The International Red Cross met twice with senior Canadian officials in Kandahar to deliver veiled but insistent warnings about torture in Afghan jails a year before Canada acted to protect detainees.
Details of the face-to-face meetings in 2006, outlined in uncensored memos examined by The Canadian Press, undermine the federal government’s claims that diplomat Richard Colvin was a lone voice raising vague concerns about torture.
The Red Cross is prevented by international rules from using the term “torture” and from commenting on one country’s behaviour to another.
But the risks were so dire that detainees might be tortured in Afghan jails that the agency felt compelled to alert senior Canadian diplomats and officers in person, say memos made available on a confidential basis to The Canadian Press.
At one of the meetings, on June 2, 2006, at Kandahar Airfield, a military lawyer, the RCMP officer in charge of training Afghan police and some of Canada’s diplomatic staff were all advised about potential torture at the hands of Afghan prison officials.
A Red Cross representative “made a point of raising a the issue of treatment of Afghan detainees, including some who had been transferred to the Afghan authorities by Canadian forces,” Colvin reports in parts of a previously censored memo.
The Red Cross complained about the “lack of judicial safeguards” and warned: “All kinds of things are going on.”
The wording is clear diplomatic code for torture, says a University of Ottawa law professor, and was as explicit as the Red Cross could be given diplomatic constraints.
Errol Mendes describes the meeting as the seminal moment when Canadian officials and commanders had the duty under international law to launch their own investigation into the conditions in Afghan prisons.
“When you have a statement like that, which is coded language for torture and everything else, you have a duty to link it to the more general allegations of abuse that were all over the place at that time,” Mendes said.
A spokesman for the International Red Cross played down the face-to-face sessions with Canadian officials.
The agency would “never share confidential information,” and the memo and Mendes’ comments are “someone’s interpretation of the meeting,” Bernard Barrett, Red Cross spokesman in Washington, D.C., said in an interview.
Canadian government officials and Conservative MPs have repeatedly indicated that Colvin alone dealt with the Red Cross, and funnelled the humanitarian agency’s concerns to Ottawa.
“Out of 5,000 Canadians who have travelled through there, at least in that period of time, you were the one single person who is coming forward with this information. So you will forgive me if I am skeptical,” Tory MP Jim Abbott said on Nov. 18, the day Colvin testified before a Parliamentary committee.
Senior government officials and generals in Ottawa have also said they either didn’t read Colvin’s warnings or considered them too vague to be of concern.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay last week acknowledged the government had heard concerns about the state of prisons” in Afghanistan from the moment the Conservatives took office in early 2006.
His statement did not indicate the origin of those concerns, whether from general reports issued by the U.S. State Department or from broad warnings by human-rights agencies to all forces operating in the region.
But the new memos show that the insistent concerns were specific to Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan and made directly to senior Canadian officials, not transmitted through a single diplomat.
Two further high-level Red Cross meetings about torture took place in Ottawa and Geneva around the same time with Canadian officials.
To date, Colvin has been pilloried by cabinet ministers, military leaders and some Tory MPs as gullible and easily manipulated by Taliban propaganda. Some have also claimed there is no hard evidence for his claims.
Three high-ranking generals, including former general Rick Hillier, described his allegations last week as “ludicrous.”
But the new memos show that Colvin’s concerns were in fact shared by a respected humanitarian agency that pushed the diplomatic envelope to get the ear of Canadian officials. The International Red Cross by convention is allowed to raise specific concerns about torture only with the national government of a country.
At the first face-to-face meeting, Maj. Erik Liebert, deputy commander of the provincial reconstruction base, was told by the Red Cross that no one in the Canadian military would take their telephone calls. He also heard Canada was too slow to report that it captured prisoners – sometimes taking 60 days – and that “a lot can happen in two months.”
That meeting spawned a second more detailed discussion at Kandahar Airfield on June 2.
Apart from delivering their warnings, Red Cross officials, who are duty-bound to protect prisoners in conflict zones, also complained about “unsatisfactory” conditions at Kandahar’s medieval Sarpoza prison.
The Kandahar meeting was followed by a more high-level meeting on June 12, 2006, in Ottawa involving the international agency’s delegation head for the U.S. and Canada as well as the agency’s legal adviser from Washington.
The memos show there was also a fourth meeting in Geneva.
The intent of those meetings was for the Red Cross “to communicate its legal read of the situation in Afghanistan, as it has done with NATO in April 2006.”
A spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs confirmed the Ottawa meeting did take place, but Katherine Heath-Eves declined to discuss the substance.
“In recognition of the confidential nature of the relationship between the ICRC and the government of Canada, we are not in a position to comment on either the meeting or the participants or our reporting of the meeting,” she said in an emailed response.
Dan Dugas, a spokesman for MacKay who was foreign affairs minister at the time, said the minister was never briefed on any of the meetings.
After torture allegations surfaced in the Canadian media in the spring of 2007, Canada’s embassy staff in Kabul went to the Red Cross in Afghanistan, hoping to gauge the extent of abuse throughout the Afghan prison system.
But by that time the relationship with the spurned Red Cross had become strained, the memos indicate.
“They therefore declined to provide us with their assessment of the prevalence of abuse – whether ‘two per cent, 20 per cent, 200 per cent’ – but twice said we should not be surprised by the story in the Globe and Mail,” said the June 9, 2007, memo examined by The Canadian Press.
Officials were told that by the Red Cross that Canada and the ICRC “have a joint interest in ensuring proper treatment of detainees,” said the report by Colvin.
However, the Red Cross apparently told Colvin that it was reluctant to share information “because of Canadian political pressure, there is the risk that information we provide would crop up in a public forum.”
Earlier that year, former defence minister Gordon O’Connor was forced into an embarrassing public retreat after assuring the House of Commons that the Red Cross was keeping an eye on Canadian-captured prisoners, only to be reminded that it wasn’t the agency’s role.