A Lockerbie lesson for Canada

The Globe and Mail

In today's lead editorial, The Globe and Mail puts its finger on one of the strangest aspects of the decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

Had Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi been released under the UK-Libya prisoner transfer agreement, as Libya had requested, he would have ended up in jail in Tripoli. Instead, he was released by Scotland's Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, on compassionate grounds, which means that he will spend the rest of his life as a free man.

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Here's why it happened this way.

The U.S. government and American families of the victims believed they had the assurances of the UK government that Mr. Al-Megrahi would serve time for his crime in Scotland. However, at his press conference, Mr. MacAskill went out of his way to point out that London denied having given the U.S. any such assurances. He did so in order to embarrass the UK and cause friction in its relations with the Obama administration.

Mr. MacAskill also wanted to make clear that, in the absence of any such assurances, there was no impediment to releasing Mr. Al-Megrahi under Libya's prisoner transfer agreement with the UK. However, he said he had decided to exercise Scotland's jurisdiction to release prisoners on compassionate grounds as an affirmation of "Scottish values."

Under the devolution legislation enacted by the UK Parliament, this was not supposed to happen. Diplomacy was to be one of Westminster's "reserved powers," with Scotland explicitly denied authority for foreign affairs. However, Mr. MacAskill - a Scottish nationalist with a history of mischief-making in this sort of thing - found a gaping hole in that legislation that he was only too pleased to walk through.

The lesson for Canada?

As Canadians, we should be wary of premiers strutting their stuff on the international stage. Particularly, but not exclusively, the premier of our Scotland - Québec - regardless of his or her political stripe.

As politicians, all premiers are tempted to curry favour with their electorates on the back of Ottawa. As politicians, they invariably seek to maximize their provincial interests.

As we saw at the recent meeting of the Council of the Federation, premiers are incapable of formulating common positions - be it on EI or climate change - that entail conceding any of these interests. Only the federal government can make the trade-offs necessary to reach international agreements, and only Ottawa is accountable to all Canadians for these trade-offs.