On Feb 27, journalist Les Perrault wrote in a Canadian Press report, “Four years after the end of the brutal excesses of the Taliban government, Afghan authorities supported by the US-led coalition, including Canada, are still jailing teenagers convicted of homosexuality and women accused of adultery, eloping or running away from their husbands.”
It was part of an account of Perrault’s visit to Kandahar prison in which he quoted a prison guard as saying, “The young ones are thieves and some are homosexuals, but mostly they are thieves.”
For all the horror, I hoped the coalition invasion of Afghanistan meant, at least, fewer queers crushed to death, hanged in public squares or flung from high perches. It meant that Afghan queers may finally have more hope of living their lives more fully and openly and embracing their sexuality in all its dimensions with less risk of consequential tortuous death.
But now it appears we’re in the rather awkward position where Canadian troops are actually facilitating the imprisonment of queers and women for the ridiculous crimes of being queers and women.
I decided after I read Perrault’s report to find out more for myself, so I wrote to the Department of National Defence and shared my letter with virtually every federal politician I could think of.
“I understand issues surrounding our presence in Afghanistan are varied and extremely complicated,” I wrote to defence minister Gordon O’Connor. “But I am confident you will appreciate how distressing this revelation must be to Canadian women and members of the queer community.” I attached a series of questions I hoped he could answer for me about the precise nature of the role of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
Responses were few and irresolute. O’Connor’s office responded only to say my letter was received. Those who did respond clearly didn’t want to touch the issue with a bargepole.
Trevor Greene, a Canadian soldier from Vancouver had just suffered a ghastly head wound in Afghanistan at the hands of an axe-wielding insurgent while trying to broker some modicum of local peace about 70 km north of Kandahar. Any Canadian politician who stood up to demand freedom for women and queers while Canadian soldiers were risking-and in some cases losing-their lives to establish a basic democratic peace, I thought, would seem insensitive and whiny.
It was bad timing, I guessed. Politicians need to pick their battles and with the mainstream press following Greene’s prognosis so closely every day, standing up for queers in Afghan prisons just wasn’t a good political move.
But then Mar 21, Christian leaders and politicians from coalition countries with troops in Afghanistan, including Canada, flipped out over the case of Abdul Rahman, a 41-year old Afghan who was charged and faced execution in Kabul for converting from Islam to Christianity years ago.
Execution is a lot different than prison. And a death sentence for any belief system-especially one that relies on religious fairy tales-is simply absurd. Naturally, the world should be outraged and governments with the power to stop Rahman’s persecution and execution should do so.
And they did-with apparent ease.
The Afghan authorities are suddenly of the mind that Rhaman is insane and therefore unfit for trial or execution. Bowing to international pressure, Afghan authorities dismissed the charges against him Mar 26. If international pressure can be so easily and successfully applied, regardless of coalition casualties, to liberate Rhaman, surely it can be applied just as easily to liberate women and queers.
Then I came across a Mar 8 report from the US state department about human rights in Afganistan that reads in part: “There continued to be instances in which security and factional forces committed extrajudicial killings and torture… Torture and abuse consisted of pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, sexual humiliation and sodomy.”
The fog of war is thick, making certainty impossible, but as I dig deeper, I find more and more horrific accounts of torture and barbarism at the hands of Afghan authorities-authorities Canadian troops directly support.
The Conservative government is predictably keeping its cards close to its chest. “We have worked bilaterally and within a multilateral context to ensure the human rights situation in Afghanistan gets due consideration and remains integral to the work of the international community,” Foreign Affairs spokesperson Pam Greenwell told the National Post Mar 22.
What the hell is “due consideration”? It’s certainly not a commitment or promise about anything. There’s nothing there that demonstrates a willingness on the part of the government to be accountable for the actions of Canadian troops.
If it turns out-and a complete picture will certainly emerge over time-that Canadian soldiers have orders that result in their complicity in human rights abuses, it will irrevocably besmirch the good name of the Canadian Forces and tarnish Canada’s reputation as a champion of human rights and a nation expert in peace through diplomacy.
I urge all queer people to call on their federal politicians to demand a direct promise from the government that Canadian troops are not now, never were, and never will be, directly or indirectly complicit in human rights abuses in Afghanistan.
I also urge the queer community to demand a commitment from the government that they make clear to Afghan authorities that a condition of our support is the release of women accused of adultery and queer people.