Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but it isn’t, it ain’t.

Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic. (1)

Happy 2012 from the BCCLA National Security Blog. We start off the year with a report that the Department of National Defence has decided to extend the protections of Canada’s Privacy Act to detainees captured by Canadian Forces operating in Afghanistan.

Wait.

What?

According to media reports, the DND’s invoking the detainees’ privacy rights as a means of resisting disclosure of photographs.

By way of background, Paul Champ and Amir Attaran sought, via an Access to Information request, photographs of detainees captured by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. They had originally requested these photographs to determine whether they contained any evidence of detainee torture or abuse. Their request was refused.

Such secrecy and refusal to disclose even basic information about the treatment of CF-captured detainees is nothing new, of course. Readers of these pages will recall how difficult it was for the MPCC — and even Parliament — to get documentary disclosures relating to Afghan detainees from government. To test how far the government was willing to keep information about detainees out of the public eye, Professor Attaran modified his request: if maintaining the detainees’ privacy rights was a concern, then he would be willing to accept photographs that completely blacked out the detainees’ faces, but left their hair-styles unobscured. His request was again refused, despite a recommendation from the Information Commissioner of Canada that the blacked-out photographs be released.

The Ottawa Citizen is now reporting that the DND withheld these photographs based on a theory that their release would violate the detainees’ privacy rights. As reported:

“National Defence will not follow the recommendation made by the Information Commissioner of Canada regarding disclosure of photographs covered by this file and is prepared to defend the decision in court if necessary,” Julie Jansen, head of DND’s Access to Information branch, wrote in the October 2010 briefing note.

Jansen argued the photographs constituted “personal information” of the insurgents and releasing images of their hairdos would “probably cause injuries related to national security.”

The privacy rights of detainees are important, certainly. In fact, the Geneva Conventions make clear that proper treatment of prisoners of war means that their photographs should not be disseminated in any way that could be seen as degrading or humiliating them. But in the case of the photographs being requested by Professor Attaran, it’s far from clear as to what privacy rights are being protected by withholding their disclosure. And for the government to invoke the rights of the detainees in an effort to shield itself from public accountability and scrutiny is nothing short of astounding. We can’t put it any better than Professor Attaran:

“The same government that says those detainees have no rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms now embraces the idea that detainees have rights under the Privacy Act,” he explained. “The government’s position is that these persons have privacy rights but no constitutional right to avoid torture.”

And indeed, legal experts are already suggesting that by extending the jurisdiction of the Privacy Act to Afghan detainees, the government may be (inadvertently?) setting the stage for an argument that the protections of the Charter — our most basic law — should be likewise available.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard the government invoke the Privacy Act and the need to protect detainees’ privacy rights, at the expense of ensuring accountability for violations of fundamental human rights. During the course of the Afghan Public Interest Hearings at the MPCC, the government made the argument that members of the military police didn’t have any reason to launch an investigation into whether detainees were being transferred to torture and abuse because they had no reason to suspect that detainees were being tortured, or that Canadian commanders disregarded the risk of torture. The subjects of the MPCC complaint largely claimed that they weren’t aware of first-hand accounts of torture and abuse, notwithstanding the fact that some of these reports were documented by Canadian diplomats and provided to Canadian military commanders. Furthermore, it was argued, members of the military police could not have reasonably been expected to know or access information relating to detainee abuse and torture because it would violate the detainees’ privacy rights.

And so (again): in the name of protecting detainee privacy, government shuts the door to any scrutiny of its conduct, to any attempts at discerning what has happened to the men and children our troops have delivered to the Afghan government, and to any true accountability to the Canadian public.

(1) h/t Lewis Carroll.



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