Canada paid $1M in compensation to Afghan civilians
Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks through a wheat field at Tarnack Farms in Afghanistan on Monday, May 30, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, June 9, 2011 6:52AM EDT
OTTAWA - The Canadian government has shelled out more than $1 million in goodwill payments to compensate hundreds of Afghans for deaths and damages incurred over the course of Canada's mission in Afghanistan.
The sobering tally comes as Canadian troops prepare to leave Kandahar next month.
While most would argue that the loss of human life can't be measured in dollars and cents, the military has a long-standing policy of making one-time, no-strings-attached "ex-gratia" payments to those who suffer losses because of the actions of Canadian troops.
The government has paid $1,047,946 to 453 people since 2005, according to figures provided by the Defence Department.
The names of the recipients, as well as the circumstances that led to the compensation awards, are not disclosed in the public accounts documents or by the department.
"It is not our policy to discuss in detail compensation to families," spokesman Andrew McKelvey said in an email. "Payments are a private matter between all parties, and disclosure of recipients could put these individuals at risk of extortion or otherwise jeopardize their safety."
The settlements ranged from less than $100 to as much as $21,420 -- a fortune in a country where the national gross domestic product is about $1,000 per person.
The Canadian military accepts documents signed by local elders as proof in claims, but there must be evidence that Canadian troops were responsible. Canada also compensates for harm done during joint operations with the Afghan National Army when it is unclear which force is responsible.
All payments are made in Afghanis, the local currency. Sums greater than $2,000 need the approval of the deputy minister of defence.
Jonathan Chaplan, a Justice Department lawyer, oversees all ex-gratia payments. Judge Advocate General lawyers on the ground determine how much to pay out.
"At the end of the day, you try to be fair and to determine what's reasonable in the circumstances, given that there isn't a legal obligation," Chaplan said in an interview.
There isn't a maximum limit on ex-gratia payments, he added.
Civilian casualties have driven a wedge between the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the government of Hamid Karzai. The Afghan president has publicly and angrily called on foreign forces -- and in particular the United States -- to do more to ensure civilians aren't caught in the crossfire.
The United Nations' latest annual civilian casualty report, co-authored with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, found 2,777 civilians were killed in 2010, which was up from the year before.
Of those deaths, 550 occurred in Kandahar, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban and the epicentre of Canada's war effort.
The UN report blamed anti-government forces such as the Taliban and other insurgents for about 75 per cent of the deaths.
The spike coincided with a surge of thousands of American troops as well as a Taliban offensive that targeted Afghan officials and police officers.
Many Afghan farmers have had their fields trampled and homes destroyed by the stepped-up operations in outlying parts of Kandahar.
And as a Canadian development project recently showed, even the best of intentions can alienate those whom foreign forces are trying to help.
A Canadian road project in a part of southwestern Kandahar known as the horn of Panjwaii was responsible for thousands of dollars in property-damage claims over a two-and-a-half month period.
The military told The Canadian Press in January that it had paid $50,000 to 37 Afghans whose property was damaged by the construction project. The road was part of a much larger military effort in Kandahar that drew upon troops from many countries, including the United States.
But the Canadian road project was responsible for only a fraction of all property-damage claims in southern Afghanistan. Between November 2010 and mid-January, the Canadian Forces paid nearly $174,000 to 88 claimants for various things -- mostly property damage.
At the height of the war effort, nearly 3,000 Canadian troops were deployed to the restive southern province of Kandahar. Roughly 2,000 remain.
By comparison, about 9,500 British soldiers are based in Kandahar and neighbouring Helmand province. The United Kingdom is second only to the Americans in the number of boots on the ground.
Earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper in Britain reported that Afghan civilians received more than C$3.3 million in compensation since April 1, 2007, for deaths, injuries and property damage caused by British forces.