Afghan furor shows we're slipping into U.S. orbit

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It was almost enough to revive one's faith in Canada as a functioning democracy, not to mention a member of the civilized world.

After two weeks of unrelenting pressure — led by the media and the opposition parties in Parliament — the Harper government was forced to abandon a deal that made Canada complicit in torture in Afghanistan.

Before we go farther, let's emphasize that the much-improved deal governing the treatment of our detainees in Afghanistan came about despite the sustained and determined efforts of the Harper government to thwart such monitoring of human rights.

For more than a year, the Conservatives had been content to hand over detainees to Afghan custody, despite ample evidence — including from Canadian officials — that Afghanistan routinely tortures those in its custody.

Even after controversy erupted over the situation last month, the Harper government was evasive and unco-operative, dismissing detailed reports of torture as mere “allegations of the Taliban.” This dismissive approach was echoed by The Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente who made clear that her sympathies lay with Canadian military leaders, not with Afghans who reported being hung upside down and punched so hard their teeth fell out.

“I have deep sympathy for our military leaders,” wrote Wente, explaining what she saw as the difficult bind our generals are in. “They can fight a war. Or they can babysit 'our detainees' ...”

To Wente, ensuring that our detainees aren't tortured — a requirement of the Geneva Conventions, which Canada has signed — is the equivalent of “babysitting” them.

Then there was our top general, Rick Hillier, whose fingerprints are all over the original deal, and who made light of the furor last week by diligently trying to divert attention onto the flashy arrival of the Stanley Cup and a group of NHL old-timers in Kandahar.

First stop for the hockey celebrities was the local Tim Horton's that Hillier famously brought to Afghanistan. Sadly, it seems Hillier's taste for Canadian traditions doesn't necessarily extend beyond hockey and doughnuts to include respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Surely it doesn't need to be noted that torture is among the lowest forms of human depravity. While it has lost its acceptability in civilized circles in recent centuries, it's made a disturbing revival under U.S. President George W. Bush.

Invoking the atrocities of 9/11 as a justification — as if there were no atrocities on this scale in history — the Bush administration has demonstrated a comfort level with torture that would befit the most brutal medieval king.

If we needed any evidence that Canada was being sucked into this maw of depravity by our involvement in Bush's “war on terror,” we've now got it. Indeed, the detainee transfer agreement that Hillier signed with the Afghan government in December 2005 had overtones of Bush's “extraordinary rendition” program, under which terror suspects are handed over to a brutal country for detention and interrogation.

In both cases, there was clear knowledge that torture would occur, and no steps taken to prevent it.

That 2005 deal, put in place during Paul Martin's Liberal government reign, also illustrates how far we've drifted from our European allies in NATO, who insisted on considerably more stringent monitoring of detainees they handed over to Afghanistan.

All this suggests a chasm between the values traditionally espoused by Canada — fairness, decency and the rule of law — and the nefarious post-9/11 set of notions in which the leader of the “free world” is given a free hand to do as he wants with “evil-doers.”

The Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin wrote last week that the “new Canada has abandoned the independent strain we had” and that, in our growing closeness to Bush's America, we are “consorts now.”

That sort of subordinate role is clearly what the Harper government, as well as some élite military and media types, have in mind for us.

But it doesn't seem to be what the Canadian public is willing to accept.

This Afghan saga reminds me of the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian engineer tortured in Syria. In both cases, Ottawa tried to downplay a growing scandal about Canadian complicity in torture. But Canadians demanded accountability and eventually forced Ottawa to abide by the rule of law, not the lawless ways of the Bush administration.

It seems that, while our political leaders may be comfortable accommodating Bush, most Canadians have yet to develop a taste for toadying.

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