OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird brushed off Treasury Board criticism that his department broke government rules by sole-sourcing $15 million worth of embassy security contracts to a British government agency for Canada's Afghanistan and Pakistan missions.
Baird offered an impassioned defence of the need to protect diplomats in harm's way in the House of Commons on Tuesday when questioned by the NDP's foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar about the matter.
But the minister offered nothing specific in response to the scathing criticism in a Treasury Board letter — obtained by The Canadian Press — that cited Foreign Affairs last year for not following government contracting guidelines in tendering the "non-competitive, emergency contract(s) to the Foreign Commonwealth Office Services (FCO Services)."
FCO Services is a British government agency that has specialized in international security for six decades.
Baird dismissed Dewar's criticism, saying his department is committed to doing everything it can to keep its diplomats safe. He referred to the 2006 death of Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry, who was killed by a suicide bomber while travelling in a car in the Taliban's traditional stronghold of Kandahar.
"We've lost 157 Canadians, including one diplomat in Afghanistan. This government will take all the necessary actions we can possibly take to ensure that our diplomats are safe. Look at these two places, both Islamabad and Kabul, these are two of the most dangerous parts of the world, where we ask Canadians to serve and represent Canadian interests and promote Canadian values extensively," Baird told the Commons.
"Issues of national security, issues of urgency are tremendously important and this government will do everything it can to keep our diplomats safe. Frankly, that's what Canadians expect us to do."
Foreign Affairs has refused to answer questions from The Canadian Press about the Treasury Board criticism.
Baird offered Dewar and his Liberal counterpart, MP Dominic LeBlanc, a briefing on the issue prior to Tuesday's question period.
"Oh, there's this CP story. I just want to offer you a briefing," Dewar recalled Baird telling him before they took their seats in the House.
"I said, 'that's interesting, and I might ask a question later about that'."
Afterward, Dewar said he still hadn't received any meaningful answers about why Foreign Affairs chose to break the government's contracting rules, and what has happened to the work that needed to be done to the Kabul and Islamabad embassies.
The government is displaying a pattern of hiding behind national security, a card it has played with the much-maligned purchase of F-35 fighter jets for the military, said Dewar.
"We saw it with the F-35. They use security to cover themselves for accountability. Instead of acknowledging that there's an issue of accountability, they use the fig leaf of security," Dewar said.
"No one was suggesting that people be put in harm's way here. That's not the case here," Dewar added.
"This isn't the opposition critiquing the government on this. It's the Treasury Board. It's internal … why not be accountable here? Why aren't they following the rules here and what are they doing to address that?"
The details of the arrangement between Canada and the British government agency are laid out in the Treasury Board letter.
Treasury Board concluded that a report on the matter by the Foreign Affairs Department's physical resource bureau "does not comply with procedural aspects of the policy for the reporting of emergency contracts."
The bureau, says the letter, "does not make a convincing case for invoking emergency authorities in accordance with TB Contracting Policy.
"In addition, it appears that procedures for undertaking an emergency contract were not completely fulfilled…"
The letter came to light one month after Canada and Britain announced they would consolidate consular services in some embassies as a cost-saving measure, a plan that sparked criticism that the government was compromising its foreign policy interests abroad.
Baird and his British counterpart, William Hague, touted the new arrangement as a way to cut costs by sharing services in some countries, where Britain has a diplomatic mission and Canada does not, or vice versa.
The Treasury Board letter showed that Canada and Britain were engaged in a more lucrative level of diplomatic co-operation a year earlier, on an embassy security arrangement in the capital cities of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Given the recent difficulties experienced during the implementation of the chancery in Kabul and other physical security projects in this region, the Foreign Commonwealth Office Services (FCO Services) was retained on a sole source basis to provide project management support and physical security expertise services in Kabul and Islamabad to supplement the resources in the Physical Resources Bureau and help deliver the property and security program for these missions."
Foreign Affairs has been given $235 million to improve embassy security in high-risk missions, as well as another $192 million to improve infrastructure of its foreign diplomatic buildings.
Foreign Affairs relied on regulations in government contracting policy that allowed for a sole-sourced contract if "the need is one of pressing emergency in which delay would be injurious to the public interest" and "only one person or firm is capable of performing the contract."
Treasury Board rejected Foreign Affairs' argument on both counts, saying that its argument "is not persuasive that normal contracting procedures could not have been used."
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Canada's announcement that it has severed diplomatic relations with Iran was surprising, even unprecedented, experts in international relations say. Foreign Minister John Baird was in Russia when he announced the government was kicking Iran's diplomats out of Canada and recalling the handful of Canadian diplomats in Tehran. "I was very surprised by the Canadian announcement," James Devine, an Iran expert at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., told CBC News, noting that it isn't tied to a specific event or a reaction to "an acute crisis in the relationship." "Oh my god, I can't tell you how upset and scared I am right now," Niaz Salimi, the president of the Iranian-Canadian Community Council, said in an interview with Embassy magazine. Baird's statement lists a series of old grievances but does not say what specifically prompted the surprise move. He did say "the Iranian regime has shown blatant disregard for the Vienna Convention and its guarantee of protection for diplomatic personnel," likely a reference to the ransacking of the British Embassy in Tehran by protesters in 2011 while Iranian police looked on. He also alluded to the safety of Canadian diplomats -- something Canada's last ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, told the CBC's Nancy Wilson has been a long-standing concern, though he noted the government has not provided any information about specific threats. Mundy, who was expelled from Iran in 2007, has since retired from the diplomatic corps. He called Canada's action "a very drastic step" and one that surprised him, too. In an interview on CBC Radio's The House, Baird emphasized his "concern was for the safety of the men and women working at the Canadian mission," but when asked by host Evan Solomon whether there was "something specific" he conceded there was "not a direct threat" or an increased security risk. "The mission in Tehran is not one of the safest we have," Baird also told Solomon. "It faces a busy road and it could be overrun pretty quickly." Janice Stein, arguably Canada's leading Middle East expert and the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, told CBC News she sees the move as an "issue of security for diplomatic personnel in Tehran as the sanctions ramp up, and Canada's remaining diplomatic personnel would be a prime target were crowds to turn hostile." Here are some other possible motivations for the severing of ties. <em>With files from CBC</em>
Canada In The Headlines
Canada's move is making international headlines and its significance shouldn't be underestimated. Even after its embassy in Tehran was ransacked -- an attack its ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, described as "a state-supported activity -- it did not suspend diplomatic relations, although it did expel Iran's diplomats. At the time, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the BBC the U.K.'s response "doesn't mean we're cutting off all diplomatic relations with Iran; it doesn't mean we are in any way lessening our determination to try to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear question." So why did Canada suspend relations now? Devine points to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran last week. Iranian officials boasted about a successful summit, which involved most countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. He says the summit "was not an overwhelming success for Iran but demonstrated they are not as isolated as the West would hope." The West is trying to isolate Iran over the dispute about Iran's nuclear program. In that context, Devine says, Canada may be trying to send "a symbolic message to Iran after the NAM meeting that they should not conclude that their isolation is over or that they can escape western pressure." He believes the suspension's timing could be related to Canada's Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which allows victims of terrorism to sue a country that Canada lists as a state sponsor of terrorism. On Friday, Baird said he was adding Iran to that list, along with Syria. The act, passed in March, gave the federal cabinet until mid-September to list states sponsoring terrorism.
Why Make The Announcement In Russia?
"The timing and the way they did it is rather awkward because they chose to announce it on the doorstep of Russia, which is the country that is the strongest proponent of the negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue," Mundy said, calling Canada's announcement "an implicit criticism of Russian policy toward Iran." However, the timing may also be connected with when the last Canadian diplomats left Iran, which was ahead of the announcement. That Baird made the announcement in Russia also raises the question of whether there was some urgency for Canada's actions. Ray Boisvert, the assistant director of Canadian Security Intelligence Service until April 2012, told Solomon that Canada's move was unprecedented, since that is something that only "usually happens in very severe conditions." He also noted that Canada does not normally take the lead in this kind of foreign policy action. Boisvert also pointed to what he said was the Iranian Embassy "running some kind of threatening operation" aimed at the Iranian community in Canada. According to Boisvert, Iran "absolutely" poses a security threat in Canada. Kaveh Shahrooz, vice president of the Iranian-Canada Congress, told Wilson that "members of the community are worried if they partake or speak out, that will be reported to [the Iranian Embassy in] Ottawa and there'll be repercussions for that person if they go back home, or for their family." "We've been concerned for some time about the actions taken by the mission in Ottawa," Baird told Solomon.
Possible Military Strike
Mundy, Salimi and others point to a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities as a motive behind Canada's announcement. "For us, it's an immediate sign of attack on Iran," Salimi told Embassy magazine. However, Baird said on The House that the government has "received no notice of any decision taken by the United States or Israel in this regard, so I can categorically say that the timing of the decision had nothing to with an imminent strike. " For his part, Devine said an imminent strike is not on tap. "The signs don't suggest there's an imminent attack coming from the Israelis or the Americans right now. And the Americans, especially, are not going to want to get into anything until the elections are over." Stein also told CBC News she does "not believe Canada's action was in response to any intelligence information about an imminent strike." The U.S. has been building up its forces in the region and putting pressure on Iran, Devine points out, "They want to make sure the Iranians feel there is a possibility of attack, because if the Iranians were ever to decide there is no chance the Americans are going to attack, their [American] leverage would be significantly reduced. Building up forces is consistent not just with an attack but consistent with the idea there are trying to use pressure." Stein agrees: "The U.S. is at pains to say there is no specific intelligence yet that suggests the Iranians have made the decision to weaponize their nuclear program and, given that, I would be very, very surprised if President [Barack] Obama would resort to force before the election."
Iranian Canadians Will Feel It Most
The Canadian government's move is likely to have little impact in Iran. "The Iranians are not looking at Canada as that important an actor in all of this," Devine said, adding Canada's economic relations with the Islamist nation have gradually weakened. Stein holds a similar view, noting that "the Iranian government certainly knows where we stand, we've made our position forcefully." Ken Taylor, who was Canada's ambassador in Iran during the U.S. hostage crisis that began in 1979, told CBC's Hannah Thibedeau he doesn't agree with Canada's decision to suspend diplomatic relations. "Given Canada's status as an international player, there's great value to having someone there on the ground who can interpret what is going on, to the extent that there are challenges to doing that properly," he said. Mundy said that now, "We no longer have the ability to communicate directly, government to government, with the Iranian government." Stein says, "The major impact will be on the Iranian diaspora in Canada, which will have a lot more difficulty getting visas to go home for visits."
Canadians Imprisoned In Iran
Another significant impact to Mundy is that "we no longer have Canadian diplomats on the ground to protect the interests of Canadian citizens" in Iran. "There are a lot of Canadian citizens in Iran, some of whom are in jail, and some of whom depend upon the Canadian diplomats to make representations on their behalf." Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian citizen jailed in Iraq since 2008, is one of three Canadians being held in Iran's notorious Evin prison, the same prison where Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was killed in 2003, which led to a serious worsening of relations between the two countries. Iran sentenced Ghassemi-Shall to death in 2009. His wife, Antonella Mega, told Thibedeau on Power and Politics that she feels the Canadian announcement is "a great disappointment for me and Hamid." The diplomats who have now left Iran "have expressed great concern for Hamid's case" and "have been continuously advocating for him." Feeling that "a door is now closed," Mega said she wants to hear from the Canadian government, "What is the plan that Canada has to help Hamid?"