“Injustice anywhere…” Liberation Theology from Canada and the US to Palestine and Israel

by Rebekah Sears

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1964).

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a conference entitled Prophetic Action: Christians Convening for Palestine, hosted by Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) in St Paul Minnesota. It was energizing and stirring to gather with so many others focused on justice and peace-focused solutions, coming from across the US and Canada sharing information, strategies and stories of hope.

What really stood out to me was the strong emphasis from the presenters and organizers on the natural connections between peace and justice issues and the work in the US, Canada, and Palestine and Israel. This emphasis elevated the voices of people standing up against systemic oppression and injustice from Canadian and US governments – Standing Rock and Ferguson, including Black Lives Matter, to name a few – and how these voices for justice so easily connect to the voices of Palestinians working for justice.

Fosna group pic

Prophetic Action: Christians Convening for Palestine group photo, Photo Credit: Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/fosnalive/

As the conference was based in the US, the specific examples were from the US context, but it doesn’t take much to make the connections to issues in Canada, especially of Indigenous peoples.

However, the focus of this conference was not to draw attention away from the important and urgent work in Palestine and Israel, but to:

  • Encourage people in Canada and the US to see and act against injustice in their own backyards as well as in Palestine and Israel;
  • Gain a deeper and personal understanding of the injustices facing Palestinians by seeing similar patterns and actions of oppression closer to home;
  • Seek solidarity around the world in the fight against oppression, including from a faith perspective, as something prophetic – with liberation theologies movements popping up around the world, unified in their goals of human dignity for all, especially for those who are oppressed.

These proclamations were clear throughout the conference, but I especially want to focus on two presentations early into the conference. In both, personal experiences of injustice at home lead to a greater understanding, empathy and solidarity with those in Palestine and Israel.

In her keynote address, Reverend Traci Blackmon, representing the United Church of Christ in Missouri, took us back to 2014 in Ferguson, particularly the aftermath of the shooting on an unarmed black young man, Michael Brown, by police officer Darren Wilson. What followed was a rising of justice-focused indignation from the community of Ferguson.

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Reverend Traci Blackmon, representing the United Church of Christ in Missouri, Photo courtesy of FOSNA https://www.fosna.org

Reverend Blackmon witnessed police forces constructing walls, barriers and checkpoints around community protestors across Ferguson. Meanwhile the protestors were also met with police in riot gear, with tanks and with tear gas.

At the same time, Reverend Blackmon, and other witnesses talked about a phenomenon happening on social media. Peace and justice activists from Palestine and Israel began reaching out, first to show solidarity with activists in Ferguson, but also to offer non-violent practical advice. They shared how protestors could protect themselves from the effects of tear gas attacks, among other things. For Reverend Blackmon and others this was a turning point, opening not just points of connection, but a deep understanding for the situation and work of others half a world away.

Reverend Jim Bear Jacobs, member of Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation and parish associate at Church of All Nations Presbyterian Church, gave the opening remarks of the conference. Before he started thinking about the situation in Palestine and Israel, he first had to come to terms with his own history, a history of colonialism, oppression, land loss, and erasure of the history of his people. The faith tradition where he grew up did not acknowledge any of this and emphasized that he needed to be Christian first, and to downplay his Indigenous identity and history.

When coming to terms with his own history, Reverend Bear’s faith also shifted, to focus on what Christ and the Scriptures say about standing with the oppressed. It helped solidify his own involvement with Indigenous justice movements in Minnesota, and across the country, leading to his involvement at Standing Rock.

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Reverend Jim Bear Jacobs, photo credit, Church of All Nations Presbyterian Church

While standing in solidarity for the protection of Indigenous lands and resources, demonstrators were met with water cannons, tear gas, and police in riot gear. At the same time messages of support for Indigenous communities came in from around the world, including from Palestinians. As with Reverend Blackmon, this opened a whole new perspective for Reverend Jacob to see the similarities of the struggle, and the urgency to speak out.

So, what does all this mean for our responsibility and possible response? I will bring in a quote from Reverend Traci Blackmon as a guide: “People are becoming disposable in the policies. We must see people. It’s not just physical or political constructs, but theological constructs.”

In light of this, may we see the humanity in others, at home and around the world, including in Palestine and Israel; may our actions and policies at home and abroad be informed by human experience; and may we have the eyes to see injustice in its many forms, all while continuing to challenge ourselves to speak out wherever we see it.

Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office.

Human rights and the occupation of the Palestinian territory

by Leona Lortie

In early September, instead of enjoying one of the few warm Winnipeg fall weekends, I spent my time knee-deep in legal conversations relating to Israel, Palestine and international law. It was an interesting, challenging, albeit at times despairing, weekend.

Experts from Canada, the U.S. and the Middle East came together to discuss the complex issues surrounding Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Sessions were broken up in topics relating to human rights law, solutions for the conflict, the role of Western governments, recent events in the region, and of course the role of international law.

One presenter who stood out for me was Michael Lynk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights in the Palestinian territory, who also opened the symposium with the keynote speech. Throughout the weekend he skillfully walked participants through the legal status and responsibilities of Israel as an occupying power over the Palestinian territories and introducing the four corners of the law of occupation.

Lynk argued that Israel has breached each one of the fundamental tenets of this international law. The occupying power, according to the law of occupation, must acquire no right or title of the occupied territory, return the occupied territory to its people within a reasonable period of time, rule in the best interest of the protected people living in the occupied territory, and act in good faith.

If we accept that Israel has breached the law of occupation, does this mean that it is violating international law? If so, has Israel then moved from a legal prolonged occupation to an illegal occupation?

I was particularly interested to hear discussions about Canada’s human rights record and our country’s rights and obligations within the international humanitarian rights framework. Canada does not have a great human rights record in general terms and economic relations with foreign governments seem to frequently impact our efforts in defending human rights internationally.

In the context of Canada’s rights and obligations under the Common Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, our country’s legal obligation is to take measures to put an end to on-going violations against international humanitarian law. It would be tough to argue that Canada has taken any significant measures when considering the on-going human rights violations against Palestinians.

DSC_0102 No Occupation

Israelis protest in Jerusalem

The role of civil society was especially highlighted during the final sessions and question periods. When our governments do not take measures to put an end to human rights violations, or the occupation of the Palestinian territory, we, the civil society, are the only ones left to act.

This left me reflecting on my role, as the average person in Canada. What options do I have to defend the human rights of Palestinians? I was inspired by closing words of the conference organizers who called upon us to find ways to fill the void of government action. Dr. Dean Peachy, a human rights professor at the University of Winnipeg, concluded, “It is not my place to suggest a solution, but it is my place to stand up for human rights. I am not neutral, I am for justice, I am for human rights, and I am for non-violent peacebuilding.”

If you are, like me, looking for ways to fill the void, one option would be to write a letter to your MP here or to learn more about the challenges Palestinians are facing living under occupation here.

Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for MCC Ottawa

The Global Compact – Part 2: Canada’s role and MCC’s advocacy asks

Over the last year, MCC UN Office staff, Kati Garrison (Program and Advocacy Associate) and Abby Hershberger (Program Assistant), have been following the process of drafting the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) document (see Part 1 in this blog series). Both attended GCM negotiations to ensure to establish a connection between the high-level processes in New York with national governments, including the Canadian Mission, and MCC’s on the ground programs.

Throughout the GCM drafting process, Canada positioned itself at the forefront of the effort to create a framework that is beneficial to all. The MCC UN Office was pleased that many of Canada’s interventions addressed the importance of intersecting gender sensitive language in the GCM document. This contributed to a final draft that recognizes the additional challenges that women face when migrating. Many women and their children face obstacles when trying to confirm their nationality in a country of destination, which can leave them stateless and unable to access essential services. The finished text incorporates suggestions to remedying these challenges including, “ensuring that women and men can equally confer their nationality to children born in another state’s territory, especially in situations where a child would otherwise be stateless” (Objective 4e).

However, as we anticipate the installment of the GCM at the upcoming summit in Morocco in December, it is critical to keep momentum going behind member states like Canada and making the move from high level negotiations to practical steps. December’s summit will be more than just formalizing the GCM, as member states have been asked to submit proposals for specific actions to help put the principles of the compact in motion.

Leona and Bekah on Hill with Kati Garrison and Abby Hershberger from UN Office (2)

Abby Hershberger, Kati Garrison, Bekah Sears, Leona Lortie on Parliament Hill, August 2018

For that reason, at the end of August, Kati and Abby, along with MCC’s Ottawa Office staff, Bekah Sears (Policy Analyst) and Leona Lortie (Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator) reached out to Canadian Members of Parliament from various parties, to ensure the GCM and its principles were high on the Canadian government’s radar, and that Canada continues being a leader on global migration.

These are our three primary advocacy asks:

  1. Grant migrants access to basic services free from the risk of having their personal information shared with immigration enforcement officials.

Objective 15
The GCM acknowledges a shared responsibility among member states “to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their migration status, can exercise rights through safe access to basic services.”        

  1. Uphold the human right of non-refoulement.

Objective 21
Non-refoulement is a tenet of international human rights law that prohibits states from returning migrants to situations when there are “substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon returning, including persecution, torture, ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations.” The principle remains contentious among some member states who want more control over how they conduct returns.

  1. Include civil society and migrant voices as integral components in implementing the GCM.

Implementation
The text of the GCM is lengthy and detailed, but the way member states implement the commitments will be the true test of the weight of its words. MCC, both the UN and Ottawa offices believe that effective action plans must include multiple actors, including civil society and migrant voices.

Our MCC team had productive and encouraging conversations with each MP office and is optimistic that Canada would indeed vote in favour of the GCM. We look forward to engaging in similar conversation in the month leading up to the GCM adoption in December with other member states and actors on the ground.

– By Abby Hershberger, Program Assistant, MCC United Nations Office

The Global Compact – Part 1: A truly global document

In 2015, the United Nations Refugee Agency declared the mass exodus of Syrians from their homes into neighboring nations to be “the world’s single largest refugee crisis for almost a quarter of a century.” Around the same time, increasing numbers of small-scale farmers in the Global South were seeing their crops stunted by climate change and choosing to seek a living elsewhere.

Increasingly, countries of transit are becoming countries of destination and former destination countries are growing more hostile, tightening border security and toughening migration policies. Politicians are building successful political platforms upon xenophobia and unsourced claims that immigrants are making society more dangerous.

Although migration has always been a constant presence, the past few years have highlighted how multi-faceted and even contentious the movement of people can be.

In the New York Declaration, agreed upon in October 2016, United Nations (UN) Member States committed to start formulating a global response to the current realities of migration, as well as a flexible framework that could accommodate future shifts in migration flows while upholding the safety and dignity of those on the move.

GCM_CoFacs

On July 13, 2018, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM) was finalized. The drafting of the GCM was the first time that UN Member States have collectively negotiated and created a document that considers migration holistically—from driving factors, to inclusion and social cohesion, to conduct in the case of return.

Not surprisingly, drafting such an extensive document among nearly two hundred uniquely situated Member States, including Canada, was an extraordinarily complex task. To ensure a comprehensive and cross-cutting document, the drafting process was divided into three phases of work.

The first two phases, consultations and stocktaking, were held to discuss what general topics should be included in the text. After the co-facilitators released the Zero Draft of the GCM in February 2018, they commenced the intergovernmental negotiations phase.

Negotiations took place at the UN Headquarters in New York for one week a month from February to July 2018. For up to eight hours a day during these weeks, member states, non-governmental organizations, civil society coalitions, and migrant advocates debated the text of the GCM.

The co-facilitators and member states finalized the wording of the GCM at the end of the July negotiations, and will formally adopt the text this December at the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in Marrakech, Morocco.

For a more detailed description of the GCM’s purpose and the GCM drafting process, read our blog post from last year or visit the MCC UN Office’s website. Stay tuned for Part 2 regarding Canada’s role and MCC advocacy asks relating to the Global Compact.

– By Abby Hershberger, Program Assistant, MCC United Nations Office

 

And then there were three: Advocacy within MCC

In 1968 Mennonite Central Committee took the bold step of opening its first advocacy office in Washington DC. In 1975, a second advocacy office was opened in Ottawa to be followed by a third advocacy office in 1991 in New York to relate to the United Nations. The offices initially opened as listening posts, but now monitor and analyze policies, facilitate meetings for MCC staff and encourage constituents to be advocates themselves.

advocacy brochure coverWhile each office is situated in a different context with unique challenges requiring unique strategies, they all share the same primary purpose of advocacy which is about  influencing people, structures, and systems to bring about change that will benefit those living with poverty, violence, injustice and oppression.

So how do three offices in two countries dealing with three different political bodies (the American government, the Canadian government and the United Nations) work together? Common ground can be difficult to find, but not impossible.

Quite often there will be a main theme in common with slightly different approaches for the different audiences or institutions. For example, all three offices work on migration including addressing the root causes; the Washington and Ottawa Offices also work on these issues in relation to refugees and migrants and U.S. and Canadian policy respectively. The UN Office works on migration in the context of global processes and agreements. The Canadian and American governments have different policies around refugees and migrants, so again there is a common theme, but different advocacy approaches and messaging.

Advocacy for Palestine and Israel is another shared area of focus for all three offices with two of the three offices (Ottawa and Washington) hosting campaigns to encourage public engagement and advocacy on issues in the region.

All three offices stay in touch regularly about each other’s work. Staff from the three offices meet in person once a year to better learn about the different contexts and challenges faced by each office and to share common learnings or messaging. A few weeks ago, in late August, MCC Ottawa Office staff hosted colleagues from the other advocacy offices.

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Staff from MCC advocacy offices gathered for meetings in Ottawa Aug. 2018

A recurring topic of conversation around these tables is how to help integrate advocacy into MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding work. For example, when churches are asked to sponsor refugees, can they also be encouraged to advocate not only for greater openness and better treatment for refugees, but also for more government support of peacebuilding or food security programs in the countries people are fleeing? We also aim to identify steps MCC can ask the Canadian and American governments and the UN to take to work toward sustainable solutions to the root causes forcing people to flee.

When individuals are invited to prepare school kits, can they also be encouraged to advocate for increased development assistance, so more schools can be built and supported in countries receiving these kits?

MCC’s advocacy voice is strengthened by our program experience, so how can staff in the advocacy offices better connect with program staff and partners around the world to be more effective advocates for MCC’s work in the field?

Small though they may be, with only 4-5 staff each, these three MCC offices with advocacy mandates are important to MCC. Engaging civil society and addressing root causes with our governments supports MCC’s work of relief, development, and peacebuilding.

By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for MCC Ottawa Office 

The time is Ripe for Canada to Support a Ban on Killer Robots

Killer Robots: they’re not just features of futuristic dystopian movies, even though I’m sure the first thing that came to mind was The Terminator!

Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has increased exponentially in recent years, from Siri to self-driving cars to autonomous drones, able to reach remote communities. So much of this technology has been marketed as improving lives and creating opportunities for all.

However, many experts within the AI community have long argued about the dangers of limitless development and use of this technology; particularly when it comes to fully autonomous weapons, aka Killer Robots. It’s not about defunding or vilifying the AI sector, but rather about ensuring that such technology will never be used as a weapon – i.e. autonomous devises programmed to kill and destroy.

These experts have joined scientists, human rights, and disarmament advocates from around the world in a campaign calling on governments to commit to a total ban on the development and use of fully autonomous weapons (The Campaign to Ban Killer Robots).

stop killer robots event (2)

Last week (Aug 27-31, 2018), civil society and state actors participated in a gathering at the UN in Geneva to discuss the urgent need for a ban on autonomous weapons. Activists are calling for a global ban by 2019.

Considering this, where does Canada fit – what are Canada’s global responsibilities in the movement to ban Killer Robots?

  1. Canada’s claims as a global human rights leader demands it.

“We’re Canada and we’re here to help,” exclaimed Prime Minister Trudeau in his first speech at the United Nations in 2016. In this and other grand proclamations since, the Trudeau government established itself – in words, anyway – as a global leader in protecting universal human rights.

The evidence for significant human rights concerns – from international humanitarian law to the lack of trustworthiness and ingrained bias within the technology itself – is clear and speaks for itself.

Yet, where is Canadian global leadership against the development and use of killer robots? Since 2013 26 countries have signed onto the campaign, but no action from the Canadian government thus far.

Canada has yet to clarify its own policy on the development and use of autonomous weapons. From the 2017 Canadian Defence Policy – Strong, Secure, Engaged – in 113 pages, there is only one mention of autonomous weapons: “The Canadian Armed Forces is committed to maintaining appropriate human involvement in the use of military capabilities that can exert lethal force,” (pg 73). However, appropriate human involvement is never defined.

  1. Canada has clearly named AI as an economic priority/opportunity

In the 2017 Federal Budget, the Canadian government designated $125 million for investment in Canadian-based AI companies. The government sees an opportunity for Canada to become a leading innovator in AI technology.

Again, this is not to say that Canada should not invest in such industries. But with such emphasis put on innovation in AI as a priority, it is critical that the Canadian government equally emphasize the importance of global leadership in preventing the development of autonomous weapons.

If Canada could be a leader in the movement to ban land mines in the 1990s – even though Canada did not have nor use land mines – it is even more critical that Canada, a leader in AI technology,  use such influence to also call to ban the use of AI technology to development and use of autonomous weapons.

  1. The voices of the public and the tech community

Finally, some of the loudest voices in Canada calling for the government to support a ban on killer robots are those in the field itself, including AI researchers and developers.

In November 2017, five leaders in the AI field in Canada addressed several of these concerns in an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau. Over 650 academics, practitioners, and developers then signed on. The Prime Minister has yet to respond.

“AI has tremendous potential to be a force for good in society,“ said Donna Precup, Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning, McGill University, in 2017. “As part of the AI research community, I think it is our moral obligation to ensure it continues to develop in this direction and prevent it from being mis-appropriated for harm.”

Polls in Canada and around the world show significant distrust of AI in general and even more definitive disapproval for their use in weapons. Canadians, and others around the world, are distressed at possible impacts on civilians and indiscriminate killings completely outside of any human control.

What are we waiting for?

stop killer robotsAs of now, fully autonomous weapons – Killer Robots – have not yet been fully developed or used in combat.

But as Paul Hannon, Director of Mines Action Canada argues, now is the time for Canada to come on board and ban such weapons pre-emptively, before they even see the light of day: “We know the revolution is coming and we know we can stop it, peacefully, without death or injury.”

Help to send the message: Take action in Canada and spread the word on the Global Campaign

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa Office.