Last week I visited the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. I took a few pictures in the World War I section and then put the camera away in frustration. On the way over, I had made the mistake of driving by that mausoleum on Parliament Hill. My ability to focus on gas attacks and trench warfare was gone: by the time I reached the museum, all I could think about was the war in Afghanistan.
The treatment of detainees captured by Canadian forces and transferred to the Afghan government has our opposition politicians all aflutter. So the charges go, the Afghan government subsequently tortured some of those detainees. The oppositions’ finger pointing is a bit confounding considering that many of these politicians are members of the party responsible for drafting the agreement that established these transfers in the first place.
Now I hear our troops’ morale is suffering because they feel they are being vilified back home for passing on the detainees. I’ve listened to the Canadian generals and the investigating committee on TV and here’s my understanding of the situation. First, Canadian troops themselves didn’t participate in any alleged torturing. Second, it’s not the job of a Canadian soldier to investigate and pass judgement as to whether or not the Geneva Convention is being violated. Third, monitoring of detainee treatment by the Afghan government is supposed to be the responsibility of civilian organizations. Our troops have nothing to be sorry for except perhaps for the lack of support they received over this issue from the conservative government.
Combat troops have to be able to quickly pass on detainees in a war zone. Their job is on the battlefield. Guarding prisoners for any longer than is absolutely necessary is a significant burden and a dangerous distraction. Our politicians are now going to endlessly drag the issue of torture through the House of Commons in one form or another. Committees will write reports, make recommendations, castigate a few, exonerate others. One way or another, in the end the Afghan government is going to continue to receive detainees captured by our troops. And one way or another, this issue of mistreatment and torture will linger on.
Aside from packing up our troops and bringing them home, there is a solution to the problem — ship the detainees captured by Canadian troops back to Canada for processing and internment here. This action may take some political backbone with our NATO allies and the Afghan government, but surely we have a few politicians around with the spinal fortitude to handle the job. I think this solution would be a big boost to the morale of our troops in Afghanistan. It would also let the troops know that the folks back home were willing to do their part to help out.
Once on Canadian soil, politicians have direct access to the treatment of the detainees. Members of the press, monitoring organizations, and citizens concerned about the proper treatment of the detainees can be more assured that the information they receive is unstaged and honest. Since these detainees are not in uniform, there would be ample opportunity to sort out any lingering issues as to individual innocence or guilt. And our government can move on to address other issues of greater concern to most Canadians.
Canada is experienced running camps for prisoners of war. Thousands of German POWs were interned in Canada in World War II. Is there a difference between a prisoner of war and detainee? Should detainee be given preferential treatment? My understanding is that Canadian troops only detain those who have harmed or intended to harm them so I can’t see one.
There are issues that need to be considered. Saving the most challenging for last, one concern might be where are we going to locate these Detainee Camps? Obviously, not in downtown Toronto. Canada has endless, under-populated areas, which are relatively accessible to civilization, that could be used.
Who would guard the Detainee Camps? Civilian correctional services could handle the detainees inside the camps while the army could provide the outside security from parties trying to forcibly enter the camps. (No direct contact to the detainees should keep the government off the military’s back.) Bear in mind, the number of detainees will never begin to approach the thousands of German POWs who poured into Canada.
What about fanaticism among the detainees? What about it? The German POW camps had fanatical, hard-core, Nazi followers who endeavoured to impose their control within the Canadian camps. They set up secret kangaroo courts that were known to have POWs beaten or even sentenced to death by their own hand. Our system handled it.
Which leads us to the testy issue of the detainees being repatriated after the hostilities are over. (This has to be done under the Geneva Convention.) Since hostilities are over, the current government which is now being accused of torture (or its successor) would have less reason to mistreat the returning detainees. If the Taliban form part of the government at the time of repatriation, they will provide for the detainees’ safety.
The most challenging issue of all that must be addressed before setting up Detainee Camps is why do this if Canada is pulling out its troops in 2011. That’s easy — because, regardless of what our politicians say now, we will have troops in this theatre of conflict after that date.