Mélanie Joly denies abandoning Ukrainian embassy staff

The Canadian government has said it is reviewing its duty to local staff members at missions abroad following a media report that its Ukrainian employees in Kyiv had not been alerted to threats to their counter and had been left to fend for themselves with the impending Russian invasion.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Melanie Joly was asked if her office was aware of intelligence that Ukrainian staff at foreign embassies were allegedly on Russia’s target list – and deliberately withheld the information local mission staff.

“I or the department never had any information targeting locally recruited Canadian personnel. We never got that information, neither me, nor my team, nor the department,” Joly told reporters during a joint press conference with her visiting German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, after the two got together. met to discuss energy and food security crises as well as trade.

“I know we have a specific duty of care. I know this is part of the conversations within the department about whether this duty of care applies to locally engaged staff. I would say that morally we have an obligation to locally engaged staff.

This week, The Globe and Mail reported that the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv received a secret briefing from allies in January that a Russian invasion was imminent and that Ukrainians working for Western countries could be arrested or executed. Canadian personnel were also reportedly warned not to share the information with their Ukrainian colleagues.

Joly said she spoke “directly” with locally engaged personnel about their security during her visits to Ukraine in January before the war and followed up with the ministry and the Canadian ambassador in Kyiv, Larisa Galadza, on this issue, throughout, including February 24, when war was declared.

“Ukraine is a war-torn country, we wanted to make sure they had options. They were offered options to come to Canada. Some of them decided to come. decided to stay,” said Joly, who praised the contributions of local Ukrainian staff members.

“They also received full payment, compensation and benefits, although for some time the diplomats were out of the country.”

Joly said a review process called “the future of diplomacy” has already been launched to look at issues surrounding local employee duty of care in times of crisis.

The alleged abandonment of local Ukrainian staff has called into question how Canada applies its duty of care to local staff at diplomatic missions abroad.

In Afghanistan, for example, Ottawa introduced a special immigration program for current and former Afghan employees and contractors, and their families, in anticipation of the Taliban takeover of Kabul last year.

Consular experts say evacuations of locally recruited staff are not applied consistently based on the quality of risk assessments. Local employees are essential to consular operations, especially in times of crisis.

“There is no straight line in diplomacy and there is no straight line in security,” said Ferry de Kerckhove, a career Canadian diplomat who served as ambassador to Indonesia during the Bali terror attacks in 2002 and in Egypt between 2008 and 2011 during the Arab Spring movement. .

De Kerckhove, who spent 38 years in the foreign service, said whether or not to evacuate local staff was decided by the ambassador in consultation with Ottawa. The assessment is complex and involves Global Affairs Canada, the Department of Immigration and other departments.

Although he was not aware of the intelligence or the circumstances on the ground in Kyiv, he said, in general, unless there was a really serious situation, the government would need this field staff.

“I guess if there was a situation in Kyiv that got really worrisome, we would probably consider bringing in staff the same way we welcome refugees,” said de Kerckhove, now a senior public and international affairs fellow. at the University of Ottawa.

“I don’t think there is a prima facie case for saying yes or no. It would be on a case-by-case basis. »

Any evacuation involving Canadian and national personnel is taken seriously as it is an expensive and time-consuming process and officials are often reluctant to fire key personnel. He said officials were also worried about “opening the floodgates” in terms of eligibility and access.

“Coherence comes from the quality of the analysis of the assessment of the given situation. It is the situation at any given time that determines the quality of the assessment,” de Kerckhove said.

“So any consular manual rule would allow enough leeway to be able to make an assessment based on changing circumstances.”

Earlier this year, the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade undertook a review of Canada’s foreign service. In May, Joly announced the review to modernize the department and adapt to the changing geopolitical environment. Global Affairs Canada officials said discussions on the issue of due diligence were part of that review.

Patricia Fortier, an expert in consular services at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the inclusion of the issue in the review is timely.

“People need to understand the necessary balance. And if that results in a more balanced approach to duty of care, that will be really helpful,” said the retired Canadian diplomat, who was most recently assistant deputy minister for security, consular affairs and emergency management at Global Affairs Canada.

“Right now, the problem with taking due diligence to its logical end is that you end up (being) totally risk averse. Diplomacy always requires a certain amount of risk. You can’t keep everyone under lock and key. and don’t go to risky places.”

Fortier said the actions required in response to a crisis are never straightforward and there are no cookie-cutter solutions. While the United States, Canada and Britain pulled their embassy staff from Kyiv amid the war on Russia, other allies chose to stay.

“I’m not sure what type of thinking went into the decisions, but what I want to address is intelligence. Anyone in the foreign service, no matter how long, can get a lot on their desk. And all intelligence must be assessed,” Fortier said.

“Sometimes it’s just. Often this is not fair. Nothing happens. So one of the questions I have is, how serious was that? »

Carleton University international affairs professor David Carment said there was no indication that Kyiv would come under any form of attack except for missile strikes, which target assets such as food deliveries. weapons that the Russians consider important for the Ukrainian war effort.

If the locally engaged personnel were engaged in work and activities related to the war effort, such as intelligence gathering, which would certainly endanger their lives, then a strong case could be made for their evacuation to Canada. , did he declare.

“We don’t know the details about it. But automatically assuming that the Russians will capture and torture them just because they are on the Canadian side is problematic,” noted Carment, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, a Toronto-based nonpartisan think tank. .

The problem goes beyond simply ensuring the safety of foreign service officers, but ensuring a credible Canadian presence in at-risk countries, he said.

“One of the questions to consider is whether this approach to duty of care is an effort to convince Canadians who might want to be foreign service officers to serve overseas where they are more likely to be at risk. “Carment said. .

“So that’s a bigger argument. It’s an issue that needs to be put in the context of a strong diplomatic presence.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based journalist who covers immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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