N. General Assembly Resolution censuring Iran for human rights abuses, only three days after a senior Canadian diplomat testified before a Canadian House of Commons committee that the Canadian military had been complicit in the torture of Afghans.
Richard Colvin, who served 17 months in Afghanistan, testified that Afghans who were detained by Canadian soldiers were tortured after they were turned over to Afghan authorities. Colvin says that when he raised the matter with higher authorities, he was ignored and later told to remain silent.
In his testimony, Colvin asked Canadian members of parliament, “If we are complicit in the torture of Afghans in Kandahar, how can we credibly promote human rights in Tehran or Beijing?” 
As early as May 2006, Colvin informed Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, then-commander of Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, that he had reason to believe ”the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured.” 
Despite repeated attempts to red-flag his concerns to higher authorities, Colvin was ignored. Then in April 2007, he received “written messages from the senior Canadian government co-ordinator for Afghanistan to the effect that (he) should be quiet and do what (he) was told.” 
Canada had defended its transfer policy, arguing that if detainees were tortured, the Red Cross would let Canadian military officials know. But Colvin testified that when the Red Cross tried to alert the Canadian military, the “Canadian Forces in Kandahar wouldn’t even take their phone calls.” 
After Colvin raised the alarm, it took more than a year for Ottawa to negotiate a new transfer agreement. Under the new agreement, Canadian officials were able to visit detainees to determine whether they were being tortured. An Afghan human rights organization that receives funding from the Canadian government, reported this year that 98 percent of detainees are tortured, an indication that torture continues, despite the amended transfer agreement. 
While Colvin condemned Canada’s complicity in torture on the grounds that it is “a very serious violation of international and Canadian law” and is “a war crime,”  the Canadian media have largely overlooked the principal wrong, focusing instead on how the revelation could strengthen the insurgency and complicate efforts to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. That Canada’s military has committed a serious violation of international law – a war crime — is barely acknowledged.
Colvin is partly to blame for deflecting attention from the principal crime to tactical considerations. In his testimony, he offered four reasons Canadians ought to care about Afghan detainees being tortured. (That he felt he had to offer any reason, is shocking.) Violating Canadian and international law ranked only second. What concerned Colvin more – and what the Canadian media have picked up on as the principal crime – is that most of the detainees were “innocent,” that is, weren’t insurgents. In other words, implicit in much of the media coverage, and Colvin’s testimony, is the idea that the real scandal isn’t that detainees were tortured, but that the wrong people were tortured, and that this strengthens the insurgency by turning large numbers of Afghans, who would have otherwise acquiesced to the occupation, against it. Based on the additional concern Colvin has shown for the “farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants” and “random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time; young men in their fields and villages who were completely innocent but were nevertheless rounded up,”  torturing those who resist a foreign military occupation isn’t the problem; it’s the torture of “innocents” that is troubling, and it’s troubling because it stirs up the natives. Canadian soldiers, then, are being criticized, not, as they should be, for committing a war crime, but for acting in a way that undermines the mission’s goal of pacifying the Afghan population.
The use of the word “innocents” to describe those who aren’t resisting occupation, and by implication, “guilty” for those who are, is a criminalization of a behavior that, while inconvenient to the goals of the Canadian military in helping to enforce U.S. domination of Afghanistan, is hardly criminal at all. It is what some part of a population will reliably do, and has every right to do, when confronted by an uninvited foreign military presence. Complicity in the torture of insurgents is every bit as much a crime as complicity in the torture of non-insurgents.
As other Western countries, Canada presents itself as having the moral authority to call non-Western nations to account for human rights abuses. Its condemnations, however, are selective, directed exclusively at countries that resist Western domination, while passing over those that are firmly within the orbit of U.S. imperialism. Canada is prepared to censure Iran, Zimbabwe and China, but not Haiti (where it acts as part of a foreign occupation force), Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and countries of North Africa, despite regular and flagrant human rights violations in these countries. It is difficult to understand how a country that participates in the military occupation of Afghanistan for reasons that are contrived and indefensible, joined an unprovoked and illegal air war against Yugoslavia in 1999, is complicit in torture, and has treated its aboriginal people abominably, has the moral authority to lecture anyone on human rights.
By contrast, Iran, the object of Canada’s censure, hasn’t attacked any country in the modern era, doesn’t act as a janissary to an imperialist bully, and isn’t complicit in torture as an occupying force in foreign territory.
Were Canada genuinely interested in promoting human rights it would have long ago sponsored U.N. General Assembly resolutions to censure the United States for its notorious abuses of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and at the largest U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, Bagram air base, where US “military personnel who know Bagram and the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, describe the Afghan site as tougher and more Spartan” and where “many are still held communally in big cages.”  But, then, the abuse of prisoners carried out in the service of U.S. foreign policy goals doesn’t seem to rank high on Canada’s list of human rights violations.
Canadian officials defend their country’s military presence in Afghanistan as necessary to back up the “democratic” government of Hamid Karzai, and yet Karzai’s government routinely tortures prisoners, and without the slightest censure by Canada in international forums. Karzai recently won a second term as president in an election marred by fraud engineered in part by his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a C.I.A. operative who is “a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade.”  While vote fraud in the last presidential election in Iran is only alleged, and without much supporting evidence, the fraudulent nature of the last Afghan presidential election is nowhere in dispute.  The Afghan president should be denounced as a dictator, (and would be, were he not a puppet of the United States and therefore immune from the demonizing criticism the Western media and Western governments dole out to leaders of countries that resist U.S. control and domination.) And yet, far from censuring the Afghan government for its human rights abuses and vote fraud, Canada helps prop up the country’s deeply unpopular government through an illegitimate military presence.
Despite calls in parliament for an inquiry into Colvin’s allegations, the Canadian government refuses to pursue the matter publicly, preferring instead to engage in attempts to discredit Colvin as unreliable, an effort undermined by its having seen fit to appoint him to a senior diplomatic post in Washington. Ottawa insists there is no evidence that Afghan officials tortured detainees turned over by Canadian soldiers. But the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, which receives substantial funding from the Canadian government, reported this year that a survey it conducted of detention center inmates found that 98 percent had been tortured. 
On top of complicity in the torture of the people of a country it is guilty of participating in an indefenesible military occupation of, the Canadian government is guilty of torturing the truth, in the service of the fiction that it has the moral authority to rebuke other countries for their human rights abuses. We in the West, and particularly those of us in Canada, ought to be more concerned about the behavior of the Canadian government and its military, than of the Iranian government, whose censurable activities (related to political survival in the face of an overthrow movement Western powers have had a hand in organizing ) are by far the lesser crimes, if indeed, they can even be called crimes.
Canada, then, is waging an unjust war, within which, the evidence suggests, it has committed a war crime. On top of this, it has been silent on the crimes and human rights abuses of its Western allies and non-Western countries that operate, as it does, under the umbrella of U.S. imperialism.
The only way Canada can begin to establish moral authority is to withdraw from Afghanistan, offer restitution to the Afghans it has been complicit in the torture of, and hold the United States, Britain, Israel and other allies to account for their crimes and human rights abuses. And that’s just for starters. It also needs to refrain from sponsoring movements to overthrow governments, such as Iran’s, that pursue an independent course outside the domination of other countries. (Tehran’s arrest of political activists who have sought, with Western assistance and encouragement, to overthrow the Ahmadinejad government, would never have happened had Canada and other Western countries not interfered in Iran’s affairs by financing regime change NGOs.) Until Ottawa makes these amends, its censure of Tehran remains tantamount to Dracula rebuking a mosquito for feasting on human blood.
1. “Transcript: Explosive testimony on Afghan detainees,” The Canadian Press, November 18, 2009.
2. Steve Chase, “Canada complicit in torture of innocent Afghans, diplomat says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 2009.
5. Steve Chase and Campbell Clark, “Many detainees were just farmers, Afghan official says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 20, 2009.
6. “Transcript: Explosive testimony on Afghan detainees,” The Canadian Press, November 18, 2009.
8. Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon seeks prison overhaul in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, July 20. 2009.
9. Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen, “Brother of Afghan leader is said to be on C.I.A payroll,” The New York Times, October 28, 2009.
10. Stephen Gowans, “When election fraud is met by congratulations,” What’s Left, November 3, 2009. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/when-electoral-fraud-is-met-by-congratulations/
11. Steve Chase and Campbell Clark, “Many detainees were just farmers, Afghan official says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 20, 2009.
12. Stephen Gowans, “The role and aims of US democracy promotion in the attempted color revolution in Iran,” What’s Left, July 4, 2009. https://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/the-role-and-aims-of-us-democracy-promotion-in-the-attempted-color-revolution-in-iran/