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