What’s in a word? Moving forward on Bill C-6

After many letters, scores of petitions, and numerous meetings with Members of Parliament, Bill C-6, An Act to Implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions, has been amended and will make its way back to the House of Commons in the new year.

This moment was the culmination of the efforts and energies of many civil society organizations over the last year and a half. MCC’s work on cluster bombs, of course, reaches back much further than this.

From the earliest days in the villages of northern Laos experimenting with16LaoBombieBeater80_2 shovels and a heavily-shielded bombie-beating tractor for clearing contaminated land, to advocating internationally for the eradication of the weapon, for more than 35 years MCC has been at the forefront of calls to address the devastating impacts of cluster munitions.

Since the beginning of November, my colleagues and I in the Ottawa Office eagerly attended each and every committee hearing on Bill C-6. While MCC was not one of the two civil society organizations invited to testify in person this time around, we tabled a written submission offering the committee our recommendations for strengthening Canada’s implementation of the Treaty.

In addition to expressing deep concern over the wide-ranging exemptions mapped out in Section 11 of the bill, MCC called on the government to take stronger leadership in mandating an ongoing commitment to the positive obligations Canada is assuming as a state party to the Convention (e.g., helping universalize the norms of the treaty, providing support for victims, notifying allies of our obligations, and destroying our stockpiles).

Last Tuesday was a big day in the life of the committee study. Having voted the week before to set aside Section 11—the most contentious clause in the bill—for special consideration, the committee now debated and discussed this part of the legislation in detail. We listened with baited breath while they did so.

Many opposition amendments were brought forward. All were voted down.

In the end, one government amendment was put forward, and approved, that deleted a single word—”using” in 11(1)(c)—from the over 2,700 word bill.

So, what’s in a word?

06B18LancerCBU2“Using” is, of course, a crucial one. We think that deleting this word from Section 11(1)(c) likely means that while on joint military missions Canadians will be prohibited from dropping a cluster bomb from a Canadian plane. The issue, however, is that the amendment did not delete enough.

This is not the only time the word “use” shows up in Section 11 in some way, shape, or form. Even with the amendment, while on exchange or secondment to joint missions with non-party states Bill C-6 still permits the Canadian Forces to facilitate ongoing use by:

  • directing or authorizing an activity that may involve the use, acquisition, possession, import or export of a cluster munition…
  • expressly requesting the use of a cluster munition…
  • acquiring, possessing, or moving a cluster munition…
  • transporting or engaging in an activity related to the transport of a cluster munition…
  • aiding, abetting, or counseling another person to use, develop, make, acquire, possess, move, import or export a cluster munition…
  • conspiring with another person to use, develop, make, acquire, possess, move, import or export a cluster munition…
  • receiving, comforting, or assisting another person  to use, develop, make, acquire, possess, move, import or export a cluster munition…

If Canada doesn’t want our military personnel personally to use cluster bombs, why would we allow them to assist in or even request the use of these weapons by others?

Given this lengthy list of wide-ranging exemptions still permitted under Canada’s Prohibiting Cluster Munitions Act, it seems an amendment should have been tabled to change the bill’s rather misleading title!

How will Canada navigate the tensions (indeed, inherent contradictions) between facilitating the ongoing use of a banned weapon in joint operations on the one hand, while upholding the universalization clauses of the Treaty found in Article 21(1) and (2)—which require Canada to actively discourage the use of cluster bombs by non-party states and urge others to join the Convention—on the other?

In response to these tensions, the government suggested that our loopholes will become less necessary over time as more states become signatories to the Convention. In other words, when countries such as the U.S. step up to the plate, Canada will be in a better position to fulfill its Treaty obligations. An interesting argument. It was, after all, Canada’s standard-setting leadership in implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines that helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

But is there a brighter side?

Clustermunitions_webrotatingphoto13_1Here’s another perspective: While deleting a single word doesn’t do much to ameliorate the problematic elements of the bill, perhaps there is more to this word than meets the eye.

As was noted in the final Committee hearing, there have been very few amendments made to government bills over the last number of years—in the current Parliament, roughly 80% of all bills have sailed through committees untouched. Perhaps it was the hard work and unified voice of Canadian civil society organizations and international campaigners that helped create the wiggle room needed for one small improvement to be made to the legislation.

While we don’t anticipate any further amendments to the legislation as it goes to third reading in the House and then on to the Senate, this is not the last word on Bill C-6.

At the final Committee hearing last Tuesday there was another word worth noting: in addition to proposing the amendment the government gave its word that it would invite the Standing Committee to play a more significant role in strengthening and expanding on the annual transparency reports required by the Treaty.

We are hoping that this annual reporting process will provide an opportunity for MCC and other civil society organizations to draw attention to Canada’s implementation of its positive obligations under the Convention in the years ahead.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Senior Policy Analyst

Canada’s Afghanistan War: tragedy and travesty

by Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

With four suicides by Canadian veterans of the Afghanistan War in less than two weeks, it is imperative that Canadians ask some deeper questions about Canada’s involvement in war.

According to CBC’s The National, 129 Canadian soldiers committed suicide during Canada’s decade-long involvement in the war, with an additional 50 deaths suspected as suicides. These numbers do not include persons who took their own lives after they left the military. Nor do they reflect the fact that for every completed suicide, there are many more attempts.

A total of 158 Canadian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in the course of their duties.  The scores of suicides need to be added to these numbers to portray the true cost in Canadian lives.

The statistics on suicide, as well as the growing recognition of post-traumatic stress in soldiers, portray the tremendous suffering that war inflicts on military personnel, not to mention the civilian population.

And for what good?

Throughout the war, Canadians were told by successive governments that Canada needed to participate in war in order to build peace, security, democracy and development in Afghanistan.

Since Canada’s involvement in direct combat in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ended in 2011, media attention has turned away from Afghanistan.  But in the meantime, some voices are now raising probing questions about the official rationale for the war and whether it was all worth it.

dogs eatingGraeme Smith was a Globe and Mail journalist who covered much of the war, and was even posted in the dangerous southern region of Kandahar.  His new book, And the dogs are eating them now: Our war in Afghanistan, represents a major about-face from the perspective he expressed in the Globe.

Like the Canadian government and Canadian Forces, Smith was convinced that foreign intervention could bring good things to Afghanistan.  He now writes that this intervention “played out… like a farce.”  War became simply a “recipe for fighting and fighting, and more fighting.”

According to Smith, the greatest mistake by ISAF troops was their distorted notions about the Taliban insurgency.  Foreign troops were convinced that the Taliban were “monsters” – often portraying them as leering devils with green skin and yellow eyes – rather than as local people with legitimate grievances against the Karzai government and its foreign backers. Foreign troops were unable to understand “the needs and desires of the local people.”

Another new book – an anthology edited by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo, called Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistanis much more critical of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.  It presents the war as a colonialist intervention to create the conditions for capitalism to flourish, and to facilitate Western access to the rich mineral wealth of Afghanistan.

Many readers will dismiss Klassen and Albo’s anthology as Marxist rhetoric. However, these writers painstakingly and convincingly remind us how Afghanistan has, for centuries, served as the battleground for foreign empires (Britain, Russia and the USSR, and US/NATO) eager to extend their political and economic influence.  Like Smith, they argue that Afghans resent the most recent military intervention because it represents not what Afghans want for their country, but what foreign powers can gain by controlling Afghanistan.

HTAC in Afghanistan, 2008

MCC partners with Help the Afghan Children by supporting teacher training, as well as computer, peace and environmental education in several schools.

Indeed, in light of these assessments, it is no surprise to read what partners in Afghanistan tell MCC representatives. John and Lynn Williamson, MCC reps based in Nepal, write,

Everyone we meet in Afghanistan agree that ISAF’s military strategy has not brought peace to Afghanistan. The sacrifice of foreign troops and the tragic loss of numbers of civilians, and wasteful spending of billions of dollars is not winning the war. Our partners tell us that ISAF cannot win in Afghanistan. Children in schools that we visit often tell us, “We hope that all foreign countries (including Pakistan and Iran) will leave Afghanistan, and we hope that our country can develop and take care of our problems.”

Canadians should not allow the Afghanistan War to vanish from their minds. The war was, after all, the longest war Canadian Forces have ever fought. It also assuredly shattered any semblance of Canada as a benign peacekeeper. Besides, too many people – Canadians soldiers, as well as thousands of Afghans – paid a terrible price.

Hopefully, the absolutely tragic suicides of Canadian soldiers will lead to greater commitment to treatment options for soldiers with post-traumatic stress. Hopefully, it will also lead to greater recognition of the travesty of war itself, and to a much more profound search for nonviolent means of resolving international conflicts.

Voices of Women for Social Justice

This week’s guest blog is written by Katie Doke Sawatzky, who recently attended an inter-generational gathering sponsored by KAIROS. Katie is a recent graduate of Canadian Mennonite University, a mother, a singer and a writer. She recently moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver.

It was my first time away from my two-year-old for longer than a day. It felt strange and wonderful to pick up my sister-in-law in west Vancouver and drive up the Sea-to-Sky Highway. We were headed to a place I’d never been before: the Cheakamus River Valley in British Columbia.

It wasn’t exactly a spa weekend. We went to the Elements of Justice KAIROS InterGenerational Gathering (October 24-27), at the Cheakamus Centre, an environmental learning centre situated on 420 acres of ecological reserve. We were among 130 participants from eight provinces and two territories who came together to learn, to share, and to network around indigenous rights and ecological justice. The four “elements” — earth, air, fire, and water — were themes for the plenary sessions, which combined speakers’ presentations with worship. With sessions in the mornings and evenings and workshops in the afternoons, the days were full.

Mildly acquainted with KAIROS, an ecumenical advocacy organization for social change, I came simply to learn from and listen to voices that were passionate and people who were active for social justice.

Resource people (L to R): Sylvia McAdam, Caleb Behn, and Brenda Sayers. Credit KAIROS Canada.

Resource people (L to R): Sylvia McAdam, Caleb Behn, and Brenda Sayers. Credit: Matt Dueck, KAIROS participant.

One of the first things I noticed after the first day was the number of women present. Two of the three plenary speakers and twelve of the fifteen workshops were led by women, and my guess is at least 70 percent of the participants were women. We had the majority by far. In fact, from what I saw and learned at the gathering, it seems social justice is a woman’s thing.

I know I’m slow to realize this. Idle No More (INM), one of the largest nonviolent movements in Canada’s history, was founded by four women. INM’s vision is expansive, calling for indigenous sovereignty, protection of land and water, and a national inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada.

Sylvia McAdam, one of INM’s four co-founders, was a speaker and workshop leader at the gathering. In her plenary session, “Indigenous World Views and Building Alliances,” she quoted a Cheyenne proverb: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or strong its weapons.” With an emphatic voice, Sylvia made it clear that women are key to obtaining justice for her people.

Poet activist Kathryn Lennon led a workshop titled “Communication for Positive Change.” Her spoken-word poem was electric. She had us brainstorm ways to communicate effectively yet justly, especially when telling stories that aren’t your own, which is common in social justice work. Lennon listened more than she spoke. Her voice was inclusive.

Janelle de Rocquigney leading a drum song. Credit KAIROS Canada.

Janelle de Rocquigney leading a drum song. Credit: Matt Dueck, KAIROS participant.

Tessa Terbasket, a young Sylix (Okanagan Nation) youth worker with Canadian Roots Exchange facilitated “The Water Workshop.” She passed on teachings from her elders about women’s connection to water. Monthly cycles, called “moon times,” were considered natural cleansing rituals, times to be respected and even celebrated. The majority of the women in the group were surprised by this and shared the embarrassment they felt over their “periods,” especially growing up. Tessa shared the idea of women being empowered by their cycles, rather than ashamed. Her voice was young and courageous.

The voices of these women were inspiring. They taught me that women are for social justice. I learned that women gather, organize, encourage, and urge. Women see injustice and act, speak and create spaces for others to speak, and refuse to be silent.
By the end of the weekend, inspiration turned into motivation. I considered the ways I use my own voice and how I could use it for justice. I sing, I write, I mother. Could these be good places to start?

I returned home on a sunny, fall afternoon. My partner and son had survived the weekend. I quickly slipped back into routine. But Sylvia McAdam’s words still echo in my mind: “Write letters, go to rallies, be outspoken. Do not be silent. Find your voice.”

I’ll try.