Most of us are proud of our country, even if on occasion we don't agree with those who are in charge. We're pleased when our country is recognised by the world's press; it makes us feel important by association. Coming from a country like Canada, of lesser importance on the world's stage, catching the eye of international media is even more of a treat.
But there are those occasions when you realize you need to be careful what you wish for, because it might just come true. Start thinking: how come the Americans get all the press coverage? But, the next thing you know, Canada has its very own prisoner scandal, just like the Americans in Iraq.
Obviously, that’s not quite what you were hoping for when you wanted to see your county's name above the centre-fold in Le Monde or other prestigious papers. But now we learn that in April, 2006 three captives held by Canadian soldiers were mistreated and that even now, nearly one year later, an investigation is ongoing into the whys and wherefores of the situation.
If that weren't enough to make you cringe, there is also the report that the Canadian army has been handing over prisoners to Afghanistan security forces without checking on what their eventual fate would be. According to Canadian law, any person in custody may not be turned over to a third party if there is a chance they will either face execution, torture, or any other cruel and unusual punishment not allowed by Canadian law.
When the issue was first raised in the House of Commons, Minister of Defence Gordon O'Connor denied there was any wrongdoing. He insisted that the International Red Cross was overseeing all prisoner transfers. But as of March 4 the Red Cross said they were doing no such thing.
Officials in the Defence Department claim that they signed a deal in which Canadian troops must notify the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the International Red Cross when they hand over a prisoner to the Afghan authorities. The Human Rights Commission is supposed to be monitoring the well-being of the troops once they are in the hands of the Afghan army.
This agreement is described as an extension of an undertaking that Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier signed back in December 2005 – agreeing that all prisoners Canada captured would be turned over to the Afghan army. That agreement had been widely condemned by human rights activists, because there had been no provisions made for monitoring by any rights body.
The new agreement rectifies that in principle it's almost impossible to know what actually takes place on the ground in Afghanistan. The Canadian Military Police Complaints Commission is currently investigating 18 cases of prisoners being handed over, in spite of the knowledge that they would be tortured or otherwise mistreated.
Now I don't know about anybody else, but I don't like the idea of my country being considered complicit in the torturing of prisoners of war. To give the Minister of Defence his due, he doesn't appear to either. In a surprise visit he landed in Afghanistan on Sunday determined to find out as much as possible. He claims to have a two-fold purpose in visiting. He says he wanted to meet with the human rights group and gain assurances they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
"I want to look the man in the eyes and I want to be confirmed that they are going to do what they say they are going to do."
His other intent is to have the Canadian army show him exactly what the process is: what they do from the moment they capture an enemy soldier to the moment they hand him over to the Afghanistan government. I would guess his reason for this is to find out where there are any holes in the process that could cause things to go wrong, or information to not be delivered.
How could Canadian soldiers hand over prisoners when they knew they would be tortured? Who was responsible for that decision and how could it have happened 18 times? Was this an isolated instance of one man or one platoon that has a personal vendetta against the enemy, or is it widespread lack of understanding of the policy?
That's the information that the Minister and his staff should be trying to find out so as to prevent any repetitions of this activity. I hope for the sake of my country, the men and women of the armed forces and the people who are taken prisoner that he is able to find a solution to this problem.
It's hard to take pride in country when one is complicit in torture. If our government or our soldiers are taking part in that sort of activity, then none of our hands are clean.