Canada says Ethiopia is co-operating following the detention of 13 Canadian humanitarian volunteers in the East African country over allegations they were practising medicine without permission and dispensing expired medication.
Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister, said he met with the Ethiopian ambassador to Canada on Sunday to discuss the detentions of the Canadians in northern city of Gondar. Mr. Oliphant told The Globe and Mail Ethiopia is being “transparent, co-operative and helpful” by allowing consular officials access to the Canadians, but noted that Ethiopian officials can’t interfere in the police investigation that’s currently under way.
“Like our system, the police and judiciary are separate from the executive … So they can’t interfere or step in to that police investigation. However, they are making sure that we have full consular access and that we have full awareness of everything that’s going on," Mr. Oliphant said.
The Canadians were remanded for up to 14 days on Friday, said Mr. Oliphant. Their situation is not expected to change until Tuesday, as it is a long weekend in Ethiopia. Mr. Oliphant said the Canadian ambassador to Ethiopia will be present on Tuesday when the Canadians appeal their detention.
The group, which included Canadian doctors and other medical professionals, were volunteering with Canadian Humanitarian in Ethiopia, according to a statement posted on the Alberta-based charity’s website over the weekend. In addition to the 10 Canadian volunteers and three staff members, the organization said two Ethiopian aid workers were also detained on “allegations that they were practising medicine without permission and had dispensed expired medication.”
Canadian Humanitarian said it could not comment on the “specifics of the expiry of the medication." However, it said it had the necessary permits to be providing medical care in Ethiopia and that the medicine and care offered by its team in the country were safe.
“The care they provide in Ethiopia is the same care they would provide here in Canada. We are vigorously defending the actions and decisions of our team knowing that every decision was made by highly trained and certified Canadian medical professionals and that their mission on this trip was to provide essential medical care to the citizens of Ethiopia who need it most,” the statement read.
Mr. Oliphant declined to comment on the allegations made against the Canadians, instead saying it’s government’s job to “keep them safe.” He said another five people, including Canadian children and their mothers, were with the group in Ethiopia but they were not detained. The five individuals are now on their way back to Canada.
Heather McPherson, the NDP’s international development critic and former executive director of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation, said she knows some of the Canadians detained in Ethiopia and is concerned about their well being in prison. She is particularly worried about detainees who don’t have access to medication they need.
Ms. McPherson travelled to Gondar with Canadian Humanitarian in 2012, when she led a group of Alberta high school students who were volunteering. She could not speak to the allegations against the 13 Canadians, but said the organization is cautious in the field.
“My experience with this group is that they’ve always upheld the highest standards of ensuring that they met the rule of the law and that they met their obligations as health providers," she said.
Canadian Humanitarian describes itself as a non-political organization that has provided humanitarian support through education, medical, dental and social-emotional support to thousands of Ethiopian youth over the past 15 years.
Liam Swiss, a Memorial University sociologist and president of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development, said smaller organizations, such as Canadian Humanitarian, may not have the same “clear operating guidelines” as bigger non-profit players, such as Oxfam, to prevent them from getting into difficult situations abroad.
Mark Blumberg, a Toronto lawyer who advises Canadian non-profits and charities, said that while the Canada Revenue Agency does not require charities to comply with laws in other countries, it advises them to be aware of local laws when working abroad. He said he hopes the detention of the Canadians was just a misunderstanding, as these kinds of situations could deter other organizations from going to Ethiopia.
“If this happens two, three times, it gets to the point where it may be that Canadian charities will have to re-evaluate whether they are going to operate in Ethiopia."