A few more bricks in wall of secrecy

Proche-Orient : mensonges, désastre et cynisme

Last week was a bad one for stonewalling in the nation's capital.
First was the troubling matter of the false denial by the Department of Foreign Affairs of the existence of a report written by Canadian diplomats in Afghanistan. Only after weeks of denying the report's existence and a complaint to the federal Access to Information Commissioner did the department release a heavily censored version of the report. It blacked out what human rights watchers already know: Prisoners in Afghanistan, some of them handed over by Canadian soldiers, commonly face torture, detention without trial or execution.
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said he hadn't read the report, an embarrassing admission given how much Canada has invested in Afghanistan.
The government claims to have had no hand in withholding the information. Of course, the government also spent months falsely claiming it would be notified by the Red Cross if any detainees were mistreated. When that story fell apart, the government claimed monitoring by Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission would be adequate.
Wednesday, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor hastily announced a new deal was in the works allowing Canadians access to detention facilities to check on the condition of individuals handed over by Canadian Forces. The deal doesn't appear to provide access to all prisons, however, leaving Canada vulnerable. The Geneva Conventions require Canada to ensure prisoners it transfers are not subject to abuse.
With confidence in Canada's handling of prisoners wobbling, there came another report of stonewalling from National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman Yves Cote. His investigation delved into complaints that snipers were treated unfairly and denied access to stress debriefings following their mission to Afghanistan in 2002.
The ombudsman cleared Canadian Forces of the bulk of the complaints, finding its handling of the snipers generally fair and reasonable. But the information did not come easily.
"During the course of the investigation, the investigative team faced considerable resistance in obtaining complete documents in a timely manner from DND/CF. ... Although, in the end, investigators were able to access and review all relevant documentation, the ability of the office to treat this complaint in a timely and effective manner was hindered."
The investigation also criticized the way the Department of National Defence handled concerns raised by the father of a sniper suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The man's letters "were only politely acknowledged," when they should have triggered a phone call to hear him out. What was missing was the human, and humane, touch.
All Canadians, deserve openness, not evasiveness.
The Access to Information commissioner has been asked to investigate Foreign Affairs' handling of the heavily censored report on Afghanistan. The military ombudsman has recommended its office be given full investigative powers to overcome the kind of resistance it encountered in its sniper investigation.
The federal Conservatives promised a new era of open and transparent government. The week's events showed how much work there is still to be done to ensure that principle is standard practice.
This is an edited version of an editorial yesterday in the Lethbridge Herald.

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