Did the U of G honour a war criminal?
Sunday, January 11, 200996 Comments
On Jan 13 2009 the University of Guelph honoured retired general Rick Hillier with the Lincoln Alexander Outstanding Leader Award. In this opinion piece I will outline my criticisms of the university's decision to select Hillier from the list of candidates.
As the title implies, the question of his involvement in war crimes is up for debate. In a strictly technical sense, I admit he has not been convicted in a court of law of any war crime, to date. That being said, one can muse about the possibility of such a conviction and detail the evidence in support of the accusations.
Much of the evidence I will present here comes from a letter sent to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, written by Michael Byers, a Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia and National University of Ireland professor William A. Schabas. Both academics are respected international legal experts.
In their letter dated April 25 2007 they state:
Article 25(3) of the Rome Statute indicates that individual persons, including Canadian soldiers, could be criminally responsible if they transferred a detainee into a situation where they knew he or she would be at risk of torture, cruel treatment or outrages upon personal dignity, and such violence or outrages occurred. Article 25(3) reads:
3. In accordance with this Statute, a person shall be criminally responsible and liable for punishment for a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court if that person ...
(c) For the purposes of facilitating the commission of such a crime, aids, abets or otherwise assists in its commission or its attempted commission, including providing the means for its commission; (d) In any other way contributes to the commission or attempted commission of such a crime by a group of persons acting with a common purpose. Such contribution shall be intentional and shall either: (i) Be made with the aim of furthering the criminal activity or criminal purpose of the group, where such activity or purpose involves the commission or a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court; or (ii) Be made in the knowledge of the intention of the group to commit the crime.
At this point we have a definition of what would be classified as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. The authors of this letter rightly point out that "transferring a detainee contributes to -- indeed, it provides the means for -- the commission of torture, cruel treatment or outrages upon his or her personal dignity."
So the question becomes three-fold: Were detainees transferred from Canadian custody into a situation where they would be at risk of torture or cruel treatment? Did this happen under the direction of Hillier, in the face of credible evidence that they were in fact being tortured? And lastly, were appropriate steps taken by Hillier to remedy the potential problem in a timely fashion? An examination of these questions follows.
The Globe and Mail ran a series of investigative reports in 2007 where they "uncovered a litany of gruesome stories and a clear pattern of abuse by the Afghan authorities who work closely with Canadian troops, despite Canada's assurances that the rights of detainees are protected." The Globe conducted 30 face-to-face interviews, where prisoners "say they were beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked and subjected to electric shocks during interrogation." (April 23, 2007)
Two days later, the paper ran a front-page article exposing efforts by the Harper government to conceal reports of torture from their own officials. "The Harper government knew from its own officials that prisoners held by Afghan security forces faced the possibility of torture, abuse and extrajudicial killing, The Globe and Mail has learned." (April 25, 2007)
And with all of this flying on the front page of the Globe for several consecutive days, Hillier still did not call for a halt of prisoner transfers. This is the central thesis of the challenge by Byers and Schabas to the International Criminal Court (ICC). They say, "Our principal concern arises with respect to the political and military decision-makers who have chosen not to cease the practice of transferring detainees, and who for more than a year refused to renegotiate the Canada Afghanistan Detainee Transfer Arrangement to secure rights of notification, visit and verification for Canadian authorities. In short, the policies decisions taken by Mr. O'Conner and General Hillier have caused detainees to be transferred into a situation of significant, known risk." (emphasis added)
While the final call on the question of criminality ultimately lies in the hands of the courts, the lay reader can connect enough dots to call into question the appropriateness of this award going to Hillier.
Despite war crimes being among the most heinous of all, the university felt the massive body of evidence being considered right now by the ICC was irrelevant to their decision. Chris McKenna, dean of the university's College of Management and Economics, told the Ontarion that the issue of war crimes allegations "would not have been a factor in the selection [of Hillier]" and that it "wasn't an issue either way". It is this sentiment that prompted me in my initial article to ask rhetorically if Paul Bernardo might be considered a potential candidate for honour by the university. This was admittedly a rather facetious way to broach the issue, however the underlying premise remains valid – that the track record of an individual being considered for a prestigious award is apparently irrelevant in the eyes of this institution.
Beyond the shortcomings of my initial, hastily assembled opinion piece, the university community really should debate the appropriateness of this award in light of the mountain of documentation that reflects poorly on Hillier's professional life.
The press release I received when the award was announced said "Hillier is being honoured for his exceptional abilities as a communicator with . . . the public and the media . . ."
A quick review of public and media commentary on Hillier is appropriate at this time. From the media, we have a direct call for his resignation from Toronto Star columnist Rosie Dimanno. The Ottawa Citizen filed a complaint with Canada's information commissioner over the withholding of information they had a legal right to obtain. The Globe and Mail ran a series of exposes that focussed on the allegations of torture under Hillier's watch. The Globe also commented on what they called a "remarkable" example of "the incarceration of information, as opposed to the freedom of it" by Hillier where the Globe said, in no uncertain terms, "[Hillier] halted the release of documents related to detainees captured in Afghanistan. The detainee story caused the government and Gen. Hillier's department many embarrassing moments in the spring. So, basically, they decided, as per the detainee file, to ignore access-to-information laws. They are invoking that old standby, 'reasons of national security,' to get around them. The generals, it seems, are becoming increasingly aggravated by the democratic process and the freedoms therein."
These references illustrate anything but effective communication with the media and public – the stated basis of Hillier's award. The university appears to interpret "ignoring access-to-information laws" and "[aggravation] by the democratic process" to be worthy of honour. It is this total contradiction between the documented view of leading media outlets and what the university is praising him for that is so ludicrous. Issues of potential war crimes aside, how could highly educated executives at an academic institution fail to see these anomalies? It certainly calls into question the vetting process used to select this individual and the motives of the committee members tasked with finding a suitable candidate.
Two other points not fully explored in my initial response are the other aspects of this award, which, not surprisingly, don't align with the image our institution purports to uphold – that of the "moral and social conscience of our society".
Hillier was honoured in part for "improving the image and sustainability of the Forces both domestically and internationally . . .". For this, I refer readers to Hillier's comments about the role of Canada's Armed Forces in Afghanistan. He said, "These are detestable murderers and scumbags . . . they detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties" and "We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people.” How can such hawkish language be considered an improvement to our image abroad? And as for the notion of the role of our forces being that of killing people as opposed to humanitarian efforts, even major general Andrew Leslie said "every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you're creating 15 more who will come after you." This sounds like nothing less than a failed strategy sure to burden our nation for decades to come.
Additionally questionable is the award being given for "his efforts to lobby the federal government for increased military funding." Is more funding for the military really what our country needs right now? We face no direct threat from Afghanistan or any other country. If anything, we face a very real threat to the prosperity of our nation from our faltering economy. There are only so many tax dollars to dish out and our own academic institution has hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and has been forced to impose a hiring freeze. Should we not be honouring someone who advocates a redirection of public monies away from unnecessary military spending and towards social programs that might actually benefit the average Canadian? We praise calls for more military spending at the same time that our university and its students are being crushed by a lack of financial support from our government.
This is not a left versus right issue. This is an issue of human rights, international law and the credibility of our university. People from all walks of life and all political ideologies should be able to recognize when an award is handed out based on false pretenses. Even my critics from the Campus Conservatives should heed the warnings of legal experts like Byers and Schabas even if they disagree with me personally. These credible allegations - supported by a growing body of evidence - implicates Hillier in what could amount to crimes against humanity. If the International Criminal Court or a future government of Canada were to take the steps necessary to bring this man to trial, a conviction would tarnish the name of the Canadian Forces for decades. The wheels are in motion and only time will tell.
Note from The Cannon Operating Committee: The cannon operating committee chose to remove the original Rick Hillier editorial posted on the Cannon Jan 9th in order to review the content. We believe the Cannon should not shy away from controversial issues, and therefore the article has returned in this revised form. We would like to remind readers that thecannon.ca does not take any editorial positions. The opinions posted on the Cannon reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.