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Today at the MPCC: Torture is a “real conversation killer”

After a long summer hiatus, the Afghan Public Interest Hearings at the Military Police Complaints Commission resumed today, with Major General Mike Ward of the Canadian Forces taking the stand to discuss the transfer of detainees to Afghan security forces during his tenure as Chief of Staff: Operations (CoS) at CEFCOM, the Ottawa-based office heading the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. He was CoS from 2005 until 2006, a time when Canada’s detainee policy was not yet under the heavy scrutiny it has seen over the past three years.

MGen Ward’s testimony continued to develop what is an increasingly clear picture of CEFCOM leadership and Ottawa bureaucrats ignoring the realities on the ground in Afghanistan.

MGen Mike Ward, January 2010MGen Mike Ward & LGen Sayed Mohammad Qudossi at Afghan Police Academy, January 2010. Image: Canwest

He called the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence organization that receives Canada’s transferred detainees, a “very highly thought of organization“, neverminding the fact that torture by the NDS has been well documented. Reports from independent observers like Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the U.S. State Department, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), and even Canada’s own Foreign Service have all confirmed abuse in NDS facilities.

He also showed a lack of understanding of Canada’s international obligations. MGen Ward said that he was not hearing more reports of torture out of Afghanistan than he was from the other regions that Canadian Forces were involved in, but also admitted that he could not “dismiss the fact torture happened“, but that we could not “assume that’s the case all the time”.

Under international law, Canada cannot transfer detainees to a risk of torture, full stop. The standard is not “to a risk greater than that in other countries”, or “to a certainty of torture”. It’s not good enough to say that the system is working because not every transferred detainee is tortured. The “fact that torture happened”, as MGen Ward put it, means that transfers should not have happened at all, not until Canada was satisfied that there was no longer a substantial risk of torture.

MGen Ward also dismissed concerns over detainee transfers from CEFCOM’s Provost Marshal at the time, Major Kevin Rowcliffe. Maj Rowcliffe had told MPCC investigators that his superiors had ignored his attempts to express his concerns over detainee transfers. MGen Ward did not remember having a conversation with Maj Rowcliffe about detainees, but said that his comments were “outside the lane” because Canadian Forces already had enough to worry about without adding concerns over detainees into the mix. He also said that at CEFCOM, people had other things on their mind, and that talk about detainee abuse was a “conversation killer at the water cooler”.

In the end, it became clear that MGen Ward just did not want to think about detainees. He knew that some detainees were tortured and that the Canadian Forces transfer regime did little to prevent it, but just didn’t want to be the one to dampen the mood at CEFCOM with that depressing water cooler talk about torture.