Canada's multimillion-dollar effort to help rid Kosovo of land mines and unexploded bombs is a "shambles" that has undermined this country's standing as the leading opponent of land mines, UN sources, demining experts and consultants say.
Canada earned widespread praise for leading a worldwide effort to ban the use of land mines and for creating a $100-million fund to assist other countries to clear mines. But, to the chagrin of senior United Nations officials, Canada's demining efforts in Kosovo have ground to a halt amid bureaucratic delays and contract squabbles.
There were Canadian-hired foreign crews in place when demining began in Kosovo last August. But Canada has had no one in Kosovo this year, while 13 other countries work feverishly to defuse and dispose of tens of thousands of mines and unexploded bombs that litter the countryside and towns in the war-torn Serbian province.
"It's a shambles. It really is a slap in the face. It's really embarrassing. Canada has become a joke, a laughingstock," said a senior UN diplomat, who requested anonymity.
"This is a black eye, not just for [Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd]Axworthy, but for Canada," another UN source added.
A Canadian International Development Agency spokesman confirmed yesterday that "no one" is in Kosovo on Canada's behalf to assist in the demining. Lengthy "administrative procedures" prevented Canada from moving in sooner.
Michel Dufort, the most senior Canadian official with the UN Mine Action Co-operation Centre -- which is co-ordinating the international demining effort in Kosovo -- called Canada's demining and bomb-disposal record there a "real disappointment."
"Being a Canadian, I would have really liked to have seen a lot more done by Canada, much more quickly," Mr. Dufort said from Pristina, Kosovo's capital.
The high-ranking UN officials, sources said, accuse CIDA of wasting months deciding whom to hire. The officials note that by the time Canadian demining crews arrive and train locals to do the work, winter will be approaching, when the work has to stop.
Canada's demining effort in Kosovo since last August has been marred, the sources said, by:
Unnecessary and potentially costly delays;
Ill-prepared South African deminers used by a Canadian firm;
Deminers quitting soon after arriving in Kosovo because of housing and logistical problems;
Hasty and shoddy planning by officials with CIDA and Foreign Affairs responsible for co-ordinating the demining and bomb-disposal effort;
Accusations of bias and bitter disputes over the awarding of contracts.
The problems and delays are an embarrassment for CIDA and Mr. Axworthy, sources said.
Mr. Axworthy played a pivotal role in 1997 in generating international support for the Ottawa Mines Treaty, which bans the manufacture, use and export of antipersonnel land mines in 110 nations.
But Mr. Dufort said despite that initial goodwill, Canada is "missing the boat" and could be doing more to help, particularly this year.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Michael O'Shaughnessy said Canada's emergency demining assistance aid to Kosovo last year helped "return secure land to the people of Kosovo." He said Canada was among the first to respond to an urgent humanitarian disaster and "we have built on our initial response."
That's not the view of George Focsaneunu, an internationally recognized Canadian consultant sent to Kosovo by CIDA last October to assess the work done in the southwest corner of the province by firms and organizations hired by CIDA.
"It was a less-than-sterling performance," Mr. Focsaneunu said.
The demining and bomb-disposal problems began last July, sources said, when Ottawa fast-tracked contracts worth more than $500,000 to two Canadian groups.
A consultant familiar with Canada's demining efforts in Kosovo, said the contracts were awarded "politically, somewhere along the line."
However, Mr. O'Shaughnessy said Treasury Board rules permitted the federal government to fast-track the contracts because it was an emergency and the groups were already working in the region. He added that the groups cleared unexploded bombs from 71 schools, 46 homes and seven clinics.
CIDA moved quickly to quell the criticism over the fast-tracked contracts, sources said. But rather than issuing a formal request for proposals, it canvassed firms in Canada by phone in May, 1999. After receiving several bids, CIDA awarded International Demining Alliance of Canada a $1.3-million contract.
Ron Riggs, an IDAC director, said the firm sent 30 people to Kosovo last August. "We are very proud of the work that we are doing in Kosovo. We operated under some extenuating circumstances," Mr. Riggs said from Ottawa yesterday.
But he acknowledged that despite the immediate crisis facing Kosovars returning after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's war against Yugoslavia last year, his crews had to wait weeks in Kosovo before they could begin work because they had troubles with accreditation. "It was very frustrating," he said. "There wasn't a lot of organization. We all suffered from that."
UN sources said the firm was ill-equipped to undertake the bomb-disposal and demining work. Other demining firms were particularly incensed that IDAC used South African deminers and bomb-disposal experts instead of Canadians.
When IDAC's South African crews arrived in Kosovo in August, UN officials found that none of them or their equipment was accredited by the United Nations, a UN source said. Mr. Dufort confirmed there were accreditation problems, which delayed IDAC's deployment for more than a month.
Mr. Riggs also confirmed that five members of the IDAC crew left Kosovo shortly after they arrived because of poor housing and other logistical problems. "Our guys were living in tents, in an abandoned warehouse where we had to keep people up to guard against the wild dogs and driving open jeeps and trucks and just about everybody else was living in air-conditioned hotels and driving brand-new [trucks.]
The problems became so acute that last October, CIDA dispatched Mr. Focsaneunu to Kosovo to assess the work of the three firms contracted to do the work because "things were not unfolding as scheduled," a CIDA spokesman said.
Sources familiar with Mr. Focsaneunu's report to CIDA said he concluded that the firms' performance "reflected serious growing pains." Mr. Riggs said, however, that despite "an awful lot of politics," IDAC "cleared more square metres of land of land mines than anyone else in the world."
By December, IDAC and the two other groups had stopped work in Kosovo.
In February, CIDA issued a formal request for proposals, this time for a $2-million contract for work in and around the northern city of Mitrovica, using larger crews, dog teams and mine-clearance vehicles.
Once again, a number of demining and bomb-disposal firms across Canada, including a subsidiary of the engineering giant SNC Lavalin, bid on the contract. On Monday, CIDA awarded a $2.6-million contract to a consortium of companies headed by IDAC, Mr. Riggs said.
Mr. Riggs said he, too, was exasperated with the time it took CIDA to award the contract. "We can only do the work during the summer and while everyone is playing around and playing games, we are not demining, we are not working. It's frustrating."
Mr. Riggs said that advance teams will be sent to Kosovo soon, but will only begin working by late July or early August -- more than halfway through the season.
On June 1, SNC Lavalin filed an appeal with CIDA, alleging bias in the bidding process, sources said. A CIDA spokesman said the agency was considering the appeal.