WASHINGTON – Canada’s foreign affairs minister emerged from a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday to make clear the federal government would make no immediate demands about repatriating Canadian Omar Khadr, still imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
“This individual is, allegedly, a murderer,” Lawrence Cannon told a news conference at the Canadian Embassy following his talks with Clinton at the State Department.
“I have indicated today the government of Canada fully respects the process that the American government has put forward, and we will await the outcome of that process before anything takes place.”
Cannon was in Washington on Tuesday as part of the federal government’s stateside charm offensive designed to capitalize on the Canada-U.S. buzz established last week during President Barack Obama’s visit to Ottawa.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited New York on Monday, where he conducted media interviews and met with the UN secretary general. Defence Minister Peter MacKay is also expected to visit Washington soon to get in on the action.
Cannon and Clinton posed for the cameras mid-afternoon in the regal surroundings of the State Department’s meeting room as a friendly Clinton welcomed the media and reminisced about her visits to Canada during her husband’s presidency.
“I have one memorable visit when we had a state visit and I got to skate on the canals in Ottawa. That was a personal highlight,” said a beaming Clinton.
On his own at the embassy two hours later, however, Cannon faced tough questions on everything from Khadr to suggestions Canada might be pressured by the Americans to extend its mission in Afghanistan beyond 2011.
Instead, Cannon said, he simply expressed Canada’s gratitude that Obama had pledged additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. He added that he also offered Clinton some guidance based on Canada’s own experience in war-racked Kandahar province – in particular the need for more civilian personnel.
“It was mostly me that was talking about Canada’s role (in Afghanistan),” he said. “We did not go into anything beyond 2011, beyond the present mandate that the government of Canada has.”
Questions about Khadr came as officials in Puerto Rico abruptly cancelled a visit by the alleged terrorist’s lawyer to Guantanamo for two days of meetings with his client.
Navy Lt.-Cmdr. William Kuebler, Khadr’s Pentagon-appointed defence lawyer, said he was prevented from visiting Guantanamo amid an internal review of his defence of the Canadian citizen. Khadr, the only westerner remaining at Guantanamo, is accused of killing an American soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was a teenager.
Human rights groups, Senator Romeo Dallaire and Canada’s opposition parties have been pressuring the Conservative government for weeks to demand the new U.S. administration repatriate Khadr, assuming Obama would be more open to that idea.
The president recently ordered Guantanamo closed, and a review process is currently underway to determine how the remaining prisoners should be dealt with.
Cannon said he reiterated to Clinton that Canada would respect that process.
The foreign affairs minister described his meetings in D.C. on Tuesday as “productive” and “friendly.”
Among other things, Cannon said, Canada wants to continue sharing with the Americans lessons it has learned in Afghanistan in terms of border management, training Afghan police forces and development projects.
Cannon has already hinted the Obama administration’s new focus on development and diplomacy in Afghanistan could signal a future role for Canada once troops leave in 2011.
Most of Canada’s 2,800 troops in Afghanistan are currently in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, where resistance from Taliban insurgents is most fierce.
Obama has pledged to send 30,000 additional American soldiers to Afghanistan and wants European allies to shoulder more of the combat load, but has not asked Canada to stay past 2011. The president made a point of saying so publicly following his meeting with Harper.