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December 17, 2009

Canadian war criminals?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Richard Colvin is a brave man. He has blown the whistle on Canadian complicity in torture in Afghanistan, a move that will certainly give no boost to his career in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Reuel S. AmdurRichard Colvin is a brave man.  He has blown the whistle on Canadian complicity in torture in Afghanistan, a move that will certainly give no boost to his career in the Department of Foreign Affairs. 

Defence Minister Peter MacKay made that obvious by the attack he launched on Colvin’s credibility. 

Colvin claims that high Canadian officials were well informed of torture that they chose to ignore.  The claims of torture have now been verified by General Walter Natynczyk. 

Foreign Affairs already had a document about conditions in Afghan prisons, as revealed in a report in the Globe and Mail, which published extracts of a report from diplomats in Afghanistan, with all the juicy parts blacked out. 

The sneaky Globe reporters managed to get copy with the blacked out parts still intact. 

Not much attention has been given to the legal implications for individuals responsible for ignoring warnings about the danger of torture of prisoners turned over to the Afghans. 

Could they have committed war crimes which might make them liable to criminal charges?

The Nuernberg trials are a precedent for contemporary war crimes trials such as those at the Hague, the recent trial of Désiré Munyaneza in Canada, and the trials of Hutus in Tanzania. 

Nuernberg had its critics and the criticisms still have weight today.  The trials were not fair and impartial. 

As F.J.P. Veal pointed out in his book Advance to Barbarism, the victorious Allies tried the defeated officials of the Axis.  While he in no way apologized for the Nazi atrocities, he remarked that “The most serious war crime is to be on the losing side.” 

Veale saw Nuernberg as a prelude to increased barbaric treatment by victors of their defeated foes. 

To illustrate the unfairness of Nuernberg, Veale cites the refusal of the court to allow the Nazi defendants to reply adequately to the charge that they perpetrated the Katyn massacre of Polish officers. 

Richard Falk, emeritus Professor of International Law at Princeton and U.N. Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, calls the Nuernberg trials “victors’ justice.” 

Yet, while Veale sees only a dark precedent, Falk is more positive.

International law is not proof against power, but there are now examples of successful trials under conditions of greater fairness. 

We are not yet to the point where George W. Bush can be put in the dock for starting an illegal war in Iraq or Vladimir Putin for his atrocities in Chechnya.

Their positions in powerful states protect them where others might be more vulnerable. 

Contrary to Veale, not even all victors are necessarily immune. 

In particular, Israel has been on the hot seat.  General Doron Almog, former head of Israeli forces in Gaza, remained on the airplane that took him to London when he learned that there was an arrest warrant waiting for him at the arrival gate.

Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon decided not to travel to London for fear of arrest.  Israel is now seeking to have countries curtail the ability of laying charges against officials, with success in Spain and Belgium. 

In the United States, complaints against two Israelis is tied to a suit against Mohamed Ali Samatar, a former Somali foreign minister, for responsibility for killings, rapes, and torture.  If the U.S. Supreme Court permits the case against him to go ahead, then the Israelis may also face the music. 

Here in Canada, Colvin alleges that David Mulroney, who was head of the Afghan task force in the Privy Council and now serves as ambassador to China, ordered him to stop putting information about torture in his reports.

He also claims that Colleen Swords, who was then the Assistant Deputy Minister of the International Security Branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs, told him not to put any such information in writing, but only to report about them by telephone. 

Of course, a lot more people are implicated, as shown in that Globe and Mail article. 

It appears that the Canadian government may have a number of people in prominent positions who could be charged with war crimes, up to and including ministers. 

Look out Peter Mackay!  

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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