Last week, the Harper government ordered the Canadian Border Services Agency to review its handling of the case of Suaad Hagi Mohamud, the Canadian who was caught up in Kenya because of a passport photo snafu. And the Muslim Canadian Congress called on the government "to immediately suspend Canadian High Commission first secretary Liliane Khadour…for being directly responsible for sending a Canadian citizen to a Kenyan prison."
Today, the Toronto Star reports that Ms. Khadour, who advised Kenyan authorities in writing that Ms. Muhamud was an "an imposter… not the rightful holder of [her]passport," has indeed been recalled and is now in Ottawa. Which leads to the question: is it fair to blame bureaucrats in these situations?
Well, yes and no.
In our system of government, ministers are accountable for the actions of officials. However, the deputy minister must hold subordinates accountable for administrative screw-ups - and the Muhamud case would certainly qualify as one. Finally, it's up to ministers to ensure that such problems do not recur, which seems not to have been the case at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
In her column in today's Globe, Christie Blatchford points to the incarceration of William Sampson in Saudi Arabia as an example of a previous screw-up of this nature; I think the better example is the extraordinary rendition of Maher Arar. In that case, a consular official in New York did not distinguish herself before Mr. Arar was whisked off by U.S. authorities to Damascus. And her counterpart in that city did not distinguish himself while Mr. Arar was being tortured in a Syrian hell-hole.
In my experience, consular and visa activities are not considered sexy by diplomats and tend to be sloughed off to junior officials in an embassy. They also tend to be under-resourced, necessitating the hiring of a large number of local employees. These problems have been evident for years, but successive governments have clearly not done enough to correct them.
In the circumstances, it would be particularly egregious for Stephen Harper and his ministers to point fingers at bureaucrats for the handling of the Muhamud case. Nor is it acceptable for anonymous officials to be whispering to reporters that "the Prime Minister is upset at how the case has been handled and that ' heads could roll' once the internal review is finished."