News Roundup: Canada’s military mission in Iraq

by Rebekah Sears

The MCC Ottawa Office blog is trying something new, with a semi-regular News Roundup! We want to take the opportunity to share news stories, reports and resources from various sources around the web, with the goal of providing more background information and context on the countries and themes where MCC and our partners are working. We also want to speak to the role and responsibilities of the Canadian government, highlight what MCC is doing, and outline how you can get involved! The articles are drawn from a variety of sources and do not necessarily reflect the position of MCC.

For our first round-up of 2019 we wanted to raise the profile of the context in Iraq, particularly when it comes to Canada’s foreign policy: a continuing military mission, humanitarian and development assistance, and how these fit with the complexities of the region.

Canada has had a military presence in Iraq since late 2014 and starting in 2017 through 2018 there were significant geopolitical shifts in Iraq, forcing Canada to shift strategies in the region. This round-up looks back at the history of Canada’s military mission in Iraq – including MCC’s main critiques; how Canada’s mission was completely upended by key geopolitical dynamics in the region; Canada’s revised mission, as it stands; and all considering the context and politics of Iraq.

Getting us up to speed on Canada’s military Mission in Iraq and MCC’s engagement, from 2014-2017

Actions speak louder . . . Canada in Iraq and Syria, MCC Ottawa Office Notebook, March 2017

This is MCC Ottawa’s own take on Canada’s military mission in Iraq as or early 2017, including analysis on Canada’s strategy in Iraq from 2014-2017. In consultation with our staff and partners in Iraq, MCC has consistently raised concerns around Canada’s involvement in this foreign military intervention and what it means for peace for the long-run. Until 2017, Canada had been supporting Iraqi government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, despite these groups having their own very different goals and visions for the future of Iraq.

(CBC) Canada to extend anti-ISIS mission by 2 years

Originally from CBC article, June 29, 2017: Canada to extend anti-ISIS mission by 2 years. “A Canadian special forces soldier, left, speaks with Peshmerga Capt. Omar Mohammed Dhyab, second left, and other fighters at an observation post in February in northern Iraq. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)”

In almost every renewal or reshaping of Canada’s military mission, MCC has raised these concerns with the Canadian government, both under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: October 2014, April 2015, February 2016, February 2017, and July 2017.

The Uncounted, New York Time Magazine, November 2017

There are so many pieces that illustrate the complexities of foreign military interventions, but few are as compelling as this must-read account regarding the civilians and communities, the “collateral damage.” This barely scratched the surface of impacts on civilians, physically and psychologically, not to mention the social fabric. Though this piece highlights U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, it is imperative to note that Canada has also actively participated in airstrikes, directly from 2014-to early 2016, and indirectly through refueling and aerial reconnaissance missions since 2016.

Canada’s military mission in Iraq was arguably ill-prepared for significant shifting geo-political dynamics in 2017-2018

Globe editorial: After IS is defeated, what comes next? Globe and Mail, July 2017

From the beginning of Canada’s military participation in the Global Coalition Against [ISIS] the government has claimed its goal has been to “defeat ISIS” through partnering with local forces, among other strategies. But in mid- 2017, even as ISIS forces lost more and more influence in Iraq, Canada extended its military mission for another two years. With the significant changing regional dynamics, Canada’s overall goals for the region, including partnerships with Kurdish and Iraqi forces, became even more unclear.

Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting, Globe and Mail, October 2017

Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting

Originally from Globe and Mail article, Oct 27, 2017: Canada suspends military aid to Iraqi, Kurdish forces amid outbreak of fighting “Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga take part in routine military exercises in Koya, northern Iraq, on Oct. 22, 2017. SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images”

The fall of 2017 saw major changes in Iraqi politics. In September, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region held a highly controversial independence referendum. Canada had long supported the Kurdish Peshmerga, putting our mission in an awkward spot, as Canada had also been outwardly supporting a unified federal Iraq, and supporting Iraqi government forces in Mosul. In Baghdad, the Iraqi government reacted swiftly to the referendum, deploying troops to some of the contested regions, confronting Kurdish forces. As a result, Canada suspending all military actions in Iraq. To many critics this conflict between Iraqi and Kurdish forces came as little surprise, Canada looking unprepared and not fully understanding the complexities of the region.

The Underground Caliphate: ISIS Has Not Vanished. It Is Fighting a Guerrilla War Against the Iraqi State, The Intercept, September 2018

Looking at the Iraqi context as a whole, this in-depth piece is a warning against the overcomplication of conflicts such as that in Iraq and explores the complexities and roots behind insurgent groups like ISIS – political grievances, sectarian tensions and power vacuums, among others.

Canada’s new mission: more directed actions, but complexities and significant concerns remain

Canada is right to shift focus toward Baghdad and away from the Kurds, Globe and Mail, June 2018

By the end, in June 2018, Canada finally announced its new directional focus in Iraq. This included an additional component: a leadership role in a NATO mission aimed at general stabilization in Baghdad and beyond. But the main focus was a shift to supporting solely the Iraqi government forces, specifically in the further stabilization and reconstruction on Mosul, a region arguably at the centre of the conflict in Iraq. But shift also raises significant concerns.

Canada is essentially switching sides in the middle of a mission, whereas Canada began its mission primarily supporting Kurdish forces.

Mosul: One year on After ISIL, a city still in ruins.

Originally from Al Jazeera article, 6 July, 2018: Mosul: One year on. After ISIL, a city still in ruins. “Vehicles navigate a street in Mosul’s old city. Cars and inhabitants circulate with difficulty in this apocalyptic scene, as small adjacent streets are not safe yet. Tom Peyre-Costa/NRC”

Also, Mosul is an incredibly complex context. There are dozens of analyses focusing on the slow progress, if any, on reconstruction. But behind a lot of this waiting and uncertainty, tensions, be they political or sectarian, simmer just below the surface. The Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) dives deep into the complexities and challenges of Mosul recovery in a recent podcast – both in the physical reconstruction of neighbourhoods and the reconstruction of social fabric.

Finally, since 2017 disturbing reports from human rights groups have been coming out of Mosul and other former ISIS strongholds, whereas divisions of Iraqi government forces and officials are allegedly carrying out a campaign of revenge – with 10-minute trials and torture of suspected former ISIS combatants and their families. One such recent piece from the New Yorker looks at this disturbing trend in depth.

Iraq in 2019 and going forward

What does 2019 hold for Iraq? All bets are off, Middle East Eye, January 2019

From the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to the rise of ISIS, federal elections in 2018 and continuing tensions, the people of Iraq have witnessed many changes and uncertainties. Yet hope abounds with the rising up of a new generation and with the continuing work and dedication of local organizations, seeking to build long-lasting peace from the ground up. As Canadians we want to urge our government to support such efforts, making decisions based on in-depth analysis of the situation, and in the interests of peace for the long haul.

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

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Faith communities must show clear leadership: Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

by Rebekah Sears

“We thus make a passionate plea to the leaders of all religions, all people of good will, and all leaders of nations both with and without nuclear weapons to commit to work to eliminate these horrific devices forever,” from a statement adopted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, November 2018, developed by Jonathan Granoff of the Global Security Institute.

FB ICAN

Photo courtesy of the Parliament of World’s Religions Facebook Page.

Last month I had the privilege of participating in the Parliament of the World Religions in Toronto. The Parliament is a gathering held every six years, bringing together religious leaders and organizations from around the world, with the purpose of seeking interfaith cooperation to addressing the greatest challenges and obstacles for a just peace facing our world today – challenges that transcend international borders, and that impact peoples of all ethnicities, faiths and creeds.

The theme of this year’s Parliament was: The Promise of Inclusion, the power of love: Pursuing global understanding, reconciliation and change. For seven days, thousands of people participated in plenaries and keynotes, as well as hundreds of workshops, on responding to the global forced migration and refugee crisis; protecting the rights, sovereignty and languages of Indigenous peoples; confronting violence against women and supporting greater leadership of women in faith communities; urgent, timely and coordinated action on climate change; combating social injustice, and countering hate and war; and speaking with a united voice against the looming threat of nuclear war.

Unfortunately, so often religion has been, and continues to be, used as a cover to justify political and social injustice and violence. Faith is a persuasive motivator, and regrettably has, and continues to be, used and manipulated in the pursuit of power – often as a great divider of peoples.

The message at the Parliament was aimed at countering such actions, seeking unity, in both action and conviction, calling all faith leaders to reject the use of religion to harm or oppress others, and instead applying such principles to uphold human dignity and justice.

There are so many themes, panels, workshops and keynotes that I could highlight, but one of the issues that kept coming up – from both political leaders and leaders of faith – was the looming threat of nuclear war and the call to abolish nuclear weapons.

Though only held and controlled in the hands of the few and powerful, the possible and very real and devastating threat of nuclear weapons knows no borders nor abides by international law or recognizes human dignity.

Last year, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) oversaw the final push for the adoption of a  Global Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, for which ICAN was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. The nine states that currently hold nuclear weapons refused to sign the treaty, as did many of their allies, including Canada.

The position of the leadership of the Parliament of the World’s Religions on this is clear, based on a statement released just after the conference. It was a call to action for religious leaders of all faiths to lead the way and speak truth and demand justice and peace from the powerful nations of the world, regarding the very real threat of nuclear weapons.

Representatives of ICAN were also at the Parliament itself, professors and experts Dr. Emily Welty, also of the World Council of Churches, and her spouse Dr. Matthew Bolton. At a plenary session they spoke about the often-patronizing reaction they get when speaking out to states resistant to signing the treaty, both weapon-holders and others – “It’s complicated.” Yes, like most big geopolitical issues, denuclearization is a complicated process. But to throw in the towel and ignore the potential devastating realities is just not an option.

FB Welty

Photo courtesy of the Parliament of World’s Religions Facebook Page.

The message of Welty and Bolton was clear. We know, through the research and investigations – the science and testimonies – the definite devastating impacts of a possible nuclear war. As we speak, nuclear testing continues to have devastating impacts on communities on Christmas Island in the South Pacific, along with a dozen other countries where there has been nuclear testing since 1945. Locals are rarely consulted and often not even warned. As people of faith we understand the call to come together on the issues that unite us and to speak up for justice and human dignity.

 

After this plenary session, Peter Noteboom, the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, and Cesar Jaramillo, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares co-lead a workshop called Principles to Practices: peace and abolishing nuclear weapons. Peter and Cesar presented research, testimonies and personal stories with a call to action from a Christian faith perspective. Earlier this year the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) passed a resolution outlining their Shared Principles of Peace, for all member churches. The document outlines principles of peace as part of the vocation of the church and its members, peace as means to work for justice, peacemaking as political engagement and a response to the threats of conflict.

ican-nobelpressconference-27oct2017

Cesar Jaramillo and others at a press conference when ICAN won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: Photo courtesy of Paula Cardenas Left to right: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) campaigners Setsuko Thurlow, Ray Acheson, and Cesar Jaramillo call on Canada to join a UN nuclear weapons ban at a press conference in Toronto on October 27, 2017. Jaramillo is the executive director of Project Ploughshares, an MCC partner.

To Peter the vocation of people of faith is clear – to be a united voice, speaking out of both practicalities and principles to demand a nuclear weapon-free world now – not after another Hiroshima…now!

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

Ottawa Office Roundup: Spotlight on Gaza

By Rebekah Sears

The MCC Ottawa Office blog is trying something new, with a semi-regular News Roundup! We want to take the opportunity to share news stories, reports and resources from various sources around the web, with the goal of providing more background information and context on the countries and themes where MCC and our partners are working. We also want to speak to the role and responsibilities of the Canadian government, highlight what MCC is doing, and outline how you can get involved! The articles are drawn from a variety of sources and do not necessarily reflect the position of MCC.

Globe and Mail photo

A Palestinian child plays in an impoverished area of the Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on July 29, 2018. MAHMUD HAMS/GETTY IMAGES

For this first Roundup we want to highlight the deteriorating situation in Gaza, primarily because our partners have reached out, speaking to the growing urgency and desperation of the situation and the people of Gaza. More than one million people in Gaza rely on humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs. The blockade that Israel imposed in 2007 has devastated the economy and brought unspeakable hardship for Palestinians. Now, as recent funding cuts from UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestine, take hold—life for many is going from bad to worse.

A broad look at the everyday realities

Israel-Palestinian conflict: Life in the Gaza Strip, BBC, May 2018

In May 2018 the world was watching as numbers of causalities and deaths in Gaza peaked – this BBC article took the opportunity to outline the significant daily challenges within Gaza, most directly connected to the blockade, including: freedom of movement, the economy, schools on the verge of closure, insufficient access to essential medicines, food and water, and extremely limited electricity.

Israel tightens Gaza blockade, civilians bear the brunt, Oxfam, July 2018

In mid-2018, Israel tightened the blockade on Gaza even further, exacerbating the above-mentioned concerns, and it is the civilians of Gaza that are bearing the biggest brunt. In this report, Oxfam and others outline the realities and impacts for the people of Gaza, it provides a list of recommended actions for the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority, as well as the international community, of which most seek to address root causes of the situation, with a long-term view.

Long-Lasting impacts and the youth of Gaza

Gaza economy in crisis: World Bank report warns that it’s in ‘free fall’, Middle East Eye, via World Bank, September 2018

The recent report from the World Bank talks about a crippling and unsustainable economy in ‘free fall’, stifled by a more than 10-year blockade, as well as the impacts for Gaza’s youth, where the unemployment rate has risen to 70% despite high levels of post-secondary education.

Generation of children in Gaza on the brink of a mental health crisis, new research shows, Save the Children, June 2018

In Gaza, a generation of children is growing up knowing little else but conflict: a blockade, regular drone attacks and air strikes, the loss of home, or worse, the loss of family and friends. As the humanitarian situation worsens, reports like this one continue to draw attention to the long-lasting impacts of trauma and violence on children.

How to move forward: Addressing structural issues, and not just humanitarian issues

Cash-Strapped Gaza and an Economy in Collapse Put Palestinian Basic Needs at Risk, World Bank, September 2018

Although humanitarian and development support for Gaza is helping to meet urgent immediate needs, there is a need to address some of the root causes and structural factors. This report from the World Bank outlines the limits of humanitarian aid to bring real and sustainable change and growth to Gaza and outlines the push to move beyond merely sustaining life and the conditions as they exist today, to see long-lasting impacts and movement for the better.

Canada’s role and responsibilities, and moving forward

Canada pledges $50-million for vulnerable Palestinians, Globe and Mail, July 2018

In July, the Canadian government pledged $50-million to support vulnerable Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. This announcement followed the Minister of International Development visiting the region, earlier in the month.

Canada gives $50-million to UN Palestinian refugee agency that U.S. calls flawed, Globe and Mail, October 2018

In order to help fill the urgent funding gap as a result of cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which represents Palestinian refugees, Canada and other countries have pledged significant additional support for the situation. Of the $50-million pledged, $38-million will support programs in Gaza.

Why Canadian aid won’t really help Palestinian entrepreneurs, The Conversation, August 2018

As the previous section highlighted, aid is not enough. Humanitarian and development support will help sustain life, while continuing to uphold the current structures, which are stifling growth and long-term improvements in the lives and living conditions of the people of Gaza. While the increases in Canadian humanitarian aid are a positive step, they fall short of addressing the structures that sustain the humanitarian crisis.

MCC invites you to take action: Contact your Member of Parliament!

End the suffering of Gaza, MCC Ottawa Campaign, updated, Oct 2018

We, alongside our partners are calling for continued humanitarian support. But beyond this support, in order to build a peaceful and sustainable future for Gaza, we are calling for the end to the Israeli over a decade-long blockade, which is at the root of so much of the situation in Gaza. In 2018, as the blockade tightens, the humanitarian situation deteriorates.

ACT Today: Urge your MP to show compassion for Gaza! Ask him or her to:

  • Insist to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister on continued humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza, but, more critically, that Canada support an end to the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
  • Support policies in keeping with Canada’s official commitment to promote the human rights of all people, including Palestinians and Israelis.

For more information and resources on the context in Palestine and Israel, and the work on MCC’s partners, see MCC’s A Cry for Home Campaign.

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office’s Policy Analyst

“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.

traci-blackmon

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.

jimbearjacobs

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.

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

By Rebekah Sears

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.

“In Search of a Better World:” A revolution of empathy

By Rebekah Sears

“We cannot remain comfortably detached from the painful realities and urgent challenges [of our time] … There can be no meaningful change if we choose to look down at the arena of anguish from thirty thousand feet,” Payam Akhavan, In Search of a Better World: A human rights odyssey, 5-6.

Today’s world is facing a seemingly never-ending stream of conflicts and human-made humanitarian crises. It is exhausting and disheartening to even follow the news and the stories of suffering. On top of this, the punditry and competing narratives – often steeped in self-interest and cynicism – brings further the division and dehumanization of suffering. It is difficult to even imagine a way forward.

At high-level decision-making tables in Canada and around the world, policy makers and pundits debate potential solutions. There are no shortages of experts, theories and summits, but the suffering persists. Of course, there has been significant globally-led change and collaboration aimed at alleviating suffering, yet so many crises protract for years or even decades, while new crises continue to emerge.

Dr. Payam Akhavan

Dr. Payam Akhavan Aug. 29, 2016 in Toronto. Photo by Peter Bregg CM, from McGill University profile

McGill International Law Professor and human rights activist Payam Akhavan, the 2017 CBC Massey Lecturer, has spent much of his career in these high-level bodies, addressing human-made atrocities. He has served as legal counsel on numerous international courts, including the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and in The Hague for the International Court of Justice.

Yet, Akhavan argues there is a significant element missing from many of these high-level conversations: addressing such crises from the foundation of our common humanity, coupled with a deep and personal knowledge of human suffering – moving forward with a revolution of empathy.

A resolution cannot fit in a neat policy package made “at thirty thousand feet,” comfortably detached from human suffering. The policy expertise is, of course, indispensable, but without a foundation of humanity and empathy, Akhavan envisions that even the most well-thought-out plans will fall short.

In his Massey lectures and accompanying book, In Search of a Better World: A human rights odyssey, Akhavan brings readers on a journey through his own suffering – fleeing persecution in Iran– to his career, encountering the aftermaths of atrocities. Through the lens of common humanity, he examines human rights laws, mechanisms for pursuing justice, and the Will to Intervene – for the long-run.

In the world of human rights policy, it is easy to be engulfed with analysis and punditry at the expense of humanization. There is a temptation to divide players into simple categories – “allies” and “enemies” –succumbing to the inevitability of conflict, all while making grand proclamations about the future.

Bringing perspectives and stories of common humanity to the table is not about warming the hearts of policy makers. Instead, Akhavan is calling for a significant shift in how policy ideas are conceived and developed, factoring in an understanding of suffering, with its complexities. It is about muddying the waters where policy options once seemed clear, and laying the foundation for the long road of change.

As I listened to Akhavan’s words I found myself nodding along, laughing, crying, feeling despair, but also a deep sense of solidarity and hope. I found it easy to make the connection with MCC and our work – first to embrace the Christian principle of recognizing that all human beings are made in the image of God. And second, in peacebuilding, engaging local partners, seeking just and genuine relationships.

Working in MCC Ottawa’s Advocacy Office, I regularly find myself engulfed in policy-speak and political commentary. Yet, it’s always been the human connections – visiting people face to face, hearing stories, seeing the image of God in everyone – that truly fuel my own passion and pursuit of justice and peace. An empathy-based approach is not about feeling warm and fuzzy inside. It is about seeking a common humanity, in all its complexities, and creating spaces to imagine the road to justice.

Violette Khoury

A perfect example from the ground: Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

“In a world of dizzying distractions and endless entertainment, where even suffering has been reduced to a spectacle, we must rediscover the profound power of the everyday, of heartfelt compassion, of the transcendent healing connections that transform our impoverished culture of indifference from the bottom up. The political pendulum swings intermittently from the superficial sentimentality of liberals to the populist rage of demagogues, and we imagine foolishly that we can trust those in power to bring about meaningful change. Such apathy is the best accomplice of evil in the world. We need to take more seriously the immense impact of our own empathy, of our own engagement – of our responsibility both to comfort those who suffer and to awaken those who suffer from too much comfort. Just as the oppressed must be made whole, so too must the complacent…The cure that a world groaning from emptiness needs most is a grassroots conspiracy of authenticity, implemented by transactions of selfless beauty,” Akhavan, In Search of a Better World, 333-334.

Moving together: Exploring our shared humanity

Today’s blog post is a re-post from MCC’s Latin America and Caribbean (LACA) blog, specifically a photo essay from MCC LACA’s Anna Vogt. In today’s political climate, it seems more important than ever to tell the stories of migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and people on the move in order to recognize and share our common humanity.

Moving Together

Come on a journey with us to explore our common humanity with migrants, their families, and helpers, across Latin America and the Caribbean. Throughout this photo essay, you will find links that lead back to our blog for more information about the stories and people, our neighbours, featured throughout.

Anna Vogt is the Regional Advocacy Support and Context Analyst for MCC LACA.