As you know, I sit in Question Period every day I am in Ottawa. I have become somewhat inured to the rudeness, sniping, and debased debate parading as Parliamentary discourse. However, every now and then I experience a sharp intake of breath. The shock of something said strikes to the core of my sense of decency.
This happened on Tuesday in the post-budget debate. It was on the subject of the treatment of Afghani prisoners of war.
We know George Bush doesn’t think much of the Geneva Conventions as he parses language to put a fine point on the meaning of “torture.” The US base in Guantanamo Bay is a hell hole where people have been held for years, with no charges laid, subjected to sleep deprivation, and psychological abuse. Bush thinks torture has to suggest a threat to life. The Abu Graib prison scandal is merely indicative of what happens when you allow the “enemy” to be so demonized as to be dehumanized. That is why there is a Geneva Convention. It protects the fundamental human rights of even our enemies. It likewise, accords those rights of our citizens if they should be prisoners of war.
The Canadian saga of the rights of Afghan prisoners has been unfolding for months. The first chapter was the insistence of Defence Minister O’Connor that when Canadian forces turned over Afghan prisoners we could rely on the International Red Cross to monitor their condition. Mr. O’Connor gave this answer for a full year, even though there is no truth to it. None at all. Even though Mr. O’Connor was briefed by the head of the International Red Cross in September, he stuck to this fairy tale that we relied on the Red Cross for any information about inhumane treatment of prisoners once they left our custody. His apology once the fiction was exposed was lame and evasive.
On Tuesday, Stephane Dion demanded that Mr.O’Connor resign. (Actually, he should have asked for the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter MacKay who is also implicated in the protection of prisoners and the arrangements executed for prisoner transfer.) Mr. Harper’s answer took my breath away. It was truly shocking.
He said that the Opposition might care to support Taliban prisoners instead of Canadian soldiers, but his party supported our soldiers.
Is it a choice, Mr. Harper? We either support fundamental human rights OR we support our troops? How are we to protect our troops if they are taken captive if we have shown contempt for the Geneva Convention? How do we call ourselves a decent nation?
The whole nastiness sunk into deeper denial and lies when the Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said that Canada counted on the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Van Loan said Canada had given them $1 million to do this job well. Two problems: 1) in a recent poll Afghani citizens rated this the most corrupt government they have ever had (worse than Soviet rule or the Taliban) so I wasn’t feeling very comfortable about the job they could do, even with our $1 million, and 2) it subsequently turned out the $1 million was given by the Chretien government in 2002.
Mr. Harper’s attack, suggesting that those who stand up for human rights are Taliban sympathizers, was like the red-baiting of the 1950’s. It was, of course, accompanied by a standing ovation from his caucus. When they stand in unison and cheer on the Great Leader, they do so with a roar that suggests they want red meat.
It is more than unnerving. It is deeply troubling.
Human rights are non-negotiable. Human rights are not mere fodder for xenophobic rhetoric. We must raise our voices to protect the rights of prisoners of war just as we do to protect Canadian soldiers.