Lack of democracy in Mali draws questions about what Canada is doing there

Canada's mission supporting French and African military forces in Mali has been extended to Feb. 15.If the last few years of involvement in foreign conflicts should have taught Canadians anything, it's that we shouldn't be surprised when things go sideways.

The mission in Afghanistan, costly in Canadian blood and treasure, likely won't produce a functioning democracy and perhaps not even a stable government. The Canadian-led air offensive that helped unseat Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi also opened the doors to his armouries for Islamists in the region.

Now come reports Canadian-trained soldiers in Mali who tried unsuccessfully to reinstall the democratically elected government of the African country after a coup have been ruthlessly hunted down, tortured and killed by their own military.

The National Post says human rights groups claim members of Mali's parachute regiment, who had acted as overthrown president Amadou Toumani Toure's bodyguard, were given training in 2011 by the elite Canadian Special Operations Regiment.

[ Related: What Canada is doing in Mali ]

Toure was overthrown in a coup last March by disgruntled soldiers unhappy with his handling of the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali, where French and Malian forces now are battling Tuaregs and al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

About a month later, the presidential guard unit launched a counter-coup but failed to dislodge the junta set up by Capt. Amadou Sanago.

According to the Post, Sanago's forces have captured at least 40 of the paratroopers. It says a Human Rights Watch report alleges prisoners were forced at gunpoint to have sex with each other, and "fabric was stuffed in their mouths before the abuse to stifle their screams."

The Post says witnesses recount seeing some of the presidential bodyguard being led away after the counter-coup, never to be seen again.

Special-forces training is funded by Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs through its Counter-Terrorism Capacity Building Program, the Post says.

“Human rights are a factor that is considered by (the department) in the analysis and selection of all projects, including training,” department spokesman Claude Rochon told the Post in 2011. “(The department) monitors the implementation of all projects, including post-training followup.”

A chart on the National Defence and Canadian Forces web site lists various overseas deployments, including 925 members in the extensive NATO-led training mission in Afghanistan and a handful attached to the British-led advisory and training mission in Sierra Leone.

[ Related: Should Canada get involved in the Mali conflict? ]

According to a Globe and Mail report published Friday, Canada has deployed hundreds of soldiers on training missions in West Africa, including Mali, as part of a U.S.-led counter-terrorism effort.

But the American general responsible for Africa has criticized the program for focusing on tactics and equipment while failing to instil basic democratic values, the Globe says.

“I believe that we focused exclusively on tactical and technical [aspects],” Gen. Carter Ham said, according to the Globe.

“We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos. … When you put on the uniform of your nation, then you accept the responsibility to defend and protect that nation, to abide by the legitimate civilian authority that has been established.”

The involvement of soldiers from the U.S.-led program in the coup last March led the U.S. military to take a second look at its involvement, Carter said in a speech last week.

“Did we miss the signs that this was happening? And was there anything that we did in our training that could have been done differently, perhaps, and have caused a different outcome?”

A Canadian Defence Department source told the Globe the Canadian and U.S. training efforts shouldn't be compared, being vastly different in both size and scope.

[ Related: French seal off Mali's Timbuktu, rebels torch library ]

“Whenever Canadian soldiers are participating in training, whether at home or abroad, they always do so in accordance with Canadian values and international law,” he said.

Canada has contributed a C-17 heavy-lift transport plane for at least a month to France's military offensive against Islamist forces in northern Mali. And the Globe says it might consider another training mission under UN auspices.

Canada has business interests in Mali, notably in mining, but further involvement would likely be based on the goal curbing al-Qaeda in the region.