Thursday, December 31, 2009

"The news managers here in Canada have trouble understanding the Afghan story. . ."

When I did this interview with Rex Murphy - it's about the bizarre disconnect between the here-and-now reality of Afghan detainee transfers in the real world, in Kandahar, and the "Afghan detainee" preoccupations of certain media personalities embedded in the Ottawa press gallery - it was late at night. I'd been up for hours. I'd just arrived at Camp Mirage after a flight from Kandahar Air Field in one those of those flying warehouses known as Globemasters and a fierce thirst was upon me. This is my excuse for being a bit impatient and stern about it all, although I reckon I did hold up my end fairly well anyway.

But you really need to listen to this interview with Matthew Fisher on the subject, towards the end of an conversation that provides a rare overview of Canada's engagements in Afghanistan in their proper context. I awaited Matthew's verdict on the "detainee issue" with some trepidation, because there is no Canadian reporter who knows these subjects better than Matthew does. As it turns out, Matthew was even more full-throated about it all than I was.

I happen to be convinced that Matthew holds certain views about Afghanistan's potential that are rather too pessimistic, a consequence of the amount of time he's spent in the damnedest and most dangerous parts of the country, and the sorts of savagery he's seen, up close. But nevermind all that. Here's what Matthew had to say about the Great Detainee Rumpus of 2009:

"It is preposterous," Mathew begins. I especially noticed this: "People trying to compare this to Somalia . . . the cavalier use of the term war crimes. . . we are not even within a million miles of reaching any of these points. It is a tremendous slur to ever invoke words like these. These are words that were used, and with reason, for the holocaust, for the genocide in Cambodia, for the horrible things that happened with tens of thousands of people being slaughtered in Rwanda. . ."

This caused me to be reminded of something that has gone completely unnoticed, perhaps because it would be inconvenient to notice just how much of an embarrassment it would cause to the We Are All War Criminals Now crowd and to the journalists who have done such a fine public service in bringing along the microphones and the megaphones to make it all so thrilling.

It's not just that William Schabas and Michael Byers started all this and got nothing for their 2007 war-crimes complaint to the International Criminal Court apart from a whack of uncritical press and a pat on the head from the ICC along with a fancy 'don't call us, we'll call you' letter. It's not just that Byers and Schabas teamed up with Stephen Staples and got another free pass recently by calling a press conference to announce that they were reviving the effort, only this time they'd appended to their pleadings a sheaf of newspaper clippings with Richard Colvin's name in the headlines.

It was Matthew's reference to the Cambodian genocide that reminded me that the William Schabas who loudly proclaims Canadian war crimes in Afghanistan is the same William Schabas who has loudly objected to the genocide findings against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Stalin's atrocities in the Ukraine? Not genocide, says Schabas. Rwanda? Yes, the crime of genocide, a war crime. Bosnia? Nope, not a righteous bust - it was just ethnic cleansing. Darfur? Why no, Your Honour, the International Criminal Court is legally wrong to prosecute Sudan for genocide, because while the Khartoum regime may well have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of non-Arabs, it didn't mean to. And the ICC was wrong about Srebrenica, too.

I confess to finding these claims just as arcane and weird as I find claims about Canadian "war crimes" in the Afghan detainee imbroglio, but back to Matthew:

"I do not understand at all why this is such a huge debate. It must only be because the government gave the appearance of trying to hide something, but to the best of my knowledge, there is nothing to hide. . . Canadians have not been at war for decades, and there were some problems with the rules at the beginning. The Liberal government - and it was a Liberal government, not a Conservative government - put in place rules that perhaps were not as a effective as they could have been, but Canada responded at a very early stage to this, and new rules were put in place.

"If the International Committee of the Red Cross had complaints, right within the Geneva Conventions it says they must act without delay to prosecute to move forward on these cases. These allegations concern things that happened in 2006 and early 2007. If there is any substance to any of these charges, something would have happened by now. 'Without delay' means a few weeks or a few months. It doesn't mean a few years.

"I've spoken at great length to the Red Cross - I believe I'm the only Canadian journalist who has - in Kabul, with someone who has had a lot to do with this file. He said the Red Cross has no issues with Canada, or any other country for that matter, at this time.

"This person was also highly critical of the whistleblower Richard Colvin, who has been lionized in Canada, because he violated every rule that every government has with the Red Cross, which is to allow it to do its work freely, and to protect prisoners. It never discusses its affairs publicly, period, and they are extremely distressed, and they believe that Colvin harmed the prisoners and put them at risk by going public with these things.

"They have mechanisms to deal with this. I was told quite clearly, 'We do not deal with junior diplomats,' and despite the fact that he's described here as a senior diplomat, Richard Colvin is a very junior diplomat. They deal with either the chiefs of armed forces, with prime ministers and ministers of justice. When there are serious allegations they go to the highest level of authority in any government they can. All of this has been lost in the minutiae of emails.

"I believe it's because the news managers here in Canada have trouble understanding the Afghan story. We don't have a history of war correspondence, or covering wars, and somehow, if the war is political at home, it's manageable. . . most of the coverage for the past few months has been devoted to covering emails at a time when there are several thousand Canadian soldiers out walking point every day, and at extreme risk, in Afghanistan."

20 Comments:

Blogger IceClass said...

Thanks for the link to the Mathew Fisher interview; it was interesting and illuminating.
I had noticed the tone was a little less chipper than your own and hope you're right that he's just had a long ground view of the crud.
I can empathize and will be making a point of seeking out his reports in the future.
Keep the links coming, they're much appreciated.

One thing often coming to mind recently in how Canadian use and development of all that ISR tech over there is going to end up in my part of the world soon enough for all sorts of reasons.
It'll be interesting.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Alberta Girl said...

Thank you for your post...it is refreshing amongst the blame game being played by the likes of the so called 'journalists' who are trying desperately to pin something on the Harper Conservatives.

The Taliban are cowardly murderers and for any 'journalist' to be equating a beating with a shoe by their own countrymen to 'war crimes' is the real crime.

These so called 'journalists' are lying to the faces of Canadians and to me they are being used as tools by our enemies.

I just wish they could see it. Perhaps postings like yours and Mathew Fishers will knock some sense into them.

Hopefully they feel a twinge of guilt given that these Taliban they seem to feel sorry for have taken one of their own and will change their tune.

Will their guilt overtake their agenda? Time will tell.

10:04 AM  
Blogger kcm said...

Terry, while i have nothing but respect for yourself and Fisher, and have no time for handwringers like Byers, what are you saying? You skirt close to endorsing the attempts to discredit Colvin by our govt. We have a right to hear his testimony in an open a manner as possible...i see no reason to suppose that either yourself or Fisher has any more reliable information than Colvin. No has discredited him to date and i don't think your liberal use of hearsay sheds any more light on the subject.
Lastly, there are quality writers who are questioning the govt, such as Coyne and Wells among others...hope you aren't just dismissing these voices as mere handwringers?

1:09 PM  
Blogger kcm said...

Terry, while i have nothing but respect for yourself and Fisher, and have no time for handwringers like Byers, what are you saying? You skirt close to endorsing the attempts to discredit Colvin by our govt. We have a right to hear his testimony in an open a manner as possible...i see no reason to suppose that either yourself or Fisher has any more reliable information than Colvin. No has discredited him to date and i don't think your liberal use of hearsay sheds any more light on the subject.
Lastly, there are quality writers who are questioning the govt, such as Coyne and Wells among others...hope you aren't just dismissing these voices as mere handwringers?

1:09 PM  
Blogger kcm said...

Terry, while i have nothing but respect for yourself and Fisher, and have no time for handwringers like Byers, what are you saying? You skirt close to endorsing the attempts to discredit Colvin by our govt. We have a right to hear his testimony in an open a manner as possible...i see no reason to suppose that either yourself or Fisher has any more reliable information than Colvin. No has discredited him to date and i don't think your liberal use of hearsay sheds any more light on the subject.
Lastly, there are quality writers who are questioning the govt, such as Coyne and Wells among others...hope you aren't just dismissing these voices as mere handwringers?

1:10 PM  
Blogger kcm said...

Terry, while i have nothing but respect for yourself and Fisher, and have no time for handwringers like Byers, what are you saying? You skirt close to endorsing the attempts to discredit Colvin by our govt. We have a right to hear his testimony in an open a manner as possible...i see no reason to suppose that either yourself or Fisher has any more reliable information than Colvin. No has discredited him to date and i don't think your liberal use of hearsay sheds any more light on the subject.
Lastly, there are quality writers who are questioning the govt, such as Coyne and Wells among others...hope you aren't just dismissing these voices as mere handwringers?

1:10 PM  
Blogger kcm said...

Sorry bout that. By the way we had an interesting convesation on the Mayne ferry a number of years back...i'm not accusing you of anything at all

1:13 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

KCM:

"You skirt close to endorsing the attempts to discredit Colvin by our govt."

So what?

Richard Colvin has made some extremely grave allegations and his claims should be taken more seriously than most journalists appear willing to consider. My personal view is that our inquiries into his charges should not be fatally encumbered by some taboo or caveat that Colvin himself must be made to look good no matter what our inquiries might find.

Some may think it is all good sport and just routine politics for the opposition parties to use Colvin's allegations to pin "war criminals" buttons on Conservative cabinet ministers and Canadian soldiers. I don't. I realize it's all very stirring and entertaining, but I take these sorts of allegations rather more seriously, and in fact I have supported NDP critic Paul Dewar's proposal for a judicial inquiry into the entire mess so that the Commons Committee on Afghanistan can get back to the more difficult and necessary work it should be doing - showing leadership in the business of closely examining Parliament's options and conditions for Canada's post-2011 involvement in Afghanistan.

The Committee is dodging its job. It should stop it, and bloody well go to work. The opposition members on the Committee are no better than the MPs on the government side of the House in this matter. They have been shirking this important work and they've been having a great lark dredging up old and irrelevant and redundant "torture" complaints that were inquired into and addressed and fixed years ago.

I will not have Colvin put beyond scrutiny, and I will not have his allegations stand unquestioned, and I will not give him a free pass just because Peter Mackay may have mumbled mean insinuations about him once.

As for Andrew Coyne, I happen to agree with him, in the main. Coyne and I had a bit of a back and forth, here:

http://transmontanus.blogspot.com/2009/12/torturegate-hysteria-more-context.html

My problem with Colvin's claims, or at least with the way Colvin's claims are reported, is not just as Matthew Fisher has found (the International Committee of the Red Cross has a bigger beef with Colvin than with the current Conservative government in the matter of exposing Afghan detainees to abuse, for instance). My concern is that the closer you look at the more disturbing of Colvin's claims, they just don't hold water. They're self-serving, they gloss over facts, and fail to distinguish between fact and opinion:

http://transmontanus.blogspot.com/2009/12/closer-look-at-richard-colvins-claims.html

No. Colvin should not be placed above reproach.

He should be taken very, very seriously.

2:06 PM  
Blogger kcm said...

Thanks for the reply Terry,
i'm pretty much in agreement with you except for your view of Colvin. He is not a whistle blower and was summoned before Parliament and the MPCC. I've seen absolutely nothing to suggest he has an agenda...he could of course be simply wrong...or have an agenda It goes without saying that his allegations should be examined thoroughly.As for old allegations being fixed, i have to disagree. As Coyne pointed out if the story is that the problems have been fixed then that is your message. Why all the obfuscation,your against the troops rhetoric and obstructing of the MPCC and now a prorogation...something stinks...I'm well aware that opposition are using this to their advantage, but happen to believe there are occasionally instances where their interests and the countries coincide. I can well believe the frustration you may be feeling that the real constuctive work is being neglected...but there are other principles at stake here. If we have a good story to tell in Afghanistan then the bloody govt should tell it and stop obstructing legitimate inquiry of Parliament.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

"If we have a good story to tell in Afghanistan then the bloody govt should tell it and stop obstructing legitimate inquiry of Parliament."

I've long criticized Ottawa for having made such a hash of accounting for Canada's work in Afghanistan, but we should also remember it's not the government's work to tell stories. That is what journalists are for.

Colvin. . . not a whistleblower. . .nothing to suggest he has an agenda . . .

I didn't call him a whistleblower, but in any event, of course he has an agenda. From the beginning, his agenda has been to have his contrary objections to his bosses' policies circulated, unchallenged and unedited, and appearing on official embassy letterhead. His agenda these days is to defend his own virtue at the expense of his bosses' virtue. I don't see much virtue in either side at the moment, but I am not going to just play ball and go along with the popular fable a brave and principled truth-teller is being hushed up and harassed by unscrupulous politicians.

It's a lot more complicated than that. And you're right, it is a lot more complicated than being merely a matter of "old allegations being fixed"; I didn't put it quite that simply but I did simplify things nonetheless. Still, Fisher's summary works well enough for me: "I do not understand at all why this is such a huge debate. It must only be because the government gave the appearance of trying to hide something, but to the best of my knowledge, there is nothing to hide. . . Canadians have not been at war for decades, and there were some problems with the rules at the beginning. The Liberal government - and it was a Liberal government, not a Conservative government - put in place rules that perhaps were not as a effective as they could have been, but Canada responded at a very early stage to this, and new rules were put in place."

That's pretty well all there is too it. Sorry. I know it's not an especially gripping yarn, but facts do have a way of mucking things up, I'm afraid.

To make the story more spicy, could one tell it such a way as to purport that in hindsight, Canada was slovenly in the way it handled the matter of detainees, shifty and foot-dragging in its response to allegations of abuse, and too dismissive of early allegations?

I suppose that could be fair. But again, so what?

If one is happier to see one's elected MPs scoring cheap political points in this way than in seeing one's elected MPs working hard to ensure that Canada shows global leadership in securing a successor to the 60-plus-nation Afghanistan Compact, which expires in about a year from now, then okay, I get it. I'm just not one of those people.

Sorry.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

By the way, another thing to keep in mind - and this does not excuse the government, but I'm afraid it might explain why the wild alarums about detainees were not being taken especially seriously from the start - is the substance of the post you're commenting on.

It points out that the Red Cross has no complaint with Canada in the matter of its detainee-transfer practices (by the way, the Red Cross cleared Canada of any wrongdoing in 2007, as well),and the International Criminal Court (sorry to inform you) is not interested in these frivolous and vexatious "war crimes" claims, and from the very beginning, there has been an inordinate amount of nuttiness about the whole affair. You might want to recall Amir Attaran's initial foot-stomping about the first detainee-transfer agreement was that it didn't prohibit the Afghan government from turning detainees over to the Yanks and their gulags, "beyond the pale of civilization." He proposed that Canada build a "world-class" prison in Afghanistan to house and care for the poor darlings of the Taliban, and that they be allowed to decide whether they should be turned over to the Afghan authorities or not, and they be further granted all the prerogatives of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, besides.

I mean, please.

My question remains. What purpose is served by rehashing all of this, when the problem actually was fixed, ages ago, and every time there's a glitch in the NATO protocol, even now, we freeze detainee transfers until the glitch is addressed?

What the hell are we even talking about this for?

That last question is the one that should concern us the most.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Terry: In Canadian public discourse--politicians and major media--logic and reason, sadly, no longer barely count. As your remarks well demonstrate.

Mark
Ottawa

7:34 PM  
Blogger kcm said...

"My question remains. What purpose is served by rehashing all of this, when the problem actually was fixed, ages ago, and every time there's a glitch in the NATO protocol, even now, we freeze detainee transfers until the glitch is addressed?

What the hell are we even talking about this for?

That last question is the one that" should concern us the most"

If it's all been fixed, then as you say there's nothing to talk about. But clearly there is. I've already pointed out that i have no time for the handwringers like Attaran or Byers. However this govt has turned something that you assert shouldn't concern us into a potential Parliamentary crisis...and that does concern me, it should concern us all.
Rather the question should be: "If it was fixed then why the resulting circus from the govt?"
Sorry but i expect my govt to be held accountable...as do most reasonable Canadians. If useful committee work on Afghanistan has been stymied, i suggest you direct that complaint to those who have chosen to defy and porogue Parliament.

7:55 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

"If useful committee work on Afghanistan has been stymied, i suggest you direct that complaint to those who have chosen to defy and porogue Parliament."

I intend to.

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