“Playstation helps Prince Harry be a better gunner” rates headlines – but “Torture on the rise in Afghan jails” barely rates a mention ... How come?
The answer looks easy: it is all “so yesterday’s war”. Our troops are pulling out of Afghanistan. We’ve heard all that stuff about torture and abuse of detainees before. And if Harry talks about taking a life to save a life, and how video games help him be a better helicopter pilot and gunner - well, that’s just a young man keeping some risky combat experience in perspective. Isn’t it?
Not really. The strife is far from over in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s shifted out, but the Taliban continue to strike at will. The country still hasn’t got a stable, sustainable government capable of running the place alone. And the misnamed New Zealand provincial reconstruction team’s return from Bamyan in March is not the end of our military involvement in “yesterday’s war”.
Our government has been coy about what happens after the New Zealand Defence Force quits Bamyan. Last September, it said New Zealand’s continuing support “will likely include the contribution of a small number of NZDF trainers to the Afghanistan National Army Officer Training Academy later in 2013, an on-going presence in ISAF headquarters, as well as financial and development contributions to Afghanistan.” That leaves plenty of wiggle-room.
So we should sit up and take more notice when the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan finds more than half (326) of 635 conflict-related detainees interviewed at 89 detention facilities operated by a wide-range of Afghan government agencies in 30 provinces experienced ill-treatment and torture. In producing this alarming finding, UNAMA discarded any claims its check process found to be “insufficiently credible”.
What constitutes torture and ill-treatment in this survey? Here’s UNAMA’s survey says.
“Detainees said they experienced torture in the form of suspension (hanging from the ceiling by the wrists or from chains attached to the wall, iron bars or other fixtures so that the victim’s toes barely touch the ground or he is completely suspended in the air with his body weight on his wrists for lengthy periods), prolonged and severe beating with cables, pipes, hoses or wooden sticks (including on the soles of the feet), punching and kicking all over the body, twisting of genitals, and threats against the detainee of execution and/or sexual violence. Other forms of torture and ill-treatment reported included increased incidents of electric shock, stress positions, prolonged standing, standing and sitting down or squatting repeatedly and forced standing outside in cold weather conditions for long periods.”
It is exactly the same kind of systematic abuse that UNAMA observed in its last survey of detainees in October 2011, when the Afghan government committed itself to a range of measures to address the abuse of detainees. The major difference is that the incidence of torture and ill-treatment in detention facilities operated by the Afghan National Police has increased - from 35% in 2011 to 43%.
On the other hand, rate of torture and abuse in surveyed facilities operated by the National Security Directorate decreased 12%. However, this decrease may be illusory. UNAMA reports a reduction in the numbers of conflict related detainees being held in NDS facilities, and an increase in numbers held by the police. UNAMA surveyors also received “multiple reports” of unofficial sites where detainees were interrogated and tortured or ill-treated prior to transfer to NDS or ANP facilities.
Official responses to the UNAMA findings have been swift. The Afghan government does not completely rule out abuse and ill-treatment by detention centre stuff, but says the level of alleged torture reflected in this report is exaggerated.. The US Forces commander and International Security Forces Commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, says “based on information provided by UNAMA, which ISAF determined as credible, ISAF suspended the transfer of detainees to the Afghan facilities identified in the report.” – another development that escaped the attention of most mainstream media..
UNAMA has asked “all concerned donor states” – New Zealand is in this group – “to consider conditioning all forms of financial and technical assistance provided to NDS and the Afghan National Police on their production of concrete and measurable results to improve oversight and accountability in their ranks, particularly in preventing, prohibiting and punishing the use of torture effectively in their detention facilities.”
So far, there has been no public statement on this matter from the New Zealand government. However, back in 2011, I asked Foreign Minister Murray McCully for the government’s response to a similar suggestion from UNAMA - that governments should consider basing donor support to Afghanistanon its NDS and ANP taking concerted action to cease torture and abusive interrogation practices. His response then was instructive.
“New Zealand’s on-going support for Afghanistan is not simply contingent on the actions of the NDS and the Afghan National Police. We must continue the work we started ten years ago to ensure Afghanistan is never again able to be used as a base from which to export terror around the globe. We expect to have completed our substantive part in this process by 2014 and to be able to leave then, having given Afghanistan the best chance possible of being able to stand on its own two feet”.
The Karzai government’s lack-lustre response to credible evidence about the rising incidence of torture and abuse in its jails and detention centres does nothing to ensure that “yesterday’s war” will not be part of tomorrow’s global problem.
For those who care, the full UNAMA report can be accessed at: