Misfire on O’Connor

Lately, in the House of Commons, Defense Minister Gordon O’Connor has found himself facing attack from the opposition benches for something he assumed was true regarding reporting of the treatment of Afghan detainees by the Afghan government.

Minister O’Connor erroneously stated that the Canadian government would be updated as to the status of detainees by an overseeing body (the International Committee of the Red Cross) after transfer to the Afghani government.

The Minister has publicly corrected the record:

OTTAWA – I would like to respond to the article in the Globe & Mail of March 8 entitled “Red Cross contradicts Ottawa on detainees”

At the outset, I would like to clarify one point. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has indeed carried out several visits to detainees in temporary Canadian custody in Kandahar. This is consistent with Canada’s commitment to cooperate with the ICRC in fulfilling its mandated responsibilities under international humanitarian law to monitor conditions of detention.

On December 18, 2005, the previous Liberal government signed an arrangement with the Government of Afghanistan regarding the transfer of detainees from the Canadian Forces to the Afghan authorities. As per this arrangement, we continue to transfer all persons detained by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan to Afghan authorities, and to notify the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The article makes reference to comments that I made in the House of Commons last May. It was my understanding that the ICRC could share information concerning detainee treatment with Canada. I have recently learned that they would in fact provide this information to the detaining nation, in this case Afghanistan. …

It appears that the Minister received some bad information.

The Liberals have seized upon the mistake in a press release issued on their website:

…Earlier this month Mr. O’Connor was forced to admit his assertions that the International Committee of the Red Cross would notify Canada of any mistreatment of prisoners in Afghan custody were false. The Red Cross is not required to notify Canada concerning the treatment of detainees transferred to Afghan prisons, and unlike Britain and the Netherlands, Canada has not retained the right to verify that transferred detainees receive proper treatment. …

The Liberals are piling on O’Connor for his mistaken impression. The Liberals, if they had been in power would not have made the same mistake, would they? Perhaps they would have ignored the assertions of departmental officials and bureaucrats regarding the ICRC and Afghan detainees.

Consider a National Defence Joint Doctrine Manual on the topic of how to handle detainees in international operations. On page 133, in a section titled “The Transfer of Prisoners of War”, section 2c states:

Even after PW (prisoner of war) captured by Canada have been transferred to the custody of another nation, there is still a residual responsibility placed on Canada regarding their treatment. If the Government of Canada is notified by the Protecting Power, usually the ICRC, that the Detaining Power to whom the PW have been transferred is not complying with the provisions of the GCs (Geneva Conventions), Canada has a duty to correct the problem, or to take the PW back into Canadian custody.

It appears that the Minister may have received bad advice from the department officials and one should conclude that the error is not reflective of the competence of Minister O’Connor.

How long has this incorrect, official government document been floating through the system?

Since August 1st, 2004. This is long before O’Connor took over as Minister of Defense. In fact, a Liberal Defense Minister (Bill Graham) was operating under an erroneous policy since the time this document was drafted (perhaps earlier).

It would seem that the fault on this issue lies with department bureaucrats rather than our Conservative and Liberal Defense Ministers.

UPDATE: In case you may be wondering, the Joint Doctrine Manual cited above is, to this date, the CF authority on PW and detainee handling. Of course, it is now known to contain false information which may lead current and future Defense Ministers down the wrong path.

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