Richard Colvin

Richard Colvin

What Happened

Richard Colvin was personally attacked and his credibility questioned by the government for having raised concerns about the Canadian military transferring Afghan prisoners to Afghan security forces, despite the Canadian military knowing that those prisoners might be tortured. In the years that followed, the government ignored and avoided the information that Colvin brought to light, prevented an investigation into the matter, and eventually prorogued Parliament to avoid losing a vote of confidence over the controversy.

Canada played a major role in the NATO-led Afghan war between 2001 and 2011. In Afghanistan, the United Nations has confirmed the widespread, systematic torture of prisoners.

In 2006, Richard Colvin was posted to Afghanistan as second-in-command at the Canadian embassy.

A month after he arrived in Afghanistan, Colvin raised serious concerns to his Department of Foreign Affairs superiors about the risk that Afghan detainees, held by Canada, who were being transferred to the Afghan intelligence service (the National Directorate of Security), risked being tortured once in Afghan custody.

Torture would be a breach of Canada’s commitment to the Geneva Conventions. Article 12 of the Geneva Conventions stipulates that prisoners of war can’t be abused, and “the Detaining Power is responsible for the treatment given to [prisoners of war].”

Torture controversy

As word got out that the Canadian military might have facilitated or at least been aware of the torture of prisoners, a public controversy began. Professors Amir Attaran and Errol Mendes at the University of Ottawa spoke out about what had happened. Amnesty International Canada and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association made public complaints about the issue, and called for an investigation.

The controversy became known as the Afghan detainee scandal.

As the controversy grew, the head of the Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC), Peter Tinsley, launched a public inquiry into the actions of the Canadian military, and into whether the government had in fact violated the Geneva Conventions.

The Harper government tried to shut down the MPCC’s inquiry. In April 2008, it asked the Ontario federal court to stop the procedures, claiming the watchdog was overstepping its jurisdiction. The government also tried withholding documents, stonewalling, and passing motions to stop the inquiry. The inquiry was eventually suspended temporarily, but resumed in December 2009.

Intimidation of witnesses

At the inquiry’s hearings about the Afghan detainee scandal, the MPCC called on 22 civil servants to testify about what had happened. Lawyers for the Department of Justice sent letters that “were threatening in tone and designed to deter the recipients from testifying” at the hearings, according to Colvin’s lawyer. In the end, of all 22 civil servants who were asked to testify, only Richard Colvin was willing to raise his voice.

The government’s lawyers then tried to prevent Colvin from testifying by invoking Section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act, which allows the government to prevent someone from testifying if the testimony poses a risk to national security. But the government later withdrew that objection, and Colvin was able to testify.

Colvin testified that the Canadian military knowingly delivered Afghan detainees to certain torture. He added that the Red Cross tried to warn Ottawa about abuse as early as 2006, but those warnings were ignored. Colvin’s testimony contradicted the government’s repeated denials of having any knowledge of prisoner torture.

Colvin attacked

The Harper government responded by attacking Colvin’s credibility, arguing that his evidence was based on rumours and Taliban lies, and that Colvin hadn’t actually witnessed the torture himself. It suggested Colvin’s testimony was aiding Taliban claims.

The Department of Justice also demanded to know exactly who had told Colvin what he knew. When Colvin’s lawyer refused to disclose her sources, the government refused to pay Colvin’s legal fees, despite Colvin still being a Canadian diplomat. The matter was eventually settled in January 2010, with the government paying the fees.

Colvin’s friends were reportedly afraid to speak out publicly, “fearing government reprisals against him.” However they told The Star that Colvin thought his colleagues widely shared his opinions about federal policies in managing the war in Afghanistan actually hurting its chances of success, strengthening the insurgency, and endangering Canadian and Afghan lives, but that his colleagues were also silenced by their superiors.

The MPCC’s investigation continued after Colvin’s testimony, with the government making other attempts to prevent it from revealing what took place. The Harper government gave the MPCC documents concerning the torture allegations that were heavily censored. It did not renew the MPCC’s Chair, Peter Tinsley, despite his being in the middle of the investigation. Prime Minister Harper even prorogued Parliament on December 30th 2009, thus delaying the investigation for three months.

Colvin’s testimony upheld

As the investigation continued into April 2011, the government requested that the Federal Court strike out Colvin’s testimony - a request the Court eventually dismissed. The government also asked that the Court restrict the amount of evidence the MPCC could use in its final report. This request was also rejected.

An internal CSIS report cleared its officers of any wrongdoing in interrogating Afghan detainees, though the committee that monitors CSIS reported that “the Afghan detainee experience provided opportunities for CSIS to enhance its approach to managing operations overseas.” In December 2011, news broke that CSIS had sent a letter to the government in 2008, objecting to a bill designed to make evidence obtained under torture more difficult to use (Bill C-3), thus implying CSIS had been reliant on evidence likely obtained through torture, and viewed torture as a legitimate strategy to counter terrorism.

Canadian combat forces left Afghanistan in July 2011. Richard Colvin went on to serve as First Secretary in the intelligence office at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

The MPCC’s final report on the Afghan detainee scandal has as yet to be released.

Relevant Dates

  • April 2006 - October 2007: Richard Colvin is posted by the Department of Foreign Affairs to Afghanistan, where he writes memos to senior Canadian military and political officials about the abuse of Afghan detainees
  • June 2006: The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission states that one-third of prisoners handed over by Canadians are tortured
  • February 2007: Amnesty International Canada and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association call for an investigation into the allegations of torture. Peter Tinsley, head of the Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC), launches an investigation into the matter
  • 2007-2009: The Harper government temporarily suspends the prisoner-transfer agreement with the Afghan government, unsuccessfully asks the Federal Court to stop the MPCC’s public hearings, refuses to extend Peter Tinsley’s madate so he can complete his investigation, and allegedly intimidates witnesses to prevent them from testifying
  • October 2009: Colvin’s affidavit is made public, contradicting the Harper government’s claim that it received no credible evidence to support allegations of Afghan detainee torture
  • November 2009: Colvin, subpoenaed by the MPCC, testifies to the Special Committee of the House of Commons
  • November and December 2009: The government heavily censors the documents given to the MPCC; Prime Minister Harper prorogues parliament, delaying the investigation
  • April 2010: The Canadian Military admits it was aware of the torture of Afghan detainees
  • September 2011: The courts reject the Harper government’s request to strike out Colvin’s testimony
  • 11 October 2011: The United Nations publishes a new report confirming the torture of Afghan detainees
  • December 2011: News emerges that CSIS likely relied on evidence obtained through torture

Role or Position

Richard Colvin was a senior Canadian diplomat based in Afghanistan from April 2006 to October 2007, working as chargé d’affaires and second-in-command at the Canadian embassy in Kabul.

Implications and Consequences

  • Transparency: The Harper government’s multiple attempts to prevent Canadians from understanding what really happened to Afghan prisoners, and the extent of Canada’s involvement in what took place, is a blatant, conscious and shameful failure of its responsibility to be transparent and accountable.
  • Free Speech: The Harper government’s intimidation, derision, and other attemps to muzzle Richard Colvin, and prevent him from listening to his conscience and doing his job, are an attack on free speech with far-reaching potential consequences, including the torture and possible death of prisoners, and serious damage to Canada’s hard-earned international reputation.
  • Free Speech: The Harper Government's attacks on Richard Colvin, and it's alleged intimidation of 22 other potential witnesses who would then decline to testify at the MPCC'S hearings, contribute to a chill factor for other civil servants who seek to tell the truth as they see it, and to offer the government the constructive criticism it needs to make and implement policies that benefit Canadians. When public servants are silenced, they are far from the only Canadians to pay a price.
  • Democracy: The Harper government’s prorogation of Parliament in order to avoid being held accountable for its responsibilities concerning the Afghan Detainee Scandal was a flagrant violation of Canada’s democratic traditions and values.
  • Democracy: Court decisions, findings from the UN and international agencies, and the CSIS request to the government that evidence obtained through torture be allowed, have all vindicated Richard Colvin, and serve as testament to the courage of those who raise their voices, do their duties, follow their conscience, and value the strength of Canadian democracy.

Photo: Pawel Dwulit for the Toronto Star