Canada Foreign Policy
Saturday, April 28, 2007
  "Disarray"! "Disarray"? Or, with an Opposition Like This, Who Needs a Caucus?

Maybe you were never a Stephen Harper fan. But, it used to be said that he was competent. This could not be said of his Liberal predecessor. Maybe you didn’t like what Harper said or did, but at least you were compelled, maybe grudgingly, to say that his leadership was effective.

At any rate, competence is what the image consultants wanted the public to believe Harper had. He was, they said, just as effective as he was controversial. In reality, what allowed him to project that image was control. And that’s not necessarily control over issues or political affairs, merely control over his caucus. What needed to be asked long ago, but wasn’t, was whether or not effectiveness and control are or ever were interchangeable.

The question may now be moot. According to some accounts, Harper’s ability to even manage his caucus may be waning, a development plunging his entire government into "disarray." And really what created this new reality is Afghanistan, and the Tories’ ability, or inability, to control what happens there: "Canada's government descended into disarray over an Afghan abuse scandal on Thursday after ministers openly contradicted each other over allegations that Taliban suspects captured by Canadian soldiers had been tortured by local police" [Cited in David Ljunggren’s ‘Canada’s Government in Disarray Over Afghan Abuse Scandal,’ Reuters, 26 April 2007. Story posted at]. All this is nothing short of "rapidly becoming the biggest crisis to hit the minority Conservative government since it took power" just over a year ago [cited in Ljunggren...].

At the center of this "scandal" is the rule of law. Prisoners in Afghanistan have alleged they have been beaten and tortured. However, no one suggests that any Canadians were ever involved in this inappropriate behaviour. Rather, problems start once Canada turns over prisoners to Afghan government authorities. Is it the case, some now ask, that Canada undermines rule of law by turning a blind eye to torture once it passes along prisoners, or is there some monitoring mechanism, thereby ensuring that suspects will not be mistreated?

How significant or meaningful are allegations of torture for Tory officials? It was on Tuesday the 24th that Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, speaking at a conference on international counter-terrorism, remarked that humane treatment of prisoners is "a radical thought for a lot of people in that part of the world." Day also said: "We’re saying to them that these people we’re bringing you to put in jail, yes, these people have no compunction about machine-gunning, mowing down little children. They have no compunction about decapitating or hanging elderly women. They have no compunction about the vicious forms of torture you can imagine on innocent people. Now we’ve captured them ... and we’re asking you to treat them humanely." Meanwhile, at least one report says that Wajid Khan, PM Stephen Harper’s advisor on Middle East Affairs, believes "torture is just part of the grinding conditions faced daily in Afghanistan’s ‘tribal culture’" [Day and Khan cited in CP, 25 April 2007. Story posted at].

The "scandal" erupted on 23 April 2007. Allegations of torture made headlines that day, prompting government officials to explain they had absolutely no knowledge of any facts, and suggested the reports were linked to conjecture and malicious rumours. Days later, on 25 April, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor observed a deal on prisoner treatment had been concluded with Afghan authorities. Yet within a day, perhaps hours, of the O’Connor statement came news, confirmed by the Tories themselves, including the office of the Foreign Minister, that no one knew of any accords. And later still came news that monitors or observers always had contact with detainees.

Opposition parties seemed enraged by both the allegations of torture and the seemingly confused Tory responses to the charges. Liberal leader Stephane Dion offered up the suggestion that prisoners be brought to Canada, a remark addressed by Stockwell Day who countered with the notion that the Taliban ought to remain in Afghanistan. And then there came calls for O’Connor to resign. Some seem hopeful this will yet take place, given the Defence Minister has opted to maintain a very low profile these past recent days.

But is all or any of this really a scandal that threatens the Tory government? On 27 April 2007 came reports that the Afghan Ambassador to Canada, Omar Samad, confirms no Canadians have monitored prisoners turned over to local authorities. The Ambassador added Canadian monitors soon will have that right, but meantime urged that the "political circus" triggered by accusations of prisoner maltreatment come to an end. "It doesn't mean those were detention centres of people who were arrested by Canadian forces...So if this has created confusion, I think that we all need to take a step back and define what we're talking about and to bring some clarity to this instead of turning it into a political circus...From the Afghan point of view, it's clear there was no followup or monitoring of detainees caught by Canadian forces turned over to Afghans, especially to the NDS [National Directorate of Security] that took place prior to this current time," said Samad [cited in Juliet O’Neill’s CanWest News Service piece titled ‘Afghan Ambassador Says Canada Has Not Monitored Prisoners,’ published in The National Post, 27 April 2007. Story posted at].

And how much of a "scandal" there really is, and how much "disarray" the Tories will really find themselves in will almost certainly depend on opposition parties’ willingness to keep reacting. Over the past months opposition leaders, perhaps most especially New Democrat Jack Layton, have said their intent is to try to make parliament work rather than trigger an early election. Once again, Layton stresses that Canadians are in no mood to head back to the polls, and at the same time neglects to point out his own party fortunes may suffer if voting were to take place in the near future. Perhaps what took place over the past several days had more to do with a slow news week than any "scandal" or Tory "disarray." If O’Connor keeps a low profile for a while longer and Harper continues to remain evasive on what is taking place in Afghanistan, the image of an effective and competent government may resurface in no time.

Posted by Stan Markotich
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