Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I guess context doesn't matter anymore

Two Canadian human rights activists have asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate "possible war crimes" by top Canadian defence officials.

The request for a probe into the treatment of Afghan prisoners comes from Michael Byers, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, and William Schabas, another Canadian professor who is director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights in Galway.

Byers said he and Schabas sent a letter to the court's chief prosecutor on Wednesday outlining media reports of "serious allegations of misconduct by Canadian soldiers and Canadian decision-makers in terms of transferring detainees into an apparent risk of torture."

"We're not judges," Byers told CBC Newsworld on Thursday. "We can't say that these are war crimes, but we can certainly connect the news report with what we know about the law, and if the allegations are correct, we think there's a pretty good chance that war crimes have been committed."

- CBC News, Thursday, April 26, 2007

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I've written favourably in the past about Michael Byers, especially in contrast with the shameful performance of Amir Attaran on the Afghan detainee issues. Byers' testimony to SCOND in December last year was measured and reasonable, and he seemed to avoid the sort of public slurs against uniformed soldiers that characterized Attaran's media pronouncements.

That's why I was so bewildered and disappointed when Byers wrote to the International Criminal Court requesting MND Gordon O'Connor and CDS General Rick Hillier be investigated for war crimes. It was so obviously an over-the-top pressure tactic, so plainly a headline-grabber rather than a serious complaint, that I wondered if my earlier praise of Byers was misplaced. So I did a bit of online research about Michael Byers.

It turns out that the good professor is a staunch opponent of Canada's mission in Afghanistan.

"The mission in Afghanistan is futile because when you kill one insurgent, you create 15 others," said speaker Michael Byers, research chair in global and international law at the University of British Columbia.

According to Byers, the war in Afghanistan is a vicious cycle and it is not Canada's fight.

"The Taliban and al-Qaeda do not pose a threat to Canada," said Byers.

He added that Canada's presence in Afghanistan is not making life for the Afghanis any better.

Byers listed missions such as controlling the production of opium and helping to improve the lives of the Afghans, and stated the futility of each.

"After five years of military occupation, life expectancy [of Afghan citizens] is still 45 years," he said.

That passage really opened my eyes - so much twaddle packed into so few sentences is difficult to achieve unless you have ingested a near-fatal amount of the proverbial Kool-Aid. Obviously Byers has done just that.

But opinions are like assholes: everyone's got one, and most of them stink. You can only complain so hard about a human-rights activist opposing an international mission that involves armed force to secure breathing room for development, since it's pretty much par for that course. Disappointing to see Byers singing the same tired tunes from the same old songbook, but nothing to get too bent out of shape over.

It was only when I started to look into Byers' ties to the NDP that I became more upset. According to a piece at AGWN, in the past year and a half, he has donated at least four times to the federal NDP. Terry Glavin tells us that Byers is a "senior adviser to the NDP," an suggestion backed up by the fact that he wrote a defence policy discussion paper for the NDP in the spring of 2005 that was praised by Bill Blaikie, the party's defence critic at that time. Unless there's another Michael Byers involved in the NDP riding association for Vancouver Quadra, he was actually a delegate to the 2006 NDP convention in Quebec (pdf)!

Byers himself has apparently bragged about his deep roots within the party:

Byers closed the night with an anecdote. His friend, Dawn Black, an NDP Member of Parliament, was recently named by NDP leader, Jack Layton, as the party’s defense critic. Apparently, Dawn knows nothing about defense but was named just because she is the smartest cookie in the NDP caucus. So Dawn phones up her pal, Professor Michael Byers, to ask him what she needs to know. “All I know is that peace is good and war is bad” says Dawn. Byers fawningly replies: “Dawn, you’ll be just fine.”

Here's what ticks me off about all this: although the good Dr. Byers has been interviewed and quoted at length in the media over his opposition to the detainee transfer agreement, not a single story that I can find puts his words into context for the average Canadian news consumer.

According to the Canadian news media, Michael Byers is nothing more than a "human rights activist," a "political science professor," and an expert on international law. Somehow or other, on a file so politically charged that it has dominated the news columns and airwaves for weeks, so politically dangerous that it threatens to sack the Minister of National Defence, it has been deemed irrelevant by the Canadian journalistic establishment that one of the key instigators of this drama is a declared partisan for one of the parties in opposition to our effort in Afghanistan.

There will be those who accuse me of attacking the messenger because I can't attack the message. I can attack the message, but in this particular case, I think the messenger needs attacking too.

Ask yourself this: if Byers' letter to the ICC wasn't politically motivated, if his politics are truly irrelevant as the information gatekeepers would have you believe, then why was the Conservative MND named in his complaint, but not the Liberal MND in charge of the department when the flawed agreement was first put in place? If Gordon O'Connor is to be accused of war crimes, why wouldn't Bill Graham be put under the same microscope unless political considerations were driving the action?

If Michael Byers wants to make political attacks on our nation's soldiers, including the best Chief of the Defence Staff our country has had since the unification of the services into the Canadian Forces more than thirty years ago, then his politics are not only fair game, they're essential to understanding the context of his accusations.

And it's a crying shame that it takes a blogger, rather than a journalist, to point that out to the Canadian public.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

he is well known here on the west coast as being part of the champagne socialist brain trust that makes up the intelligentsia of the NDP 'round these parts. He is regular on talk shoes with his very leftist views of Canada's military history being only one of peacekeeping.

No surprise that he would stoop to these tactics to achieve his and his political party's goals vis a vis the Canadian military and our national response to the United Nation's request for assistance to the government and people of Afghanistan.

The real question for him and the NDP is "What do they have against the United Nations ?? Against the long suffering people of Afghanistan ? why do they want the Taliban to return to power ??

12:09 p.m., May 02, 2007  
Blogger PeterLT said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:48 p.m., May 02, 2007  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Peter, I'm sure you can think of a relevant comment that doesn't involve wishing for the death of two Canadian politicians, however distasteful their views may be to you and me.

5:17 p.m., May 02, 2007  
Blogger PeterLT said...

Hmmm...guess you're right, sorry about that, I suppose my 27 years in the Army was showing. However I still contend that the actions of these folks would've been treated as treason by those that came before us. Oh, and IMHO, to censor for lack of good taste is, well, distasteful. Because people are afraid to offend, those who would undermine our country flourish and do so with impunity.

I'll go now...feel free to trash this one too.

9:26 p.m., May 02, 2007  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Because people are afraid to offend...

Uh, no. I have no problem offending. More like "Because people (me) are afraid to get a call from the local constabulary." I know just enough about media liability to get spooked about that sort of thing.

As far as "censorship" is concerned, think of it this way: I don't care if you swear every other word. But if you do it in my house, in front of my kids, I'm going to ask you to either clean it up or leave. My place, my rules. I'm sure you have rules at your place too.

If you're truly worried about "censorship" here, then feel free to get a blog of your own and muse about NDP politicians getting blown to smithereens all you want. Just don't do it on my site.

With all those rosettes on your CD, though, I'd hope you'd stick around and contribute to the conversation at The Torch. And if you have any further concerns about my editorial policy, you're welcome to e-mail me privately - just check the sidebar for my address.

Thanks for reading.

10:04 p.m., May 02, 2007  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

PeterLT: If you consider what Pierre Trudeau (and many others in Quebec) did before and during WW II the treason issue, rightly or wrongly, was put aside long ago.

From a review in the Times Literary Supplement, March 30 (text subscriber only):

'Just Pierre
John Pepall

Trudeau's reputation as an intellectual, and as a ladies' man, results from the idleness of his life before politics. Left wealthy by his father, a multimillionaire who died in 1935, he had dabbled in practising and teaching law, travelled and written occasional slashing articles for Cite Libre, a magazine he partly financed and partly edited, with a tiny circulation among the tiny elite of French Quebec. In the absence of any other account that could be given of his life, it was decided that he was an intellectual.

Max and Monique Nemni are academics, in politics and linguistics respectively, who were born in Egypt, and who, about 1990, attached themselves to Trudeau in retirement. They have undertaken what they call an intellectual biography of Trudeau, the first volume ending with his departure for Harvard in 1944.

They have had access to Trudeau's meticulously preserved school and university papers. Their book has discomfited Trudeau's admirers by its breathless account of his attachment to a quasi-fascist clerical corporatism and his involvement in a wartime movement for the establishment by revolution of a Laurentian Republic modelled on Vichy France. The movement never got beyond the very laboured drafting of a manifesto...

Were ever a schoolboy's notebooks so solemnly and excitedly reviewed? They are largely no more than reading notes, many prepared for review by his teachers.

From a solid grounding in French literature with a Catholic bias, Trudeau moves on through Maurice Barres, Charles Maurras and the racist and eugenicist Alexis Carrel, now choosing his own reading, to a rogue's gallery of fascists and anti-Semites: Robert Brasillach, the Belgian Rexist Leon Degrelle, the Romanian Corneliu Codreanu -"a mystic . . . he intuits the inner thrust of the Romanians: hatred of the Jews, suppression of the parties, moral rebirth" -and Otto Strasser. Trudeau's interest faded as the Axis faced defeat...'

The undermining has been going on for a very long time and with the willful complicity of what used to be the Anglo-Canadian elite.


10:13 p.m., May 02, 2007  
Blogger truepeers said...

Quite aside from the fact that the Canadian military had nothing to do with the treatment of these prisoners in the hands of the Afghan government, it seems to me that this disgusting talk of Canadian "war crimes" is intended to mislead the Canadian public about the nature of international law, such as the Geneva conventions which do not consider non-uniformed terrorist fighters, representing no legitimate state, to be legitimates POWs due the protection of the law for legal combatants.

The whole point of the Geneva conventions is to foster a positive reciprocity in the conduct of warring parties, not to provide encouragements or protections to illegal gangsters. If we don't insist that Taliban recognize basic laws of reciprocity - by treating them according to the standards they set for their own conduct - in order that we may feel righteous or "progressive" in taking some "higher" ground, we only encourage the Taliban to detest us in our righteous vanity and to continue in their horrific ways. We can either be holier than thou, or we can engage our Other in reciprocity; is there any other ground?

If we were to follow the spirit of the Geneva conventions - fostering reciprocity - we would let any legitimate Afghan authority have at the Taliban prisoners, to do their primitive but realistic sense of justice, until the Taliban either started to learn that there are benefits in trying to negotiate codes of conduct for warfare and state building, or until they were wiped out.

Guys like Byers seem to think that there is some "international law" exercised in the name of some extranational sovereignty that guarantees the peace and order of the world. But with all due respect to international associations like the UN, there is no real sovereignty beyond the realm of individual states and local gangs. Thus "international law" can only be the product of negotiations, in a spirit of fostering reciprocity, by states and gangs in potential or actual conflict. Those who would flatter their vanity by pretending to speak for some higher entity, some greater law, only encourage the lawlessness of groups like the Taleban who are not even accorded the basic human decency of being recognized as partners in reciprocal, eye for eye, relations. The NDP acts or talks as if they don't really exist, as if we have some right or responsibility to stop the war and "reconstruct" and develop Afghanistan without first fighting the Taleban.

At a public meeting some months ago (you link my account of it when you quote my report of what Byers said about Dawn Back) Byers was challenged that his idealistic idea of "international law" was a myth that even leftist Israelis thought was an unreal joke. Byers replied, to paraphrase, maybe so, but it is better that national leaders think someone somewhere somehow might try to hold them to account for their actions, than that there be no "international law", as if anarchy would break out everywhere if not for guys like him.

Byers' anti-Israel comments in relation to the conflict with Hezbollah last summer were in the same vein as his recent suggestion of Canadian "war crimes", as if Israel would be doing a good service by treating gangsters according to a higher law than the gangsters, seeking the destruction of Israel, themselves recognize. It seems to me that those who promote the logic of a limited "proportional response" to Hezbollah gangsterism (a concept which only pretends to encourage reciprocity) only encourage the endlessness of conflict instead of the rapid termination of war through a clear victory by the ethically (and hence militarily) more powerful side, thus allowing for the articulation of realistic terms for reciprocity.

I say the blood is on the hands of the righteous who would promote and dictate vain ideas of "international law" without being in any legitimate or realistic position to do so. But the CBC loves to promote the careers of those willing to play this game. Shame. The taxpayers should demand better performance for their academic and broadcasting subsidies. We need to trust and encourage far more the professional honour of our military personnel, and their own interest in policing and maintaining their honour, which, pace attention-seeking lefty professors calling for independent inquiries, is the only realistic hope we have of our nation maintaining realistic and decent codes of conduct while at war, conduct founded in a respect for basic human reciprocity and immediate knowledge of what kind of warfare is being practiced by the other side.

10:33 p.m., May 02, 2007  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Terry Glavin describes his encounter with Prof. Byers at a public debate in Vancouver last week:

"Another Take On The Alibi Room Af'stan Debate"


1:45 p.m., May 03, 2007  
Blogger Dr.Dawg said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:37 a.m., May 21, 2007  
Blogger Dr.Dawg said...

BB, you are indeed attacking the messenger instead of the message, and for the life of me I don't understand the logic of it. Are you seriously suggesting that Byers expresses the views he does solely for partisan reasons? That he is somehow hypocritical in being associated with a party that--apparently shares his views?

That's just muddled. It's similar to the attacks on the women's movement for speaking out against the Montreal Massacre. You'll remember those: "they're just capitalizing on this for their own political purposes." Why, no doubt--but what do you imagine those purposes might be?

Since when is it somehow wrong and suspect that a person joins a party with whose policies he or she agrees? Because that, after your torrent of words, is what you are really saying.

Anyway, no hard feelings. I'm sure that one or two fervent supporters of Canada's mission, and of the US mission in Iraq, might someday be revealed as Conservatives, which of course would nullify everything that they've said. One can only hope for some equally good sleuth work from the Left as we've seen here.

12:10 p.m., May 21, 2007  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

I don't think it nullifies anything, Dawg, but I do feel the information is important to know.

If Byers was an expert on dog grooming, I wouldn't find his politics particularly relevant. But he's commenting on matters with huge partisan political ramifications, and so I feel his politics are extremely relevant.

2:21 p.m., July 10, 2007  
Blogger Deep Thought said...

I was aware of the letter to the ICC but was I was not aware of until I read your post that I had the "pleasure" of watching one of its authors, William Schabas, receive an Honourary LLD from Dalhousie University in May, shortly after the letter was sent. I thought he was a bit of a wingnut but I didn't realize at the time that he got off on victimizing people who put their lives on the line defending his right to pontificate from Galway. I write more at: Five by Five

1:30 p.m., August 03, 2007  

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