For more than a year now, the question of what to do with prisoners captured by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan has been a difficult one for the Government of Canada. At issue has been the widespread use of torture by Afghan authorities, and whether, in transferring prisoners to these officials, Canadian Forces in Afghanistan violated international human rights and potentially even Canadian domestic law.
After Amnesty International Canada and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association sought an injunction in the Federal Court of Canada to halt all transfers until greater safeguards-including the release of classified documents-were in place so that the public could be assured that Canadian Forces were not complicit in human rights abuses, Ottawa announced last Novemberthat it had stopped all prisoner transfers, but has remained reluctant to establish the necessary oversight mechanisms that are required in order to ensure that similar violations do not occur in the future should the transfers resume.
The controversies surrounding the prisoner transfers are, in many respects, symptomatic of a much larger philosophical dilemma relating to the tension between individual human rights and national security in the war on terror. In recent years, a school of thought has emerged that contends that lowering the taboos relating to abusive interrogation techniques is necessary in order to combat terrorism. These are the "lesser evils," the misdeeds-as unpalatable as they may be-that, according to its proponents, must be accepted in pursuit of the greater good. Its logic is both simple and utilitarian: by allowing the mistreatment (and even torture) of individuals, many more lives will be saved as a result of the strategic advantages gained by the information that is obtained.
Issues of morality aside, there are several flaws with this type of reasoning. First, permitting abuses practices to occur may be expedient in the short term, but ultimately it will do little to win the hearts and minds of Afghans, and could conceivably undermine Canada's operations in the long run. Second, the price incurred by committing lesser evils is high: too often, the end result is that lives are destroyed. Third, and just as troubling, is that by accepting the need for lesser evils today, there is a danger that greater evils could be tolerated tomorrow.
The irony of the situation is that the promotion of good governance is a significant pillar of Canada's engagement in Afghanistan specifically, as well as its broader foreign and development policies. In October 2006, the Office for Democratic Governance was established within the Canadian International Development Agency, its purpose to promote "freedom and democracy, human rights, the rule of law and open and accountable public institutions in developing countries." Moreover, in July 2007 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development released a major report on Canada's democracy promotion programs, in which it recommended that Canada become a world leader in the promotion and advancement ofdemocratic governance.
And yet, in light of the events surrounding the detainees, these aims seem disingenuous,even hollow. To suggest on the one hand that rule of law matters, while on the other insisting that Canadians deployed abroad are not bound by Canadian law seems contradictory at best, and at worst hypocritical.
There is no legitimate excuse for liberal democracies such as Canada to disregardor allow backsliding on well-established human rights norms relating to the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Canadians must resist the temptation to fall victim to the seductive, yet misguided logic of the lesser evils argument.
Above all, this means recognizing that even the enemy has rights that must be respected.