The House of Commons is back in session this week after a long Christmas recess, and one of the lead issues in Question Period has been the situation in Mali.
The recent escalation of armed conflict in Mali prompted the French government to launch a military intervention to repel extremist rebels who had gained control of most of the country. Canada has provided some logistical support for this intervention, although the Prime Minister has also insisted that Canadian Forces will not be getting involved in a combat role.
On January 29, Minister of International Cooperation Julian Fantino announced that Canada will provide $13 million in humanitarian assistance to people affected by the crisis. Interestingly, he made this announcement at a conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that was seeking funding to send African troops to Mali in order to help stabilize the country.
While $13 million is a relatively modest contribution in comparison to what was pledged by other G8 nations, I think this announcement is good news. Indeed, thus far the Canadian government response is consistent with recommendations made by Project Ploughshares, one of MCC’s coalition partners.
I also think this may be unsatisfying to some—perhaps even to our Prime Minister, given his conviction that “Islamicism” or Islamic terrorism represents the major threat faced by the world today.
People are dying. Communities are being displaced. Violence has already spilled over into one surrounding country, and others are threatened. Can’t we do more?
The same question has been asked repeatedly in recent months about the conflict in Syria. Can’t we do more to prevent the ongoing loss of life? Can’t we do more to slow the growth in the number of refugees? Can’t we do more to ensure that violence doesn’t engulf the region?
Earlier this month I was part of an advocacy delegation that met with MCC partners in Lebanon and Jordan who are trying to make a difference by meeting the needs of Syrian refugees, and by pursuing peacebuilding initiatives in their own, increasingly fragile, contexts.
We also met with Syrian refugees and heard some of their harrowing stories. Many experienced tragedy. Many continue to experience great hardship. Almost all long to return to Syria. Unfortunately, all of the partners we met with didn’t think that would happen any time soon.
I came away from this trip with an overwhelming sense of the complexity of the situation in Syria, as well as Lebanon and Jordan. There is so much about the history, politics, and religious traditions in the region that needs to be considered. I also came away from this trip with numerous reminders that my own country does not play much of a role in the Middle East.
Of course, neither point came as a surprise. Media accounts inevitably oversimplify the situation in conflict zones. And most people have no need to give any thought to Canada, given that it is a far cry from being a global superpower.
Canada does not figure in the dynamics of geopolitics. Thus we inevitably find ourselves reacting to rather than instigating events.
Kind of like the church.
Kind of like MCC.
One response to this reality might be to bemoan our lack of influence, and wring our hands at the fact that we can’t do more. Another response might be to pretend that we have more power or knowledge than we really do, and to weigh in on big-picture debates whenever the opportunity presents itself.
A third response might be to look for opportunities at a smaller scale. It might lead us to carefully discern where our niche lies. This could hold true for both Canada and MCC.
Clearly we can provide humanitarian assistance that can make a difference in lives of refugees, as well as the lives of vulnerable groups in host communities that have been impacted by the dramatic rise in demand for food, housing, and jobs.
Beyond the provision of essential services, clearly we can support efforts to address underlying tensions in neighbouring countries in order to make them less vulnerable to the kind of violence we are seeing in both Syria and Mali.
Beyond implementing peacebuilding initiatives, however, shouldn’t we also be pushing for modest efforts to change the larger systems and structures that govern our existence? For example, how can we make it harder for weapons to end up in the hands of groups that see violence as the only way to advance their cause? My trip reminded me again of why advocacy for a strong Arms Trade Treaty matters.
Perhaps there are other responses that go beyond working at the edges of big problems. Perhaps the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development will make more ambitious recommendations when they meet to discuss Mali later today. But it seems to me that there is no shortage of important work to be done around the edges.
By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director