April 18, 2010

Good piece on detainee practice, but some questions

Interesting piece on Canadian military detainee practice. I can't corroborate the numbers given: over 4 detainees on average a week through the Canadian cage would have seemed very high to me, but I was only there for some of the report period, too.

The actual AIHRC report isn't any more illuminating, and has some issues of its own that should probably have raised some journalistic eyebrows. Note the lack of any presumption of innocence in the actual AIHRC report's phrasing: "the AIHRC received notifications about the handover of 267 insurgents" (no "alleged," or even "assumed", although the Canadian Press article helpfully adds that caveat for them) and the odd passive voice it's in, suggesting these might not all have been official notifications by the governments involved. There's no further breakdown or detail, for instance by month or location: just that one single sentence that CP otherwise repeats verbatim.

This year is also the first year the AIHRC has given this kind of a national breakdown; in the first part of 2008 it just said there had been 330, country unspecified. The CP crack about "The Canadian numbers, however, are available for the asking in this country [Afghanistan]," seems a little snide... as best as I can determine that AIHRC report was published on an internationally available website in February. The fact the reporter's in KAF made no difference in obtaining that particular info.

I'm not necessarily saying there's anything henky with the number of detainees given, just that a little vestigial skepticism might still be warranted, too. We've learned from hard experience that an Afghan opinion poll is not to be taken as equivalent to one conducted under Canadian circumstances. The same gap might be safely assumed to exist between Afghan NGO reports and their Canadian equivalents.

The same applies to the nice things the AIHRC had to say, too, specifically the comment that "there was a decrease of 34 per cent in the rate of torture and ill-treatment perpetrated in prisons and detention centres." That figure, which is in the executive summary but is actually nowhere else in the actual document, seems to relate to reports of "violations of the right to personal integrity" made to the AIHRC (page 43): not the same thing as the actual rate of occurrence (and the drop, from 236 reports to 180 nation-wide, is not 34%, but that's quibbling.)

Interestingly the rate of reported human rights violations recorded at the AIHRC Kandahar regional office is significantly lower than elsewhere (p. 17).

The AIHRC has been doing absolutely vital work, no question, particularly in expediting the release of Afghans held past their prison terms due to the medieval nature of the country's justice system. But any time you have translation issues, compounded by a country that uses a completely different calendar (the Afghan calendar starts between March 20 and 22 of ours) you're going to get issues with longitudinal statistical reporting like this unless you're really rigorous.

It may also be worth noting that really the only two organizations dedicated to holding any Afghans for questioning (the NDS and U.S. forces) both currently deny access to the AIHRC, as UNAMA reported back in March (page 8). So AIHRC really only ever sees any of these people after they've passed into and through the court/prison process and out of questioners' control.

The UNAMA report, which doesn't deal in any numbers, should probably be seen as the more reliable assessment of actual progress, FWTW. Its summary: "Conflict-related detention policies in Afghanistan continue to be a major concern given the lack of a legal framework which complies with Afghanistan’s obligations under international and national law." I'm afraid so long as that's the case, that the UN official position is that Afghanistan remains essentially a lawless country, these allegations by human rights activists aren't going to be going away.

Long story short (speaking now as an ex-journalist AND ex-PR guy): I'll be a little surprised if the Canadian government publicly accepts or corroborates the AIHRC detainee figures come Monday, although they will also be determined not to disparage the fine Afghan organization the figures came from, either. That's a fine tightrope to walk, though: the chances for someone tripping up and saying something untoward when asked about it could be rather high.

Posted by BruceR at 10:11 PM