OTTAWA — Canada’s diplomatic service has come under fire for taking months to notify the foreign affairs minister and top officials about cases where Canadians detained abroad are being tortured or mistreated.
The criticism stems from a review conducted by federal auditor general Michael Ferguson into 15 such cases last year as part of a broader examination of the consular services offered by Global Affairs Canada to Canadians travelling abroad.
The auditor general’s report found that consular officials responded quickly when there was a report of suspected torture or abuse against a Canadian detained in another country by getting in contact with the person.
“Consular officials also raised concerns with prison authorities or advocated for improved conditions,” the report said.
But officials took between one and six months to formally assess the credibility of such allegations, Ferguson found, and another 29 days on average to flag cases of mistreatment to management — and 47 days to notify the minister of cases of torture.
The requirement to report cases of torture to the foreign affairs minister was a key recommendation put forward by Justice Dennis O’Connor in 2004, following his inquiry into the arrest and detention of Maher Arar.
However, “in our view, taking three months or more to advise the minister about whether a Canadian detained abroad is being or has been tortured does not meet the intent of Justice O’Connor’s recommendations,” the auditor general’s report said.
“We note that of the 15 cases we reviewed,” it added, “six Canadians remained detained abroad as of March 2018.”
O’Connor also recommended training for all consular officials on how to determine whether someone has been tortured or mistreated in prison.
Ferguson found the majority had received such instructions, but nearly half had taken the week-long course more than five years ago and Global Affairs Canada does not offer regular or refresher training to ensure they are up to date.
In response to the auditor general’s report, the department said it was working on a new training regime that it planned to roll out later this year.
Ferguson also found mixed results when it came to consular officers contacting the estimated 1,600 Canadians arrested and detained for more than a day between January 2016 and October 2017, in which there were no concerns about abuse.
The department aims to get in contact with all such Canadians within 24 hours, which it either did or tried to do in about two-thirds of the cases. It also tried to or did stay in contact with most of those detained longer than a week, though not all.
“We also found that consular officers did not document their assessments of the vulnerability of imprisoned individuals in order to identify which individuals might require more frequent contact and oversight,” the auditor general’s report said.
“As a result, we found a high level of inconsistency in the frequency of contact, with no explanation.”
And while the department was applauded for providing prompt online travel advisories when there were crises, it did not regularly review and update its advice and advisory website for other travel destinations.
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press