Politics·Updated

Security firm named in lawsuit against Ottawa once accused of recruiting ex-child soldiers

Sabre International Security, the company now at the centre of a lawsuit against the federal government, was accused of recruiting child soldiers in Africa two months before a suicide bomber killed scores of its employees outside of the Canadian embassy in Kabul.

Company's recruiting methods were red-flagged by U.S. State Department

Serving Gurkha soldiers on parade in 2015 during a pageant to celebrate 200 years of Gurkha service to the British Crown in London. A security company being sued by Gurkha soldiers over a bomb attack outside the Canadian embassy in Kabul has been accused in the past of recruiting former child soldiers. (Richard Pohle/Pool/Associated Press)

Sabre International Security, the company now at the centre of a lawsuit against the federal government, was accused of recruiting former child soldiers in Africa two months before a suicide bomber killed more than a dozen of its employees outside of the Canadian embassy in Kabul.

The denunciation of the private security firm was made by Danish researchers and a human rights group in the spring of 2016.

It raises even more questions about what Global Affairs Canada and Public Services and Procurement Canada knew about the company's operations before hiring it to protect the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan's capital — and how closely it was monitored afterwards.

The private security company was awarded the high-risk contract of guarding the embassy in Kabul by the former Conservative government in the spring of 2013.

It continued to be employed without interruption by the Liberals — until a suicide bombing killed 13 former Nepalese Gurkhas and two Indian support workers two years ago.

The widows and survivors from that horrific attack filed a $20 million lawsuit Tuesday against the Canadian government alleging negligence.

As far back as 2009, U.S. diplomats were red-flagging Sabre over its recruiting practices in impoverished African nations, documents show.

Unanswered questions

Halting the practice of recruiting child soldiers is one of the Liberal government's signature initiatives for the reinvention of peacekeeping.

Internal federal documents, obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation, show Sabre initially was signed to a one-year contract for the Kabul job, but was given annual extensions each year afterwards until the bombing.

It was a lucrative deal. The federal government paid Sabre just over $37.7 million between 2014-17, according to federal public accounts records.

The lawyer representing the families in the Kabul lawsuit said the new information raises serious questions about whether the federal government should have chosen Sabre.

"There was a complete lack of due diligence done here in screening this company," said Joe Fiorante, who is based in Vancouver and specializes in liability cases.

Nepal's ambassador to Canada renewed his government's call for compensation for the survivors of the Kabul attack in a carefully worded statement issued Thursday.

"They were the only bread earners in the family and the entire extended family was dependent on their income for livelihood," said Kali Prasad Pokharel. "Nepal believes that the Government of Canada would provide reasonable relief/compensation to the families of the victims on humanitarian grounds as Canada is known for its reputation as the champion of humanitarian cause, human dignity and worth of human lives."

Global Affairs Canada was asked a series of questions by CBC News last week — before the lawsuit was filed — about the sort of background check that was done on the company.

The department did not respond, but a spokesman in Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's office said late Thursday that the department remains "heartbroken and continues to grieve with those injured and the families of those killed" in the attack.

"Afghanistan is an extremely challenging and dangerous environment and these guards bravely protect the Canadian embassy staff who work there. We are grateful to them," said spokesman Adam Austin.

He added that "senior officials have been in contact with government officials from Afghanistan, Nepal, and India – as well as the survivors and their families – to discuss on-going concerns over this case," but did not specify what those concerns might be.‎

Former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, who most recently served as Canada's special envoy to Myanmar, expressed dismay on Twitter over the fact that the Gurkhas have had to take their case to court.

"This should have been settled when it was first raised," Rae wrote. "Guards provided invaluable service to Canada, and should have been treated with dignity and fairness." 

New Democrat MP Murray Rankin said the federal government's handling of the case has tarnished Canada's international reputation.

"Here are people contracted to protect Canadians abroad, wearing on their uniform the Canadian flag," he said. "The government has a responsibility to look after these people.

"They were not our military people, I understand that, but they were one order down. It seems our reputation as a country is affected when people are treated the way they appear to have been treated."

Sabre representatives could not be reached for comment. The company's website has been deactivated and emails to its various recruiting accounts went unanswered or were returned.

U.S. State Department officials issued warnings about the security contractor, founded by a former British SAS commando, four years before it signed with Canada.

In 2009, American diplomats in Africa said the company had enlisted former militia members from Liberia to stand watch outside of U.S. military bases in Iraq.

"We are extremely concerned about the procedures Sabre International has used to recruit the potential guards," said a U.S. State Department cable, dated March 4, 2009, released online by Wikileaks.

According to the U.S. mission in Monrovia, Liberia, Sabre was drawing from a pool of ex-fighters belonging to former warlord Charles Taylor, who is now serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes in a British prison.

The warning was flagged to the State Department, the Pentagon and American embassies in Iraq, Jordan, Senegal and Uganda.

The cable alleges Sabre conducted a similar recruiting campaign in Namibia in 2007 before company officials were deported from that country.

Separately, the Pentagon complained to members of Congress and the U.S. State Department in 2009 about the qualifications of Sabre employees guarding an American base in Iraq, according to the Associated Press.

Researcher Maya Mynster Christensen, of the Danish Institute Against Torture, documented in an exhaustive 2016 report how the company preyed upon former child soldiers with the complicity of the government of Sierra Leone.

Due diligence

What makes that significant for the Liberal government is that Canada is a signatory to the Montreux Document, which sets out practices, standards and obligations for nations that hire private security contractors.

Dave Perry, a defence analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the international agreement, struck in 2008 at the behest of the International Red Cross, sets clear expectations for due diligence before a country hires armed contractors.

Only companies certified under the agreement can be employed by countries which have signed the agreement. It's not clear whether Sabre met those criteria.

At a minimum, Canadian officials should at least have been aware of the concerns of U.S. diplomats, he said — and that "should have raised flags."

When the government takes a stand on an issue like child soldiers, Perry said, there is an added burden on officials to be on top of contracts "in nasty places around the world."

An international symposium that monitors the implementation of the agreement complained that countries often choose their security contractors based upon "lowest price" criteria.

"This practice can be harmful to a client's reputation and risks leading to lower standards in the industry in general," said the Montreux Document Forum, which held its latest meeting in April.

Internal federal documents obtained by CBC News show price was a consideration in the decision to hire Sabre.

"Sabre Security International was awarded the contract based on the best overall value to the Crown in terms of technical merit and cost," said an Aug. 10, 2016 briefing prepared for former Foreign Affairs minister Stéphane Dion.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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