Afghanistan: time to lift the veil

John Key says his government will review the long-standing convention of secrecy over Special Air Service operations. He needs to lift the veil on much more than that

As predicted, New Zealanders learned where the NZSAS is based in Afghanistan by accident, from an ally. Norway’s defence chief General Sverre Diesen outed our SAS when he told a local newspaper that New Zealand would be taking over from his troops in the Kabul region.

This is, at least, the fourth time this has happened. The White House listed the NZSAS as a component of Operation Enduring Freedom before Helen Clark had told us it was deployed. The Germans confirmed they were working alongside the Kiwis. The Danes disclosed that the NZSAS was concerned about the treatment of its prisoners. Then, the Americans detailed the nature of SAS operations in a presidential citation awarded to the unit for its bravery in the field.

Prime Minister Key was quick to admit that the latest revelation made the government effort to keep the location of the NZSAS base a secret look ridiculous. He promises to review the secrecy convention that is imposed at the request of the New Zealand Defence Force.

He should broaden the brief for this review. Defence and diplomatic officials have an entrenched determination to operate under the veil whenever possible. A couple of recent examples serve to make the point.

First, there is the long-standing resistance to addressing our responsibilities to ensure that any prisoners taken by New Zealand troops in Afghanistan are treated in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law.

In the eight years since New Zealand troops entered Afghanistan, we have received minimal detail about New Zealand diplomatic and defence initiatives to raise the prisoner treatment issue with the US state department and the government of Afghanistan. We know that negotiations with Afghanistan were still in train when the Key government took over the reins in Wellington.

Now the NZSAS is back to combat duty the questions about prisoner treatment take on new urgency. Has the new government made any progress? Make what you will of the following answer from Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully.

“I can confirm that New Zealand has received renewed assurances from Afghanistan covering the treatment of detainees transferred to Afghan authorities.

“These include formal assurances that detainees so transferred will be treated in accordance with applicable international humanitarian and human rights laws and the international obligations of both participants… This includes the non-application of the death penalty.”

Were these “assurances” verbal – all that Defence Minister Phil Goff obtained in negotiations dating back to the beginning of 2006 – or written? Do they provide for any independent monitoring of the kind that other governments have negotiated with the Afghan government?

McCully does speak about “documents” in his formal explanation for withholding further information about the “formal assurances”, but he offers no specific description of their nature. He says

“…the release of information would prejudice the entrusting of information to the Government of New Zealand on a basis of confidence by the government of any other country … and prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand or the international relations of the Government of New Zealand.”

Strange stuff when we are talking about the humane treatment of prisoners and detainees under international law.

The next illustration of the overly secretive attitude being adopted on Afghanistan issues in New Zealand concerns our position on the highly contentious Shi’ite Personal Status Act – an act that provoked international outrage when it first saw the light of day last April.

Karzai subsequently watered down a few of its most noxious provisions, and whisked it into law in a last minute bid to secure the votes to be delivered by Afghanistan’s conservative Shiite clerics and elders in the still unresolved August election.

As amended, the Shi’ite Personal Status Law condones traditional practices that see under-age girls being forced into marriages against their will, enables husbands to deny sustenance to wives who refuse their sexual demands, denies women guardianship of their children, and makes it impossible for Shi’ite wives to inherit houses and land from their husbands.

It is a clear breach of Afghanistan’s obligations as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and of Afghanistan’s own constitution which assures equal rights to men and women.

You probably do not know that New Zealand took issue with Afghanistan over this law last May, during the periodic review of Afghanistan’s human rights record by a working group of the UN Human Rights Council. We even made a number of recommendations to Afghanistan. None of this saw the light of day in New Zealand at the time.

Now, Minister McCully offers the following explanation of New Zealand’s current stance:

“The New Zealand Government has not taken a formal decision on communicating New Zealand’s attitude towards the law to the Afghan Government. However, New Zealand intends to urge the new Afghan Government to ensure the revised Shi’a Personal Status Law complies with its international human rights obligations.”

Could we have a copy of the law as it was enacted?

Afghanistan has not released an English language translation of the Personal Status law. An unofficial translation of the law is withheld … as this was passed to the New Zealand Government by a third country on a basis of confidence.”

What kind of relationship is this? Opposition leader Phil Goff has already decided that it is not worth spilling New Zealand blood to secure the position of the Karzai government. If the Afghan-New Zealand relationship continues on the current track, it will not be long before many more New Zealanders come to the same conclusion.