Friday, November 20, 2009

Peter McKay should be ashamed of himself

mackay.jpgCanada's Minister of Defense has a serious credibility problem. If ever there was a time to keep your lip zipped, it's when a senior government official has just testified to a parliamentary committee that Canada might have been involved in war crimes.

Ironically, I spent today helping prepare for a seminar on crisis communication. My advice? Stick to the facts. Say what you know and don't speculate. It didn't occur to me that anyone needs to be told that you also don't start shooting the messenger - I thought that was a given. But apparently, Peter McKay didn't get the memo.

For those of you who missed it, here's an excerpt from a CBC.ca story about Richard Colvin's testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
All detainees transferred by Canadians to Afghan prisons were likely tortured by Afghan officials and many of the prisoners were innocent, says a former senior diplomat with Canada's mission in Afghanistan.

Appearing before a House of Commons committee Wednesday, Richard Colvin blasted the detainees policies of Canada and compared them with the policies of the British and the Netherlands.

The detainees were captured by Canadian soldiers then handed over to the Afghan intelligence service, called the NDS.

Colvin said Canada was taking six times as many detainees as British troops and 20 times as many as the Dutch.

He said unlike the British and Dutch, Canada did not monitor their conditions; took days, weeks or months to notify the Red Cross; kept poor records; and to prevent scrutiny, the Canadian Forces leadership concealed this behind "walls of secrecy."

"As I learned more about our detainee practices, I came to a conclusion they were contrary to Canada's values, contrary to Canada's interests, contrary to Canada's official policies and also contrary to international law. That is, they were un-Canadian, counterproductive and probably illegal.

"According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure," Colvin said.

He said the most common forms of torture were beatings, whipping with power cables, the use of electricity, knives, open flames and rape.

Colvin worked in Kandahar for the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. He later moved to Kabul, where he was second-in-command at the Canadian Embassy. In both jobs, Colvin visited detainees transferred by Canadian soldiers to Afghan prisons. He wrote reports about those visits and sent them to Ottawa.
That seems like the kind of event that calls out for a neutral response from the Canadian government. Something like, "These are serious allegations and we want to find out everything we can before we make any further comment." You don't want to prejudice anything. And you can't prove a negative.

But instead of a reasoned response, the government immediately set out to smear Colvin and pain him as "a suspect source" and a "Taliban dupe." This is what Peter McKay said in the House of Commons the next day:
“What we’re talking about here is not only hearsay, we’re talking about basing much of his evidence on what the Taliban have been specifically instructed to lie about if captured," he said (via the Toronto Sun)
And this from the Canadian Press:
MacKay said Colvin had not provided "one scintilla of evidence" that wasn't second-or third-hand information.

He painted Colvin as a Taliban dupe and said Canadians are being asked to accept the word of prisoners "who throw acid in the face of school children, who blow up buses of civilians in their own country."
Nor was MacKay alone. According to the Ottawa Citizen,
A government that really wanted to change the way business was done would want nothing more than to look into this kind of allegation and see whether there's any truth to it. Instead:

Ontario Tory MP Cheryl Gallant said that Colvin’s allegations “would not hold up in a court of law” and British Columbian MP Jim Abbott accused Colvin of having no first-hand verification that soldiers handed anyone over to torture, given that the supposedly abused detainees he interviewed did not implicate Canada.
I don't know why the Tories let this issue derail them so completely from a fairly standard crisis response. But they've handled it badly. And what was obviously not a good situation is going to become a lot worse.

There are serious allegations being made against specific people. An inquiry is probably necessary to put the issue to rest - especially when the first response has given more credence to the allegations instead of less.

1 comment:

Arthur Slade said...

Totally correct. It was embarrassing to watch.