Canadian envoys to Libya worried they’d be ‘isolated’ from important talks, years after being evacuated: documents
by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. Thomas Juneau)
April 16, 2018
OTTAWA — As conflict between rival governments and militias in Libya continues years after the Arab Spring, Canadian diplomats tasked with monitoring the situation are still stuck operating out of a neighbouring country.
An inspection last year of Canada’s missions to Libya and Tunisia found problems with having both operate out of the same building, according to documents the National Post obtained under access-to-information law. And as other countries considered moving embassies back to Tripoli despite the Libya’s instability, the Canadians worried they would be left out of important conversations on regional security.
A year after the “mission inspections” took place, the United Kingdom’s ambassador Frank Baker is now based in Libya, according to his own blog. “Only by living in Libya, as I do, and by meeting people from across the country can a diplomat truly understand Libya and the challenges we must face together,” he says on the British foreign ministry’s website.
Italy moved back in January 2017, while South Korea, Hungary and the Netherlands reportedly restored at least some of their respective operations in Tripoli last fall. Reuters reported in October that the European Union was planning a move back. The United States is, like Canada, still camped out in Tunis.
Global Affairs Canada won’t offer a timeline on Canada’s return, with spokeswoman Brittany Verhola-Fletcher saying, “Canada is committed to returning to Tripoli when a secure and stable environment has been restored.” She said an interview with the new Canadian ambassador to Libya, Hilary Childs-Adams, “is not possible at this time.”
Childs-Adams was in Tripoli to present her credentials less than a month ago, on March 25, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Reid.
Canada was part of a NATO-led coalition that, in 2011, intervened in a civil war that erupted after Arab Spring pro-democracy protests. The conflict ultimately led to the ouster and death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But an outbreak of violence resumed in 2014 and most foreign embassies in Tripoli were evacuated. Commercial ties have dropped off, too: Canada’s annual merchandise exports fell from $153 million in 2012 to $17.1 million in 2016.
In 2014, a significant portion of the staff came back to Ottawa. The rest were stationed in Tunis.
An inspection completed in March 2017 found the mission was responding well to “a challenging context given the severe constraints on travel to Libya, the limited access to Libyan officials and contacts and the uncertainty with regard to an eventual reopening of an embassy in Tripoli,” according to documents.
Three years in, there were concerns around having two missions operate in the same building in Tunis. “The status quo is neither sustainable nor optimal from the perspective of the host mission,” an inspection report said. Collaboration on programs other than consular services was “limited.”
And diplomats posted to Libya were starting to worry about Canada’s footprint.
“With other countries moving to reopen their chanceries in Tripoli, there is a risk that Canada could find itself isolated from some discussions,” the report said. “This is why the mission hopes to be in a position, with sufficient resources, to make a similar move as soon as conditions permit.”
“For the folks in Tunis who are responsible for Libya, to raise this this issue is completely legitimate, and it’s their job,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and former Middle East analyst for the defence department.
“They spend a fair bit of their time monitoring what other countries are doing. And if they realize that they are not keeping up, then they want to flag that issue,” he said.
But does Canada really need a presence there?
“Italy, because of the migration issue, because of the historical legacy, because of the colonial legacy, Italy has massive interest in Libya,” Juneau explained. Although it should follow what’s going on, the Canadian government doesn’t have the same interest, he said — “we’re a North American country far away from Libya.”
Tripoli remains dangerous and until the situation stabilizes, Canada would be setting up shop at significant risk and with a significant budget, especially for security.
“The ‘Canada is back’ slogan of the Liberals — it’s been two-and-a-half years now, right, so they don’t have the excuse anymore of being new in power. There have been very, very little extra resources for Global Affairs,” Juneau said. “Even if Global Affairs had a bit more resources … the reality of Libya being of limited interest for Canada would not change.”