When Canada closed its embassy in Tehran last month, it wasn’t just Canadian diplomats who were affected. We left behind a small number of local staff, and their plight deserves attention. Blindsided by Ottawa’s decision, they’re now in danger of becoming collateral damage in the dysfunctional relationship between Canada and Iran.
Canadian embassies are made up of both Canadian and local staff. The Canadians are sent from Canada as diplomats, and locals are recruited to support them. Sometimes local staff are also Canadian citizens – this is the case for some of our former Iranian staff – but they don’t have the same privileges as Canadian staff and are not subject to the same protections.
Their duties range from janitorial services, clerical functions and driving to providing consular assistance, accounting services and political research. Needless to say, our embassies can’t operate without local employees, who share the benefits of working for an embassy as well as the risks. A diplomat caught in a demonstration relies on his driver to reach safety. Meetings with political dissidents require translation services. Consular assistance to Canadians in distress relies on deep local knowledge, which only a local employee can provide.
Given that we had this effective partnership in Iran, it’s hard to understand why our local staff were treated so callously when the embassy was closed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird gave us reasons for why they closed our embassy, but we don’t know why they closed it so precipitously.
Some of our Iranian staff have been in contact with me, and this is how they experienced it: They went home one weekend having no notion it would be the last time they’d see their Canadian colleagues. At weekend’s end, one of the local staff heard the news from a BBC Persian service broadcast. That’s how they found out they’d been abandoned. You can imagine their shock.
This isn’t exactly a first in Canadian diplomatic history, but it’s close. In Iran, we had to do so in 1980 under completely understandable circumstances. Usually, however, when we leave a country, we do it in an orderly manner and treat our local staff with respect.
After news of the embassy closure began to spread, one local employee was contacted by a Canadian diplomat from outside the country and advised to spread the word that staff should not show up for work. Our staff learned little more than they’d been terminated with no recourse, other than obligatory severance pay.
In the days immediately after the Canadian decision, some of our Iranian staff thought the closure was a prelude to a military attack on Iran and prepared themselves and their families for the worst. There may have been similar concerns among diplomats still residing in Tehran who were also caught off guard by our decision.
Our staff do have rights. But what they’ll get is what the regulations provide for, with little recognition given to the extraordinary way in which they were terminated or the chaotic economic conditions in Iran. Over the past several weeks, I understand that human resources staff from Canada have begun contacting local staff with severance pay offers. But these are going to be extremely hard to act on, given Iran’s currency collapse and the breakdown of international banking there.
After Mr. Baird announced that Italy had agreed to represent Canadian interests in Iran, Italian diplomats also began to contact our local staff to act as liaison. But this, too, may not be going smoothly – the official request for Italy to represent Canada either hasn’t yet been made to the Iranian government or the Iranian government hasn’t yet acted on it. Consequently, our staff haven’t been able to obtain their personal effects and records from their old offices.
When Britain closed its embassy in Tehran last November, their local staff received a package that recognized the extraordinary conditions in Iran. Other missions that have closed have made similar offers. Given our leadership in criticizing Iran’s human-rights record and our emphasis on promoting Canadian values in our foreign policy, Canada should treat its former employees in Tehran more fairly. It should also undertake to expedite any visa requests that our local staff might wish to make.
There’s another angle. When I served in Iran, our embassy had a growing cash balance as a result of all the visa fees we had collected. These funds continued to grow after I left and are now probably stranded in Iran and rapidly depreciating as the Iranian economy goes south. I don’t know what actual offers are being made to our staff, but there might be a temptation to use this money to settle with them rather than provide payouts in currencies whose value would be protected.
Iran isn’t the only country where Canada operates an embassy in difficult conditions. Local staff working for other Canadian embassies have undoubtedly noticed what we’ve done in Tehran and might be wondering whether they’ll be next. Treating our former local staff more compassionately and generously would be both the right thing and the smart thing to do.
John Mundy is a former Canadian ambassador to Iran who was expelled in 2007. Now retired, he’s a visiting associate at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies.