Out of step on nuclear disarmament

The Humanitarian Disarmament Forum was abuzz with a celebratory spirit. It’s not hard to imagine why.

After all, the International Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons (ICAN for short) had just won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. And the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the result of years of hard work by millions of global campaigners—had opened for signature at the UN merely a few weeks earlier.

In the world of humanitarian disarmament, history had been made yet again.

On October 14-15, I had the privilege of joining coalition colleagues from Mines Action Canada (MAC) and Project Ploughshares at the annual Humanitarian Disarmament Forum in New York. For two, chock-full days, representatives from global coalitions working to protect civilians from the catastrophic effects of small arms, cluster bombs, landmines, fully autonomous weapons systems (aka “killer robots”), and nukes came together to share insights from their advocacy efforts.

Coming on the heels of the ground-breaking nuclear ban treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize, the joy at the forum was palpable.

Though they belong in the dust-bin of history, roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads are still in the world’s arsenals, many of them launch ready and on high-alert status. This means that the possibilities for nuclear catastrophe due to global tensions, human error, system malfunction, a rogue launch, or weapons-capture by non-state actors are far too close for comfort.

The international community has already stepped up to ban biological weapons (1972), chemical weapons (1993), landmines (1997), and cluster bombs (2008). Finally, more than 70 years after the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons—the most indiscriminate, disproportionate, and destructive of all weapons—have also been banned.

Front row: Setsuko Thurlow and Ray Acheson. Back row: Allison Pytlak, Cesar Jaramillo (Ploughshares), and Erin Hunt (MAC). Photo courtesy of Erin Hunt

Adopted in the heat of July, the 10-page treaty (backed by 122 nations) outlines a categorical prohibition on the development, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, or stockpiling of nukes or any other nuclear explosive devices.

Global campaigners like ICAN as well as Project Ploughshares and Mines Action Canada worked tirelessly, attending ban treaty negotiations as civil society delegates. Atomic bomb survivors (the Hibakusha) and victims of nuclear test explosions around the world were also critical players, providing, in the words of ICAN, “searing testimony and unstinting advocacy” on the humanitarian imperative for a ban.

As the shadow of nuclear conflict looms ever-larger in our current political reality, the new treaty fills a huge gap in international law.

Yes, there was strong opposition from nuclear-armed states (i.e. the P5 on the UN Security Council) and their allies. And, no, these states are not expected to sign-on to the treaty any time soon.

But other UN treaties have been effective even when key nations failed to sign up to them.

When the Mine Ban Treaty was negotiated in 1997 in Ottawa, civil society successfully argued that the humanitarian impacts of landmines far outweighed any military benefit these weapons offered in combat. This same argument helped drive the Treaty to ban cluster bombs roughly a decade later.

Banning these weapons has had significant ripple effects. Implementing an unequivocal ban on landmines helped contribute to the broad stigmatization of the weapon and encouraged even non-party states to adapt to new norms in military theater.

Now, the prohibition on nuclear weapons marks a shift in the nuclear abolition debate.

Whither Canada in this global conversation?

According to his speech last year during Disarmament Week, then-Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion claimed that a ban on nuclear weapons without the support of nuclear weapons states was a utopian dream. It was impractical, impossible, and divisive.

October 13th at First Committee, 72nd Session, Thematic Discussion on Nuclear Weapons

Since then, Canada’s actions have continued to be out-of-step with this global movement. Despite claiming its support for the abolition of nuclear weapons, the Canadian government not only boycotted the treaty negotiations but (rather than simply abstain) voted against the historic UN resolution that launched the process—a position influenced, in part, by U.S. pressure on its NATO allies.

Instead, Canada backs a “step-by-step,” incrementalist (and completely broken) approach to reducing nuclear arsenals, including, among other things, the proposal for a fissile material cut-off treaty, a “step” that has faced deadlock for years. I heard this support reiterated by the Canadian delegate’s remarks as I sat in on a First Committee meeting at the UN a few weeks back.

Back in 2010, the government unanimously passed a motion calling for Canadian leadership on nuclear disarmament. What happened?

Far from “being back,” Canada seems to be inching backwards on disarmament.

Encourage your Member of Parliament to sign ICAN’s Parliamentary Pledge and send a message to Canada’s Ambassador to the UN, urging support for the treaty!


By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

Persons Day

October 18 is Persons Day in Canada. It is a time to remember and celebrate the historic 1929 decision of what was then Canada’s highest court of appeal – the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain – to include women in the legal definition of “persons”.

The idea that women would not be considered persons seems absurd today and even more ridiculous to think that this was the case less than 100 years ago. Aren’t all human beings persons? Apparently not in Canadian law before 1929 when the definition was still based on a section of the British North America Act of 1867 which stated only “qualified persons” could be given rights such as owning property, voting, and sitting in the House of Commons and the Senate.  Of course, the Canadian government chose to interpret this phrase as meaning men only.

The notion was only challenged when five (now famous) women sought change and on October 18, 1929, the Privy Council of Great Britain announced “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. And to those who would ask why the word ‘person’ should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?”

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Why not indeed. Women have proven themselves very capable in public office.

Emily (Ferguson) Murphy was the first woman in the British Empire to be appointed a police magistrate in 1916. However, a lawyer repeatedly challenged her rulings, claiming that she was not legally a “person.” In 1927 she led the legal challenge now known as the Persons Case.

She was joined by four other courageous determined women: Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, and Henrietta Muir Edwards. Together they implemented an obscure provision in the Supreme Court of Canada Act that said any five persons acting as a unit could petition the Supreme Court for an interpretation of any part of the constitution or at that time the British North America Act.

When Louise McKinney was sworn in to the Alberta Legislature in 1917, she became the first woman to sit in any legislature in the British Empire.

Appointed as Minister without a Portfolio in Alberta in 1921 Irene Parlby became only the second woman to serve as a cabinet minister in the British Empire and represented Canada at the League of Nations in 1930.

Nellie McClung was the first woman on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s Board of Governors, and a delegate to the League of Nations in 1939.

Henrietta Muir Edwards was active in prison reform and published and financed the first Canadian magazine for working women.

Today each of these amazing “persons” has a statue on Parliament Hill.

with the famous five (May 2015)

MCC Ottawa Office staff Rebekah Sears, Esther Epp-Tiessen, Monica Scheifele, and Jennifer Wiebe with Famous Five statues on Parliament Hill. Photo by Alison Ralph, MCC

As four women who have benefitted from their trail blazing, MCC Ottawa Office staff often visit these statues to remember their commitment to change. If not for their efforts there couldn’t be 41 (out of 105) female Senators and 89 of the current Members of Parliament might not be women. There wouldn’t be a gender balanced cabinet or a Feminist International Assistance Policy.

Unfortunately, there are still times and places even in Canada when women aren’t truly seen as “persons”.  When their voices aren’t heard or their contributions and accomplishments properly recognized.

On this Person’s Day may we remember that we are all created in God’s image. Every human being is a person with rights. We all have a role to play in bringing about positive change for a more a just world. Let us learn from the impressive examples of the many women before us who refused to give up and kept advocating for change until they were heard.

By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office

The settler within me

What does it mean to ally oneself with people victimized by colonization when one is a settler? This is a question that has confronted me repeatedly in recent months.

MCC in Canada has just launched a major multi-year education and advocacy campaign on Palestine and Israel called A Cry for Home. The campaign highlights the cry of MCC’s Palestinian and Israeli partners for a just peace – a peace characterized by justice, equality, dignity and respect for international law. It is a project that I and MCC colleagues have helped to shape..

One of the issues that the campaign highlights is the colonization of Palestinian land for illegal Jewish-only settlements. As of June 2017, there were 196 settlements and 232 outposts (smaller clusters of Jewish settlers) in occupied Palestine. Nearly 800,000 Jewish Israelis – 10 percent of the Israeli population – live in these colonies. According to international law, these colonies are illegal.

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An Israeli settlement under construction near Bethlehem. Photo/Esther Epp-Tiessen

As I learn about these settlements and their impact on Palestinian people and Palestinian land, I grow angry.  And then I remember that I am a settler too. I am a settler on the Indigenous land of Turtle Island (North America).

Both my maternal and paternal grandparents came to Canada in the 1920s as Mennonite refugees fleeing violence, famine and social upheaval in the wake of the Russian Revolution. My father’s parents settled in southwestern Manitoba (Treaty 2) and my mother’s on Pelee Island, Ontario, the traditional home of Caldwell First Nation.

My grandparents all arrived in Canada with very few resources, and the first decades in the new land were very difficult. Both my parents grew up in poverty. But as a 2nd generation Canadian, I have been blessed with privilege:  a good education, meaningful work, a comfortable home, clean and abundant water, many opportunities — and so much more. Only recently have I begun to recognize how my privilege is rooted in the losses of the Indigenous peoples of this land.

What do I do with the recognition that I live – very well – because I live on stolen land?  And how do I reconcile my own story with my critique of Israeli settlements in Palestine?

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Lia Tarachansky near the settlement in which she grew up. Photo/Palestinedocs

Not long ago I met Lia Tarachansky, a Russian-born Israeli Jew who grew up in the illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel in the West Bank.  Lia is my teacher in uncovering what it means to be a settler who has benefitted from the losses of others. She is a brilliant thinker and a compassionate human being.

As a journalist, filmmaker and activist, Lia has committed herself to telling the story of Israel’s past, and to shattering the myths around the founding of the State of Israel. She fearlessly documents the story of the Nakba and how the founding of Israel meant the displacement and dispossession of 750,000 to 900,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1949. She unveils the ongoing process of colonization at work through settlements, home demolitions, barriers to movement and military occupation.

Paulette Regan is another hero of mine. In her profound book about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Unsettling the Settler Within¸ Regan invites settler Canadians to do the same. True reconciliation in Canada, Regan insists, can only happen when non-Indigenous Canadians decolonize themselves. That includes shattering the myth about Canada’s own “peaceful” relationship with Indigenous peoples. And it means acknowledging and coming to terms with our privilege.

Of course, reconciliation means much more than that for Regan.  But for settler people, she insists, our efforts to be allies must begin with dealing with our own “stuff.” She writes,

“… what is our particular role and responsibility? Is it to ‘help’ Indigenous people recover from the devastating impacts of prescriptive policies and programs that we claimed were supposed to help them? Given our dismal track record, this seems a dubious goal. Or is it to determine what we who carry the identity of the colonizer and have reaped the benefits and privileges of colonialism must do to help ourselves recover from its detrimental legacy?”

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Mennonites walking for reconciliation at the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa, June 2015. Photo/Alison Ralph

It is clear where Regan stands.  And it is clear where Tarachansky stands as well.

Settlers seeking to be allies of the colonized must do the hard and painful work of examining and coming to terms with the ways in which we have benefited from the colonial project and how we replicate and maintain colonial relationships today.  We must be prepared to be “deeply unsettled” in that process. Regan assures us that the unsettling will be a good thing.

Jesus once said, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye” (Matthew 7:5).  Before I am too critical of Israeli settlers, I need to come to terms with the settler within me.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the MCC Ottawa Office

Peace for the long run in Syria

“We’re all fed up with these muscle-flexing exercises… [We need to try] to solve our problems with the mind or the heart, not the muscles”- Rev. Nadim Nassar, Syrian priest of the Church of England

For the past six years the Syrian people have been at the epicentre of multiple complex conflicts, which have drawn in powerful regional and international players.

While the western media focuses on the conflict between the Assad government and groups such as ISIS, the situation is far more complex, with intra-rebel fighting, battles between ISIS and the many other armed groups, regional Sunni-Shia divisions, the Kurdish struggle for a homeland, and so on.

The result: hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed since 2011, and millions of people – 65 percent of Syria’s population – have been forcefully displaced from their homes. This includes over 6 million internally displaced peoples and 5.5 million refugees.

In light of these tragic circumstances, how does one even start to think about the possibilities for long-term peace?

A dominant narrative among political decision makers, including in Canada, is that military intervention (or the threat of it) is essential to ending the Syrian crisis. This narrative is echoed by much of the Western media and the general public.

Canada, as part of the Global Coalition against [ISIS], has at certain points called for the removal of President Assad and promoted Canada’s commitment to the defeat of ISIS through the military component of its approach in Syria and Iraq. Like MCC partners,  Rev. Nadim Nassar, a Syrian priest in the Church of England, claims that when it comes to Western-led military interventions in the Middle East, there is often little understanding of the complex context, the ripple effects of such actions on the ground, and what approaches might truly be needed to create long-term peace. Yet, as he laments in a radio interview with CBC’s The Sunday Edition in April 2017, the dominant narrative often takes precedence, drowning out the voices that promote other approaches to building peace.

MCC has been supporting and walking alongside local partners in Syria for over 25 years. These local partners include churches and other organizations with strong roots in their communities and a deep understanding of the complexities of the ever-changing context. Despite the exodus of international NGOs and diplomats, these partners have chosen to remain in Syrai in the midst of conflict, deeply dedicated to long-term peace in their country.

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In Damascus, Syria, former MCC representatives Doug and Naomi Enns stand on Straight Street (the street we read about in Acts where the Apostle Paul was staying after being blinded on the road to Damascus). Photo courtesy of Syrian Orthodox Church

In April 2017, former MCC representatives for Lebanon and Syria, Doug and Naomi Enns, entered Syria for the first time in five years, spending five days with partners in their home communities. They saw loss and destruction, but they also saw the work for peace and the rebuilding of hope.

They witnessed that life persists: “We saw acts of solidarity between people of various faiths and backgrounds. We saw hope, we saw resilience. We saw hardship and terrible loss. And we saw people really wanting to live.”

MCC and its partners in Syria and the surrounding region believe that the key to long-lasting peace lies in addressing the deep rooted political and socio-economic grievances.

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During their visit, Doug and Naomi Enns were thanked by many partners, including this group at the Damascus office of Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). Photo courtesy of FDCD

Such work involves things like building bridges between different faiths and ethnic groups; supporting those struggling with both physical and mental trauma so they aren’t drawn into cycles of violence; trying to create a sense of belonging for children and promote hope for the future generations; and providing emergency support while investing in long-term development.

MCC’s partners engage in these acts of peacebuilding and resistance even amidst the violence.

As part of their trip, Doug and Naomi visited the city of old Homs – a shell of the old city all but reduced to rubble in a brutal siege in 2012. Despite the destruction all around, they saw hope at a Syrian Orthodox Church – a church that can trace its roots back to 59 AD. Though sustaining significant damage in the conflict, somehow the church continues to thrive. Weekly services continue and the community programs persist, allowing the congregation to reach out and walk alongside the most vulnerable within the community.

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Flowers bloom amid the destruction in Homs, Syria, a site where MCC partners with the Syrian Orthodox Church in supporting orphans and providing monthly allowances. MCC photo/Doug Enns

MCC welcomes and supports some of the Government of Canada’s work in the region, including its long-term development and humanitarian relief, and its stated commitment to diplomacy. But the military mission against ISIS, which was recently renewed until spring 2019, is a great concern to MCC. Our faith commitments and our experience around the world over decades have taught us that war does not bring true and lasting peace.

Additionally, along with many Canadians, we note that there is little-to-no transparent direction or specific goals for Canada’s extended military mission. More importantly, MCC’s partners and staff in and around Syria see the military response as counterproductive, failing to address the roots of the conflict and leaving destruction in its wake.

MCC’s partners in the region know that working for long-term peace in Syria is neither easy, nor quick. Syrian peacebuilders do not pretend to know all of the answers. Yet they long to stay and to see the day when their children can live in peace.

Like the slow but steady rebuilding of the ancient church in Homs, peace comes slowly, one brick at a time.

 

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the Ottawa Office