Do the Right Thing – That’s what People will Remember about Canada

September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Argentina, the Canadian Embassy has been a very close friend to the organization Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. This is a civic organization which was established because of the practice of the last Argentine military dictatorship to disappear people, which happed to some 30,000 Argentines. The Grandmothers organized their work because, among the disappeared, were hundreds of their young grandchildren and pregnant daughters or daughters-in-law, pregnant with their grandchildren to be. They symbolize a powerful human response to inhuman cruelty and are today helping children of the disappeared discover and recover their identity. You may have seen in the news that this year the leader of the Grandmothers, Estela Carlotta, finally found her grandson (see BBC report here) who was stolen from his mother in 1978 after she gave birth in a detention centre of the military dictatorship.

One day Rosa Rosenblit, Vice President of the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo came to see me. She wanted to present a book to the Ambassador of Canada. It was a book that chronicled the international support they received in their struggle for justice. She came to the Canadian Embassy because Canada was the first source international support they received. Just as I was puffing myself up to acknowledge and explain Canada’s rich foreign policy tradition in the advancement of human rights, Rosa went on to say that women from a church in Toronto had taken up a collection to send the Grandmothers money and this was the first action of international solidarity to help them. The Canadians were the first foreign friends to do the right thing for the disappeared grandchildren and this will never be forgotten.

We all remember that the Canadian discussion of detainees in Afghanistan has been a matter of bitter controversy. It was a debate about doing the right thing. As you may know, the responsibilities of the Canadian team of civilians in Kandahar included detainee monitoring. This is an unusual diplomatic activity, although routine on the consular side with respect to visiting Canadians in jail abroad. Our work in Kandahar was specialized and involved frequent structured meetings with Afghans detained by Canadian forces and then transferred to Afghan prisons. The monitoring continued until the detainees were sentenced or released and continued after we completed the Kandahar combat and civilian missions (see here).

As we were completing our mission in Kandahar in the run-up to July 2011, I made calls on our Kandahari partners to ask them what they would remember as the Canadian legacy in their province. Some said that they would remember that Canada held the line against the fierce Taliban surprise offensive in 2005 and 2006. Some mentioned the training of police and soldiers. Others spoke about the building of schools and help for Kandahar University or university or irrigation for farmers. Many were amazed that a faraway country would send and sacrifice their young men and women to help Kandaharis. There is no question that Canada has won a prominent place in the history and hearts of the people of Kandahar and I am proud to have been part of that effort. It was one in which Canada was put to the test at the epicenter of the first great geopolitical crisis of the 21st century.

But the most amazing comment that I heard from several people was about our detainee monitoring. We never publicized it actively, although it was included in reports to parliament. But it seemed that everyone in Kandahar knew. Apparently it was discussed on their radio stations. Most people knew someone by first, second or third hand who had been in jail. They were struck and amazed that Canada cared about the rights and dignity of its enemies. Moreover, we demonstrated this not by slogans, but by our conduct. For this, too, Canada will be remembered for doing the right thing.

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