OTTAWA – Canadian diplomats were tipped weeks before Afghanistan passed its so-called rape law but did not alert their political masters, newly released documents indicate.
Officials at the embassy in Kabul were warned Feb. 15 that other countries were worried about the proposed Shiite family law.
But the diplomats had no specific knowledge about the provisions of the law or when it was to be considered by the Afghan parliament, say the documents obtained by the federal New Democrats.
The law gives sweeping powers to Shiite husbands over their wives, effectively legalizing rape within a marriage. The legislation triggered international outrage when it was signed into law by President Hamid Karzai five weeks later.
A written timeline outlining Ottawa’s response to the crisis was tabled in the House of Commons after a formal question by New Democrat MP Paul Dewar on Parliament’s order paper.
The four-page summary also shows that officials with the Canadian International Development Agency, which has been mentoring Afghans in human rights and democracy, knew as far back as October last year that the law was being drafted but were unaware of its wording.
Dewar said someone should have been asking questions.
“We’re supposed to be there keeping an eye on human rights,” Dewar said, noting that Ottawa is the principal funding source for the Afghan human-rights commission.
“I would have thought if this had been noted to our officials they would have been on it immediately.”
Both Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and International Trade Minister Stockwell Day have said they weren’t aware of the legislation before it led to censures from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama and other international leaders.
Cannon and Day visited Kandahar and Kabul in early March. Dewar questioned why officials there did not pass along the warning in the myriad of briefings the pair would have received.
Asked about any foreknowledge of the proposed legislation, a Foreign Affairs official said the department “did not hear of any other concerns, nor did it have any knowledge as to when the law would be considered by the National Assembly.”
Jean-Bruno Villeneuve also noted that in the aftermath of the controversy, Ottawa deployed a legal team to Kabul to help the Afghans vet legislation.
In an appearance before a special House of Commons committee on Afghanistan, a senior bureaucrat overseeing the file said Canadian officials were taken by surprise.
“The law was not a focus of Afghan national political debate. We are unaware of any domestic media coverage in Afghanistan during this legislative process,” Yves Brodeur said in testimony in May.
Soraya Sobharang, a prominent member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, testified before the same committee via teleconference that Western countries let down the women of her country. She said Canada needs to be more vigilant about intervening on human-rights matters.
Once Canadian officials had heard the law was passed they had trouble tracking down details and getting the legislation translated, the summary said.
Diplomats tried to secure meetings with Karzai and his top ministers, but it wasn’t until mid-April that ambassador Ron Hoffmann had a face-to-face meeting with the president.
The Afghan government is reviewing the law, but Sobharang was not confident the measures will be overturned. She warned in May that she was worried that similar legislation would be introduced for the majority Sunni population.