Votes that condone torture

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Later this week, our two leading political parties are expected to join forces and commit Canada to another three years of military intervention in support of the Afghan government — which we know practises torture.

This is a curious development, since most Canadians — like civilized people around the world — find torture abhorrent and utterly at odds with their values.

Yet the barbaric practice has achieved post-9/11 acceptability in some circles in the so-called advanced world, in the guise of being a necessary tool to fight terror. It's been a prominent feature of the Afghan war, which has spawned Guantanamo Bay, among other horrific prisons.

All this seems far from mind as Stephen Harper's Conservative government and Stéphane Dion's Liberals have moved toward agreement to extend Canada's involvement in that war until 2011. MPs are expected to vote on the extension on Thursday.

In recent weeks, the media have focused almost exclusively on the pro-war narrative presented by the government-appointed Manley panel, with its emphasis on the mission's good intentions.

Good intentions or not, the simple truth is Canadian troops are over there supporting a government that has been caught time and time again with its hand on the electric prod.

Only last month, a front-page story in the Globe and Mail reported allegations that the notoriously brutal Governor Asadullah Khalid, the top Afghan official in Kandahar — with whom the Canadian military closely collaborates — has personally administered torture at his private prisons.

So mainstream is torture in the "war on terror" era that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently told the BBC that if a hidden bomb were about to blow up, "it would be absurd to say you couldn't, I don't know, stick something under the fingernail, smack him in the face. It would be absurd to say you couldn't."

Such a flippant approach to torture from one of America's top judges is in sharp contrast to the more enlightened position taken by Canadian justice Dennis O'Connor, who investigated the torture of Maher Arar. As O'Connor wrote: "The infliction of torture, for any purpose, is so fundamental a violation of human dignity that it can never be legally justified." O'Connor went on to cite former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan: "Let us be clear: torture can never be an instrument to fight terror, for torture is an instrument of terror."

This clear, moral stand against torture doesn't seem to be shared by the Canadian government or military. Indeed, attempts by human rights advocates over the past two years to create protections for detainees transferred from Canadian to Afghan custody have been mostly resisted by Canadian officials.

An initial set of safeguards, signed by Gen. Rick Hillier in December 2005, provided almost no protection. It was only after media investigations, an uproar in Parliament and a court action by Amnesty International that Harper reluctantly toughened the safeguards last May.

Yet even these proved ineffective. Last November, Canadian officials visiting a Kandahar jail encountered a detainee who was able to show them where the equipment used to torture him was hidden in the room.

For several months after that, Ottawa stopped transferring detainees. But it resumed the transfers late last month, with fresh assurances that there will be adequate monitoring. Apparently we have the word of Afghan authorities.

No doubt, Governor Khalid has seen the error of his ways. MPs voting on Thursday to extend the mission can surely count on that.

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