Prime Minister Harper: Bush lite?

The Globe and Mail changed its format last week. Presumably it’s no coincidence that they also published a series of provocative front-page columns:  columns which have created a political crisis for Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative government.

The Globe alleges that Canada is indirectly responsible for torture in Afghanistan:

A Globe investigation, based on 30 face-to-face interviews with men recently captured in Kandahar province, uncovered a range of horrific stories and a clear pattern of abuse by Afghan authorities who work closely with Canadian troops.

Some of the allegations were made by four men, whose names were published, and who were originally detained by Canadian forces.

None of the abuse was inflicted by Canadians, and most Afghans captured — even Taliban sympathizers — praised the Canadian soldiers for their politeness, their gentle handling of captives and conditions in their detention facility.

At worst, then, Canada is indirectly responsible for torture. Our soldiers detain people and turn them over to the Afghan government; there is evidence that the Afghan authorities torture some of those detainees.

Prime Minister Harper continues to deny that there is any “specific evidence” of torture, saying, “Even the commissioner in Afghanistan said he had only heard rumours.”

But day after day the Globe and Mail has undermined the government’s credibility on this issue. In particular, they called attention to a report written by Canadian diplomats in Afghanistan. The report stated,

Extra judicial executions, disappearances, torture and detention without trial are all too common.

The government first claimed, in writing, “no such report on human-rights performance in other countries exists”. Next, the Globe and Mail obtained the (non-existent) report under an access-to-information request.

The report was heavily censored, but the Globe obtained another, uncensored copy of it. Here’s an excerpt from Wednesday’s lead article, revealing what’s under the blacked out bits (click to enlarge):

censored reportCanada’s Information Commissioner is going to investigate the censor- ship of this document. The Government is allowed to censor documents only where national security is at stake. In this instance, the censorship seems to have been motivated by political concerns. The Globe reported:

The government has eradicated every single reference to torture and abuse in prison ….

It leaves untouched paragraphs such as those beginning “one positive development” or “there are some bright spots.” But heavy dark blocks obliterate sentences such as “the overall human rights situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in 2006.”

Clearly such censorship goes beyond a concern for national security.

The Globe‘s allegations could be very damaging to the Conservatives. Prime Minister Harper has long been accused of modelling his government after that of George Bush. The Globe‘s allegations fit that paradigm.

The Bush administration has a well-known policy of “rendition”, under which detainees are turned over to other governments to be tortured. No one is saying that the Conservatives are deliberately arranging for Canada’s detainees to be tortured. Still, that’s the taint that this allegation will leave on the Harper administration.

The censorship issue compounds Harper’s problem (although the Conservatives are blaming it on bureaucrats). The Bush administration is frequently accused of lying, or at least obfuscating about its most controversial policies, not least those related to torture. Here Harper and his Ministers seem to be playing the same sort of shell game with the Canadian public.

Is Stephen Harper “Bush lite”? The label may be unjustified, but even people who support the war in Afghanistan — as I do — will be put off by last week’s allegations. Kudos to the Globe for outstanding journalism.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Greg
    May 01, 2007 @ 19:00:08

    There’s an amusing timeline graphic in Jon Stewart’s parody textbook America: Democracy Inaction which shows the ‘history’ of news media. One point states (I’m paraphrasing): 1973 – Investigative journalists take down Nixon administration, call it a day’s work and take rest of the century off.

    It’s good to see they are actually still out there, looking over the government’s shoulder.

    It’s also nice to see good news-y posts from Canada. Without access to CBC radio/TV or the Globe I feel more than a little disconnected.

    Keep up the good work!

    PS. 20 days until the big day. Congradulations.


  2. Stephen
    May 01, 2007 @ 20:45:48

    Thanks, Greg. If you send me an email address, I’d be happy to call some of the news to your attention, as interesting things pop up.

    Twenty days, indeed! It’s too bad you can’t be here, but our bad for scheduling the wedding while you’re in South Africa.


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