Twenty-three former ambassadors are speaking out against the Conservative government's attacks on the credibility of diplomat Richard Colvin, saying Ottawa's response to his Afghan detainee abuse testimony threatens to cast a chill over Canada's foreign service.
The ex-heads of Canadian diplomatic missions say in a letter released to the media that they're worried the treatment of Mr. Colvin will discourage diplomats from reporting frankly to Ottawa from their foreign postings.
Retired ambassadors rarely speak as a group on government issues - and there was extensive debate about whether they should this time.
Paul Durand, a former Canadian ambassador to the Organization of American States, to Chile and to Costa Rica, said the former ambassadors are speaking only on the way Mr. Colvin has been treated by the government - and especially Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who was Mr. Colvin's boss as foreign affairs minister.
"He savaged him in public, and ridiculed him. And that's not the way to treat a guy who's doing his job," Mr. Durand said. "He is not a whistleblower. He was hauled before a parliamentary committee and had to state the truth.
"I'm not getting into detainees and whether there was torture or not. But I do suggest that anyone who thought people weren't being maltreated and tortured in an Afghan prison is hopelessly naive. And I don't think [the Conservatives]are."
Ottawa has to be prepared to hear things it doesn't like, the letter said.
"The Colvin affair risks creating a climate in which officers may be more inclined to report what they believe headquarters wants to hear, rather than facts and perceptions deemed unpalatable," the ex-ambassadors say.
In the case of Mr. Colvin, this was early warnings that prisoners that Canada turned over to Afghanistan's notorious intelligence service faced torture. The Tories and the military have suggested the diplomat was duped by the Taliban into writing what they call groundless reports.
"A fundamental requirement of a foreign service officer is that he or she report on a given situation as observed or understood," the former heads of mission said. "It is only in this way that any government can draw conclusions knowledgeably and make its considered decisions, even if at variance with the reports received."
Most of the former ambassadors who signed the letter are career diplomats and have served in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America.
John Noble, a former ambassador to Greece and Switzerland, said government attacked Mr. Colvin like a partisan opponent.
"Civil servants can't really defend themselves the way that politicians are supposed to," he said.
Mr. Colvin, who was posted to Afghanistan for 17 months, told a Commons committee in November that all detainees handed over to Afghan authorities in 2006 and early 2007 were likely tortured, even though many were innocent.
He told MPs that he began his warnings in June, 2006, and that by mid-2007, higher-ups in Ottawa began censoring his reports.
In response, the Harper government suggested Mr. Colvin was recycling Taliban propaganda. "We are being asked to accept testimony from people who throw acid in the faces of schoolchildren and who blow up buses of civilians in their own country," Defence Minister Peter MacKay told the Commons Nov. 19. Retired general Rick Hillier called Mr. Colvin's allegations of widespread torture "ludicrous."
However, the Canadian government trusts Mr. Colvin on sensitive matters. He is currently a senior intelligence officer at Canada's embassy in Washington.
The statement by the ex-ambassadors is an attempt to speak against what they consider a dangerous precedent. However, a group representing a far bigger pool of former ambassadors, the Retired Heads of Mission Association, was unable to reach a consensus on issuing such a statement.
"The issues raised by the Richard Colvin affair are profound," the ex-ambassadors said. "Colvin, a foreign service officer dedicated to discharging his responsibilities to the best of his ability under difficult circumstances, was unfairly subjected to personal attacks as a result of his testimony provided in response to a summons from a parliamentary committee.
"While criticism of his testimony was perfectly legitimate, aspersions cast on his personal integrity were not."
The letter is being circulated by Gar Pardy, who has served as Canada's ambassador in Central America. He said it's "shabby politics" for the government and military to attack a diplomat for responding to an inquiry's request for testimony.
He said several more former heads of mission have expressed support since the statement was released.
Mr. Pardy said smart statecraft in Ottawa relies on their foreign diplomats delivering accurate intelligence.
"You have to have some expectation that they're providing you with accurate information," he said. "If you don't have that in the foreign service, you've got a problem."
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